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Bar News - June 21, 2013

Representations: Evolution of Watergate Portrayals Reveals Scandal’s True Impact


Summer is the season for Watergate anniversaries. It was June 1972, when low-level Republican Party operatives were arrested while burglarizing the Democratic Party’s national headquarters in Washington, DC; it was July 1973, when a Nixon aide admitted that the White House kept audiotapes of Oval Office conversations; and it was August 1974, when President Nixon resigned. In fact, you could probably pick any day of the year, this year, and mark the 40th anniversary of one political bombshell or another.

This story has provided inspiration for many types of artistic expression, too; books, films, and arguably, even an opera – Nixon in China, written by John Adams in 1987.

But the most famous work stemming from this episode remains one of the earliest: an account of this scandal’s birth, called All the President’s Men, written in 1974 by the two journalists who broke this news in the Washington Post.

Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward take a pretty plain approach to what happened. There is little art, less reflection, and a fair amount of self-righteousness in this factual account of their own heroism. And the movie made from it by Alan Pakula and Robert Redford, in 1976, suffers from the same qualities. It makes for hard viewing today. (In fact, if you want a better movie about the exhaustion and the paranoia that marked the early 1970s, try Pakula’s Parallax View from 1974.)

Their story has aged poorly because Woodward and Bernstein got something wrong, as well. The sense of the moment in which they were writing (and that moment stretched for years) was that Watergate had changed things; that it was an important and crucial episode in our national narrative. Before Watergate, there was corruption in high places, cynicism amongst our rulers, and rot in the framework. After Watergate, the sun poured in. Darkness was vanquished. The righteous had won; and it was time for them to tell everybody so.

Yet, it is all but impossible to look at the sweep of time since 1974 and maintain that conviction. Back then, the great journalist Teddy White was excoriated for having missed “the big story” when he downplayed the Watergate scandal in his Making of the President, 1972, but in retrospect, he was right for having stressed Nixon’s powerful victory instead, and what that portended. Because politically speaking, the conservative surge that began with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968 has only continued to grow in strength. Not Gerald Ford but Ronald Reagan rose to become the GOP’s standard bearer, and the Bush dynasty propelled it even further rightwards, ever closer to the Tea Party of today. While to complement this, all along, the Democrats have collapsed towards the center (Carter, Clinton, Obama), in vain hopes of overcoming their party’s demise in the south.

Perhaps for that reason, more recent versions of the Watergate story see it in terms of personalities, rather than of politics. Oliver Stone’s Nixon, filmed in 1995, was criticized for portraying the president as an alcoholic and implicating him (quite vaguely) in the assassination of John Kennedy, so it’s hard to see the sympathy of this movie’s image of him; yet Stone tried valiantly to showcase Nixon’s humanity, too. He advanced the case for Nixon’s intelligence and the quality of his general leadership, and he mourned how those things were squandered.

Likewise, Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon of 2008 looked at Watergate through the lens of Nixon’s attempt to rehabilitate himself, afterwards. Taking the fact of his downfall for granted, Howard found poignancy in Nixon’s battle to maintain a proper public image.

There’s even a Kirsten Dunst comedy called Dick, from 1999, which treats the whole thing as grist for the humor mill.

This evolution in treatment seems fitting, because on its own terms, Watergate was little more than a complex legal problem. It tested our country’s machinery – its courts, its Congress, its executive offices – and those pieces responded appropriately. They moved on heavy hinges that had long been thought rusted shut. Levers swung, results accrued, unlawful actions were ferreted out, and those responsible were punished. Then the country moved on.

Those of us in the court system see something similar, every day. We fight today’s battles with little hope that tomorrow’s will be any different, never questioning the worth of fighting each battle as it comes.

The ultimate lessons of Watergate were therefore personal ones, for the people concerned. And because there was so much at stake – because men had reached the pinnacles of their professions, only to lose everything, for the most basic of personal reasons – people remain drawn to it. Watergate has become a fairy tale. We use it to entertain each other.

Michael Davidow is a staff attorney at the NH Public Defender office in Nashua and the author of Split Thirty, a novel about (Nixon-era) politics and advertising.

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