October 16, 2018, 12:55

“Slow Burn”: What Can Watergate Teach Us? |

“Slow Burn”: What Can Watergate Teach Us? |

“Slow Burn,” the popular Slate podcast about Watergate hosted by Leon
Neyfakh, will soon reach its exciting conclusion, in which, one assumes,
Richard Nixon resigns in disgrace. Each week, in half-hour-ish segments,
“Slow Burn” seeks to illuminate for the modern listener what it was like
to live through the Watergate scandal, beginning with the aftermath of
the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters, in June,
1972, and following the wild story’s circuitous path, illuminating its
basic elements—the burglars’ connections to Nixon’s reëlection campaign,
the secret White House recordings, Deep Throat, and the like— as well as
less familiar characters and crazy minor details, involving everything
from stolen shoes to dune buggies.

“Slow Burn” manages all of this with aplomb, vivid writing, deft use of
archival and recent audio, and a zesty theme song that evokes seventies
TV. Neyfakh, a Slate staff writer, narrates in careful but excited
tones, sounding like a wonk who’s truly enjoying himself. All of this is
key to what makes listening to “Slow Burn” feel vital: a sense of
political drama, hope, and the comfort of knowing that justice was
served. It’s both escapist and invigorating. You listen with attention,
as if you’re searching for answers. After the first episode came out,
Chris Hayes of MSNBC tweeted, “it blew my mind”; Neyfakh appeared on
show in late December and on Rachel
Maddow’s in early January. Both hosts asked him about Watergate’s relevance to
today. The answer to that question is complicated—and less fun than
listening to “Slow Burn.”

Watergate has “this long, wonderful story that people only know a little
piece of, and it has certain resonances with our current political
moment,” Neyfakh told me recently. “All the President’s Men,” the 1976
movie based on the 1974 book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, he went
on, “only covered the first five or six months. It begins with the
burglary and then it ends with the Inauguration—June to January. There’s
all this other stuff that happened afterward that is not covered. And
that I personally knew very little about.” Neyfakh is thirty-two. “All
the President’s Men” ends with a shot of the Washington Post newsroom,
Nixon on TV getting inaugurated for his second term, and a great
clattering of typewriter keys: journalists writing, and then a montage
of teletype headlines culminating in “NIXON RESIGNS.” That resignation
happened in August, 1974, two years after the break-in. “Slow Burn”
explains what was going on during that montage, and it’s as bonkers as
it is revelatory.

“I’m going to start with a story that you’ve probably never heard,”
Neyfakh says at the beginning of the first episode. It’s the story of
“the mouth of the South,” Martha Mitchell, whose husband, John Mitchell, is a former U.S.
Attorney General and, at the time of the Watergate break-in, in charge
of the Committee to Re-Elect the President. Martha Mitchell, Neyfakh
says, enjoyed snooping on her husband and talking to the press, and was
“treated by Nixon’s men as someone who knew too much.” First, Neyfakh
says, “she was kept against her will in a California hotel for days.
Then she was forcibly tranquilized while being held down in her bed.
Later, when she went public, Nixon loyalists tried to discredit her in
the press as an unreliable alcoholic.” She was called crazy; she seemed
crazy. “But it turned out that she was onto something.”

Imagine John Mitchell’s conundrum, Neyfakh says: “You’re the President’s
closest confidant, and you’re in charge of all kinds of political
skullduggery. Meanwhile, your wife is famous for listening in on your
meetings, getting hammered on whiskey, and blabbing to reporters.“ When
John Mitchell heard of the break-in arrests, he and Martha were in
California. He didn’t want Martha to learn the identity of one of the
burglars, because she knew him: James W. McCord, a former C.I.A. officer
who had worked in security for the Mitchells. “So when he left for D.C.,
Mitchell put a former F.B.I. agent named Steve King in charge of Martha,
and he told him to keep her away from newspapers, TV, news, any coverage
of the burglary,” Neyfakh says. She was “literally held a prisoner
within four walls,” we hear Martha telling David Frost, in her languid
Southern accent. She managed to get a copy of the L.A. Times and call
her friend Helen Thomas, the longtime White House correspondent; midway
through the call, Thomas says, she heard Mitchell say “Get away! Get
away!” We hear Mitchell say that King “rushes in and jerked out the
telephone”—tore the cord out of the wall. Later, Neyfakh says, Martha
and King got in a scuffle and she put her hand through a plate-glass
door. King, now the Ambassador to the Czech Republic, appointed by
Donald Trump, did not respond to Neyfakh’s request for comments.

