Why? How come Watergate stands the test of time, still provokes interest, still leads us every five or 10 years to look at it anew? One way to answer the question is to think of Watergate as a classic novel – and like many great novels, it has a gripping plot, larger-than-life characters, and a timeless theme.
As stories, scandals are notoriously difficult for the public to follow. There are no great books or movies about the Iran-Contra scandal. Whitewater lost its audience soon after it began. While the Lewinsky affair, as a sex scandal, generated its share of prurient interest, the story was too simple and tawdry to become the stuff of high drama. Teapot Dome and other pre-Watergate scandals mostly dealt with straightforward venality.
But Watergate could have been scripted by Hollywood.
Act One was Nixon’s steady descent into ever-greater criminal wrongdoing. Starting with his and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger’s decision in early 1969 to secretly wiretap journalists and spy on their own staff to find out the source of leaks about Vietnam, Nixon grew increasingly comfortable with abusing the power of the presidency to punish enemies, shore up his own power and pursue his paranoid fantasies. There was the drafting of the so-called Huston Plan in 1970 to carry out political intelligence from the White House; the installation of the secret taping system in 1971; the creation of the Plumbers Unit that began committing illegal break-ins; and of course the burglaries at the Watergate complex itself, where the Democratic Party had its national headquarters.
But if Nixon’s steady arrogation of power early in his presidency appears in retrospect as a disaster in the making, most of his criminal behavior remained unknown to the public at the time. It is Act Two of Watergate – the unraveling – that made the saga riveting day to day and that still gives the story its propulsive excitement. June 17, 1972 was not the start of the Watergate narrative but its hinge: The arrest of the burglars that day led a few reporters to start digging into what they were doing and who they were working for. Those early revelations in turn spurred the Senate to convene an investigative hearing led by North Carolina’s Sam Ervin, which became an unlikely television blockbuster. Their jaw-dropping discoveries – about Nixon’s taping system, his ancillary abuses of executive power, and above all the sweeping White House cover-up operation – then led to the appointment of a special prosecutor, whose firing that fall made impeachment a realistic prospect for the first time in a century. When a unanimous Supreme Court the following June made Nixon surrender tapes that incriminated him, America experienced the first and only presidential resignation in its history.
These surreal twists and turns, these unprecedented shocks and surprises, kept Americans engaged and enthralled in real time. So did a dramatis personae out of Damon Runyon: the crazed G. Gordon Liddy, with his creepy fondness for tools of German manufacture; the thuggish Chuck Colson, who said he would run over his grandmother to help Nixon; the nerdy John Dean, White House counsel at the precocious age of 32, whose steel-trap memory made his implication of Nixon in the cover-up seem suddenly credible; and dozens of others in parts large and small. Above all, Nixon, at the center of it all, boasted a psychological profile of unfathomable depths – a subject of brooding anger and gnawing resentments that he struggled to submerge in his striving for acceptance and power. Secretive and inscrutable, he was the president who launched a thousand psychohistories, who ultimately assumed his place as the archetypal political villain of the modern age.