We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
— Joan Didion, "The White Album," 1979
Of all the stories making the rounds these days, none has more currency than the saga of Watergate — the epic scandal that mesmerized America for more than two years and resulted in the resignation of President Richard Nixon, exactly 44 years ago this Wednesday night.
For anyone old enough to get an unsolicited AARP membership card in the mailbox, the evening of Aug. 8, 1974, is every bit as memorable as the moon walk, the JFK assassination, or, much later, 9/11. By the bitter end of his presidency, Nixon had become the living embodiment of all that had gone wrong for the prior 10 years — his "secret plan for ending the Vietnam War" that actually meant expanding it for several years, the corruption he was supposed to clean up but which festered right in his Oval Office — and he had virtually no public support.
People should have poured into the streets to celebrate Nixon's downfall, and a few did, but most folks were simply too exhausted by 1974. I was a 15-year-old kid with scruffy sideburns growing up in the suburbs north of New York City; my dad was out of town on a business trip and our color console TV had been broken for a couple of years — that sort of thing happened a lot in the shabby 1970s — so a few friends of my mom dropped in and out and we watched the president resign on a small, fuzzy black-and-white screen, plopped down on our living-room couch.
The vibe was more one of quiet satisfaction, the arrival — finally — of justice deferred. A teenage Watergate geek who raced home from summer day camp every afternoon to watch John Dean testify before a special Senate committee (45 years later, John and I are virtual friends who trade messages on Twitter … what a world!), I wanted to hold on to every second of Aug. 8, 1974. I stayed up until 1 a.m., when the TV talking heads were running out of things to say, then 2 a.m., when they broadcast what was clearly Nixon's canned obituary (presumably readied in case of an assassination, since those were happening a lot), then finally 2:30 a.m. or so, when "The Star-Spangled Banner" blared from the tiny tube and I found myself staring at a test pattern.
The moral of the story, as uttered again and again by the TV news anchors, was clear. The president was in fact a crook, after all, but when that realization came, his high crimes and misdemeanors were investigated and exposed and then power was transferred peacefully to a new leader — all in our most exceptional of nations. The system worked. Good night from NBC News.
Flash-forward to America's current existential crisis, and suddenly Watergate is blasting everywhere like some kind of ABBA-and-Bachman-Turner-Overdrive-infused "Have a Nice Day" nostalgia CD.
Turn on your (hopefully not black and white) TV on any given night and you are certain to see either Dean himself, now 79 and a blistering critic of the Republican Party that once nurtured him, or former young-and-restless Watergate prosecutors like Nick Ackerman or Jill Wine-Banks, brought in to pound on the notes that, no, the Watergate echoes are not your imagination and, yes, this Russia thing sure looks a lot like what brought down Nixon.
The other night, MSNBC (which, to my knowledge, has never previously aired a scripted Hollywood movie) trolled the Trump White House by broadcasting in its entirety All the President's Men — the 1976 classic about how two then-unknown young reporters broke the early scoops that kept the Watergate story alive.
But in case you weren't convinced that the Trump-Russia scandal is the Son of Watergate, those actual journalists, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, are still out there pounding the pavement — Bernstein with a scoop for CNN on what the president knew and when he allegedly knew it about the June 2016 meeting with Russians at Trump Tower, and Woodward with a Trump tome slated to strike on Sept. 11, 2018.
It's true — the similarities between some of the basic facts in Watergate and the core Trump-Russia allegations are stunning. In June 1972, burglars were arrested trying to break in to the Democratic National Committee headquarters to plant bugs and telephone taps to sway that year's presidential election, while in June 2016, Russian hackers who'd broken electronically into the Democratic National Committee computers leaked info meant to sway that year's presidential election. Nixon ultimately resigned because of his efforts to interfere with the FBI probe of the break-in, while Trump once all but confessed to doing the same thing. Trump conceded that the June 2016 confab among his son, other top aides, and Russian players was an effort to gain political dirt on his opponent on Aug. 5 — the 44th anniversary of Nixon's release of a "smoking gun" tape that proved his own involvement in a cover-up.