Everybody knew about Martha Mitchell at the time, but if you weren’t of
news-consuming age in the early seventies, it’s fascinating to meet her
now. Remembering such figures and anecdotes, Neyfakh says on the show,
helps us get a feel for the moment to moment, life in the time as it was
lived. Martha Mitchell reminds him of Anthony Scaramucci: they are
florid, larger-than-life characters who reveal much about the political
moment and then are quickly forgotten. Watergate, he says, has “dozens
of Scaramucci-level stories.” He goes on, “I think that’s why hearing
Martha Mitchell’s story gives me such a vivid sense of what it was like
to live through Watergate. It lets me inhabit that moment when no one
knew what was going to happen, when the people involved didn’t know, the
reporters covering it didn’t know. Nixon himself certainly had no idea.”
Most of us listening are hoping that our unknowns will be resolved as
definitively as Watergate’s did.

Though I am older than Neyfakh by more than a decade, I realized while
listening to “Slow Burn” that I didn’t know Watergate well, either,
despite my feeling that I did, having been a kid in the seventies. It
seemed to be everywhere growing up: in the Doonesbury anthologies I
read, in songs like Arlo Guthrie’s “Presidential Rag,” in “S.N.L.” ’s
legendary “Final Days”
sketch with Aykroyd as Nixon and Belushi as Kissinger, and so on. I’d
also studied Nixon in high school and watched “All the President’s Men.”
But “Slow Burn” provides a fine-grained understanding of both the
anecdotes and the political atmosphere. At first, I was unnerved by
having Watergate explained to me by someone born in the mid-eighties—at
one point in the podcast, I was startled when Neyfakh indicated that he
didn’t know what a Princess
phone was—but I came
to realize that his perspective, backed up by his intelligence and
thoroughness, is an asset. He’s not assuming that we know it all, and
that’s a good thing.

The reason that Watergate was a slow burn, and that Nixon doesn’t resign
during the typing sequence at the end of “All the President’s Men” but
after the headline montage that follows, is that for a long time it
didn’t catch on as a story. Other news dwarfed it; connections between
the dots weren’t clear; it seemed to be politics as usual, and not
necessarily connected to Nixon himself. In 1972, Nixon was otherwise
doing statesmanlike things: making his historic diplomatic visit to the
People’s Republic of China, negotiating major nuclear-arms-control
treaties with Brezhnev in the Soviet Union. A major bombing campaign was
going on in Vietnam and Kissinger announced that peace there was at
hand. And Nixon’s people aggressively went after stories about
Watergate—“fake-news” style.

“There was an attempt by the Nixon White House to spin Watergate as a
‘third-rate burglary,’ which is the famous line,” Neyfakh told me. “But
to me the more telling spin that they tried to use was that this was
just a ‘caper.’ One of my first goals in plotting the arc
of the season was finding turning points where it went from one kind of
story to another.” He continued, “That’s how I landed on the James
McCord letter that he sent the judge in March of 1973 that really kind
of pushed it into its second phase.”

McCord’s letter blew the roof off. I’ll let you discover the details of
what follows for yourself—it’s podcast-perfect. But the fun of
“Slow Burn” also had me worrying, as ever, about the tension between
entertainment and edification. Does listening to “Slow Burn,” with all
of its political high jinks and melodrama, help us understand what to do
now, or give insight into our current situation? Or is it just making us
feel better by distracting us with a story about a scandal that ended
badly for Nixon and his cronies? This idea came up in a discussion with
Neyfakh about the sound of the show. I asked him about the theme song,
which starts out measured and then veers in a “Starsky &
Hutch” direction. He said,
“I think we were looking for something that would capture both the
rollicking fun of the story and the fact that it is so captivating”—in
one episode, he reminded me, Dick Cavett reminisces about how
pleasurable Watergate was, like the Paris of one’s youth—and also that
it was “really serious and high-stakes and obviously a very scary moment
in American history.” The music manages this, incredibly. “I think it’s
possible to experience it as both at once,” Neyfakh said. “And I like to
think the theme song captures that.”

