“What did the President know and when did he know it?”
That was the pivotal question of the US Senate’s Watergate hearings, uttered by the Republican senator Howard Baker in 1973. As witness after witness gave evidence that the 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Convention headquarters and subsequent cover-up had been ordered by members of President Richard Nixon’s inner circle, it became vital to know just how far up the conspiracy went. Answering Baker’s question became a national obsession. The hearings were televised and became America’s favourite soap opera: one contemporary survey found that 85 per cent of all US households had tuned in to at least some portion of them.
Yet Baker didn’t ask his question in the expectation that Nixon would be exposed as the chief conspirator. He had been an ally of the president and had gone to a private meeting with Nixon at the White House in February 1973. During the explosive testimony of former White House counsel John Dean (who publicly confessed to his involvement in the cover-up), Baker actually asked his famous question in an attempt to shield Nixon from any suggestion of wrongdoing. He was expecting the answer: “Nothing, the president knew nothing.”
Slow Burn, Slate magazine’s recent podcast series about Watergate, focuses in on just this kind of discrepancy of perception. The purpose of the show is to recreate the experience of living through the scandal, rather than to examine it with the benefit of hindsight. It seeks to understand what a politically engaged person, consuming the available media about Watergate in print and via broadcast, could have known about the true nature of events as they were happening.
To do this, host Leon Neyfakh and producer Andrew Parsons use archival footage from early 1970s talk shows and news broadcasts as well as interviews with people who were there. The podcast format is ideally suited to telling this story, with the episodic structure following the chronology of the case. Neyfakh focuses on a different character in each instalment, often someone who caused a big stir at the time, but is mostly missing from today’s well-known version of events. His delivery is well-paced and colloquial enough to be relatable (he sounds, as Sarah Larson put it in the New Yorker, “like a wonk who’s truly enjoying himself”). The resulting show is a dense, and often surprising, account of a scandal that we know far less about that we think.
For instance, the series opens with the story of Martha Mitchell, wife of former US Attorney General and Nixon campaign chief John Mitchell. She was infamous at the time as “the mouth of the south”, a gobby political wife who liked to eavesdrop on her husband’s meetings and could always be relied on by journalists for an incendiary quote. Neyfakh tells her story in shocked tones, astonished that he had never heard of her himself before beginning to research the show. After the Watergate break-in, staged to wiretap the rival party’s phones, Nixon’s henchmen felt they couldn’t take any chances with Martha — one of the burglars had formerly worked as her security guard, and if she recognised him she would surely suspect that her husband, and Nixon’s campaign, had some involvement.
What happened to Mitchell is shocking: she was kept under guard in a hotel in California for days and prevented from accessing the news or a telephone. When she did evade her minder and manage to call a journalist, she was heard to scream “get away!” before the phone cord was ripped out of the wall. At another point, she got into a scuffle with her guard, former FBI agent Steve King, and smashed a glass door with her hand. She told David Frost about it in an interview in 1974, but she died in 1976 and was largely forgotten by the subsequent writers of Watergate history.
At the time, Nixon’s supporters sought to discredit her, alluding to mental health problems and alleged alcohol addiction, and it worked. As for King? He doesn’t deny his involvement in confining Mitchell and has refused to comment further, although he has hinted at a different version of events. He is now the US ambassador to the Czech Republic, nominated by Donald Trump in July 2017. Hearing Neyfakh reveal that last fact was particularly jarring. It was a reminder that the history that this podcast deals with isn’t really over and done with.
Slow Burn has another subject, beyond Watergate. Unavoidably, perhaps, it hints at connections and parallels between Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. Neyfakh leaves the comparisons unarticulated but does make one explicit point right at the start, referring to Anthony Scaramucci’s ten-day tenure as White House Communications Director in July 2017. He wonders how that manic media maelstrom will register in the historical retellings of the Trump era. When you think about it, there are thousands of such moments — every time Trump tweets, for instance.
The podcast shows just how in the dark ordinary people were during the “slow burn” of Watergate. The break-in happened in 1972, and Nixon eventually resigned two years later. During that period a mass of information was disseminated about the scandal, only some of which actually pointed to the eventual truth of the matter. Slow Burn makes me wonder: could I have joined the dots then, and can I do it now?
As special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump team’s connections with Russia proceeds, questions from the podcast keep popping into your head. What actually happened? How high does the cover-up go? How will all of this look, 45 years on? Howard Baker’s question has become a kind of meme among anti-Trump campaigners on social media:
Flynn’s resignation is a good start, but to quote the Watergate hearings, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”
— Garry Kasparov (@Kasparov63) February 14, 2017
They often repeat it without context, as if we are living through another scandal just like Watergate. Of course, there are myriad differences between Nixon and Trump, which Slow Burn makes abundantly clear. But the questions it raises about how we consume information during, and then after, turbulent political times have stayed the same. If today’s journalism is just a first, rough draft of history, it’s worth remembering that there are a lot of revisions to come before we get to the truth.
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