But it goes beyond the mere facts. In 2018, with a nightmare 21st-century president who alternately bleats lies or unvarnished racism from a handheld device, who appears to have been elected America's president with the help of an international criminal conspiracy, Watergate has become the story we tell ourselves in order to live.
The emotional pull of seeing the aging lions who brought down Nixon night after night, the thrill of seeing a Carl Bernstein byline taking on a modern president, the swelling drama of a movie like All the President's Men all carries a subliminal message, that the system that worked in 1974 is going to work again — maybe not this week, but soon.
Isn't it pretty to think so? The reality, of course, is that while some of the giants of the Watergate era still roam the earth, the planet that they inhabit is nothing like the world that existed two score and four years ago — mainly because the powerful institutions that supported the Nick Ackermans and the Jill Wine-Bankses and the Woodwards and Bernsteins have collapsed.
Go back and watch All the President's Men as I did the other night, and one of the most striking things about the film (aside from the clever, grown-up dialogue and the brilliant direction by Alan J. Pakula) is how many people were trusting and would readily divulge key information to two journalists they'd never met before — even (not always, but sometimes) when they knocked on the doors of strangers' homes late at night. That level of public trust — or naivete, perhaps — is long gone. After Watergate we paid lip service to journalism with moves like the Freedom of Information Act, but the reality is that FOIA laws are honored mostly in the breach, and where journalists can go and whom they can talk to is greatly restricted, as evidenced most famously by the holding pens for reporters at Trump rallies.
Sure, Nixon and his chief hatchet man, Vice President Spiro Agnew, waged war on the "nattering nabobs of negativism" in the media, but Trump has taken that to 1930s-Europe levels with his "enemies of the people" shtick, and the 45th president also has something that the 37th president would have killed for — a network that includes the top-rated cable news channel, a ring of talk-radio stations, and online news sites that can present "alternative facts" for his rabid base.
In 1974, idealistic young prosecutors like Ackerman and Wine-Banks were able to take on an imperial president because the political system — especially Congress — was still committed to fundamental notions of democracy. Some of that was ideology — you actually had such a thing as "liberal Republicans" like Connecticut Sen. Lowell Weicker who could be a thorn in Nixon's side — but some of that was real accountability; the Senate voted 77-0 in February 1973, when the president was at the peak of his power, to investigate Watergate. That simply would not happen today, not with Republicans answering to voters who claim they'd prefer Vladimir Putin over Hillary Clinton.
The other difference, though, is the man in the Oval Office. Nixon — for all his paranoia and the illegality of his campaign dirty tricks — still respected the guardrails of constitutional democracy enough that he didn't destroy the White House tapes, didn't defy the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court when he was ordered to turn them over, and even voluntarily released that "smoking gun" tape with an acknowledgment that he would be impeached. (Instead, he resigned after a delegation of GOP senators urged him to do so; could you imagine Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — after shredding the Constitution to get Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court — doing the same?)
Trump, on the other hand, is a graduate of the despicable "fixer" Roy Cohn's school of political diplomacy — deny everything, admit nothing, lie profusely, and when those don't work, sue everybody in sight. There's little doubt that had Trump been president in 1974, he would not think twice about doing the things that even Richard Nixon would not do — ripping America apart and maybe even threatening a civil war, all for the sole purpose of saving his own narcissistic hide.
Watergate remains a hell of a story, but when you plop it down in a new millennium — where the bitter seeds of an American strain of fascism have already been planted — it should be read more as a myth. The fatal flaw in the storyline is the idea that a few heroes — ink-stained wretches and wide-eyed kids straight out of law school or a wise judge like John J. Sirica or a jowly senator like Sam Ervin — can take down the excesses of the Trump presidency.