A Watergate for Our Time

If you haven’t caught an episode of “White House Plumbers,” the new HBO series on Watergate, I highly recommend it.

For people my age, Watergate will always be connected to All the President’s Men, not the book by Woodward and Bernstein but Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 film. I can’t think of Ben Bradlee without thinking of Jason Robards, Deepthroat without Hal Holbrook, or Hugh Sloan without Meredith Baxter Bierney, who played Sloan’s wife in the film.

The point of the film, and those actors, was to supply a sense of gravitas to a country stricken by the sordidness of the affair. No matter how criminal Nixon may have been, his criminality was redeemed by the feel of the film, with its spirit of agonized conscience and liberal reckoning. That feel derived from the piety and passion of the Cold War, making it the perfect film for, and of, the Cold War state.*

We no longer live in the shadow of the Cold War. We no longer live in the shadow of 9/11. Both of those moments elicited a sense that something had to be done, that something could be done. We no longer live in those countries. We live in a country that exudes a sense that nothing can be done. Debt ceiling crisis? The Supreme Court will say no. Diane Feinstein’s refusing to retire and gumming up the works of judicial appointments? It’s her choice. Climate change? What are you going to do?

White House Plumbers is the story of Watergate told from the perspective of our own failed state. The series isn’t the story of one attempted break-in at the Watergate hotel; it’s the story of four bungled attempts at a break-in. Gordon Liddy is no longer a scary ideological fanatic, as he was in All the President’s Men, burning his hand over a candle to prove how tough and committed he was. He’s now a dorky bumbler whose hand over the candle trick grosses out the prostitutes he’s trying to impress. Howard Hunt frets over country clubs and career. Both men come off as wannabe entrepreneurs who pitch the break-in at the hotel as if they were making bids for a contract with an aging nonprofit.

White House Plumbers is the story of a country whose time is past, of geriatric grifters who talk tough and trip over their shoelaces. It’s the Watergate for our time, the Watergate that forces us to see ourselves for who we are.

* My daughter, with whom I’ve been watching “White House Plumbers,” found this 1973 article in the New York Times by R.W. Apple, the dean of the White House press corps, about H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s Chief of Staff. Headlined “Haldeman the fierce, Haldeman the faithful, Haldeman the fallen,” the article said, “Haldeman made himself into a latter‐day Janus, a guardian of the gateway to President Richard M. Nixon, a god of the going and the coming.” That gives you a sense of the exalted terms in which this extended experiment in criminality was described by the Washington media.


  1. Tom Shapiro May 23, 2023 at 12:43 am | #

    If anyone needs a persuasive example of how corrupt and degenerate the Republican party and it’s voters have become after Nixon’s resignation, recall that the Senate Republicans led by Barry Goldwater gave Nixon a direct ultimatum in the Oval Office: either retire or the Senate Republicans would vote with the Democrats to convict him when the House filed Articles of Impeachment. At the time, the Senate split 55/45 favoring the Democrats. Thus only if 12 of 45 Republicans voted to convict Nixon, would an Impeachment conviction succeed. Goldwater told Nixon that the Senate Republicans guaranteed Nixon would lose.
    I disagree with Professor Corey’ judgment that “ ‘White House Plumbers’ is the story of Watergate told from the perspective of our own failed state,,,[in his view, the new version of Watergate] is the story of a country whose time is past, of geriatric grifters who talk tough and trip over their shoelaces.“
    It is not our nation that has failed. We are not a nation whose time is past. It is Trump’s Republican Party that has failed our nation in an attempt to achieve and hold permanent minority power. Unlike the GOP in 1973, where were McConnell’s Senate Republicans at Trump’s first Impeachment. They called no witnesses and presented no exculpatory evidence. They simply acquitted him.
    The Party is now controlled by the descendants of those Thurmond Southern Dixiecrats that abandoned the Democrats over the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. It was Nixon who, to secure his 1972 victory, welcomed Strom Thurmond’s racist Dixiecrats into the Republican Party that they now dominate. It is they, led by a New York grifter, who have given us the Jan. 5 insurrection after McConnell’s Republican Senate majority twice failed to vote to convict him of high crimes.It is not the nation but the Republican party politicians who have failed the People and whose time has passed.

  2. A.J. May 23, 2023 at 3:34 am | #


    All the President’s Men (1976)

    White House Plumbers (2023)

  3. LFC June 7, 2023 at 2:16 pm | #

    This description of the film All the President’s Men strikes me as a bit odd. The film is above all a paean to investigative journalism and to Woodward and Bernstein themselves (played by Redford and Hoffman). At the risk of sounding sexist, I have no recollection at all of Meredith Baxter Bierney.

    Now admittedly, I don’t think I’ve seen the movie since I saw it in a theater in 1976, and if I were to see it again today I might view it differently. But somehow I doubt that I would tie it to “the Cold War state.” OTOH, who knows…

    As for R.W. Apple, that might be as much a reflection of the NYT’s style at the time as anything else.

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