It’s not just the music. After several episodes detailing various
chapters in the Watergate saga—Wright Patman trying to follow the money,
the dirty deeds of CREEP, Woodward and Bernstein, McCord’s incendiary
letter, the Senate Watergate Committee, the “country lawyer” Sam Ervin,
the burgeoning of conspiracy theories, and so on—this week’s episode,
“Saturday Night,” about the so-called Saturday Night Massacre, begins to
feel like the climax of a thriller. It’s pleasingly humble and humdrum
in its details, combining the grand and the picayune, as life so often
does. One of its climactic scenes involves the assistant special
prosecutor, Carl Feldbaum, heading to the White House to pick up Nixon’s
tapes. Neyfakh narrates, “Feldbaum volunteered to walk over, not
thinking about the fact that it was a Saturday and he was dressed for
the weekend, in pink bell-bottoms.” When he got to the White House, the
tapes were piled unceremoniously on a table in an office. “These are big
reels of tape, and they were labelled, but they were, I would say,
naked, just lying there,” Feldbaum says. He asked for a box and a
receipt. “I folded it up, put it in my pocket, and walked out of his
office and out of the White House, through the throng of tourists, and
the four or five blocks, right, you know, down city streets, through theCapitol, to our offices,” he says. There, the team played a tape from
March 21, 1973: a smoking gun. What they heard changed history.

These days, “We’re living through this crazy time when we wake up in the
morning dreading the alerts on our phones, and we have no idea how this
is going to end,” Neyfakh told me. “And the last time we can remember it
happening on this scale was during Watergate. Did it feel the way we
feel now?” In some ways, yes; in others, no. A significant difference, I
pointed out, was that the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and the Russia scandal,
while gravely serious, are also seen as a possible savior from the
greater disaster of Trump himself, whereas Nixon, while loathed by
seventies liberals, was a more run-of-the-mill politician, feared by
few. The stakes are higher now. Considering that idea, Neyfakh stuck up
for the craziness of Nixon. “I have the impression that people didn’t
quite realize the depth of Richard Nixon’s paranoia, emotional
instability, anger, and taste for vengeance until after the tapes came
out publicly,” he said. In public, “he was very practiced, and he
presented as a President in a way that Trump has no interest in doing.”
People were more unnerved about Nixon when they learned what he was
really like—a problem we really don’t have. He mentioned a moment that I
had found chilling in the episode, in which Feldbaum describes watching
Nixon’s post-Saturday Night Massacre speech on TV and thinking, This
guy is not well. At that moment, he feared where Presidential emotional
instability would lead: What might an unstable Commander-in-Chief do?
We’ve all wondered that, too. But Trump, in his hubris, often goofs up,
and so did Nixon. Nixon’s particular portfolio of eccentricities, of
course, included recording himself, not managing to avoid surrendering
the tapes to the authorities, and incriminating himself. Neyfakh and I
laughed about this, in amazement.

“It’s truly, in the language of the modern Internet, a great self-own,”
Neyfakh said.

“Hoist with his own petard,” I said.

“Gotta say ‘self-own’ now,” Neyfakh said. “It’s 2018.”

We don’t know where the Mueller investigation is going, and we can
debate the effects that Watergate had on American cultural and political
life, but we do know one thing: “Slow Burn” has been a success for
Slate. It’s been popular on iTunes, it’s successfully brought people
into Slate’s membership program, Slate Plus, which offers “Slow Burn”
bonus content; Neyfakh and his peers are thinking about a second season;
and on February 8th, a “Slow Burn” live event, featuring Neyfakh,
Cavett, Lesley Stahl, Evan Thomas, and Ashley Parker, will he held at
the Watergate Hotel. When I first heard Neyfakh announce it, I felt a
brief surge of excitement and wistfulness—an irrational feeling that
figures like Cavett and Stahl could somehow help us puzzle our way out
of our current political melodrama. That’s a tall order, and the event
is sold out. But I suspect it will be made available as a podcast.

Sourse: newyorker.com

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