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Slow Burn: The podcast recreating Watergate for the Trump era

Now, as then, we want to know how high up the cover up goes.

“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:

 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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Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

Credit: Arrow Films
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The Affair's Ruth Wilson: “All this is bringing women together... I hope it doesn’t end”

The actor on her new role as an abused sheep farmer in Dark River, the response to gender inequality and playing her own grandmother.  

At least part of the credit for Ruth Wilson’s extraordinary performance in Dark River is owed to a red-haired Border Collie. While she was in Yorkshire training to be adept at country life – shearing sheep, skinning rabbits, shooting guns and ratting houses – she worked with a sheepdog who seemed somehow as traumatised as the character she was preparing to play. “She was very skittish with humans,” Wilson recalls, “and wouldn’t look them in the eye. Her haunches would go down as if she’d been abused. And then on the field, she was focussed, aggressive, in control. So I based my character on her.”

The inspiration worked. As Alice, a skilled sheep shearer who returns to the farm she grew up on after her father dies, Wilson is tense and brittle, as though she might crumble to dust at any moment. For the past 15 years, Alice has been working around the world – New Zealand, Norway, “anywhere there’s sheep”, anywhere far away from the sexual abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father (Sean Bean) as a child.

Her brother Joe, played with both tenderness and rage by Mark Stanley, has never left. He hasn’t forgiven Alice for leaving either, though neither of them is capable of articulating the potent mix of shame and resentment they feel. Just like in previous films by Clio Barnard, the heir to the gritty realist throne of Ken Loach, Dark River is driven as much by what isn’t said as by what is. “It’s sculpted,” says Wilson, “It feels like a held moment. There’s hardly any dialogue, but it just feels so full.”

We’re in a small office room in Covent Garden. Wilson’s been here most of the day, surrounded by pastries that she’s tried, and mostly failed, to foist on to journalists. When I turn down her offer too, she looks forlorn. “I ate half of one earlier, and they’ve brought a load of new ones,” she says with faux indignation. Doing press doesn’t usually fill Wilson with delight ­– even an endless supply of croissants can’t make up for the toil of being asked, again and again, about her personal life – and since she broke out as the psychopathic scientist Alice Morgan in BBC’s Luther, before landing starring roles in Anna Karenina, Saving Mr Banks, and on the hit Showtime series The Affair, she’s had to do a lot of it. But today, she says with a tone of surprise, is a little different. “I’ve sort of been looking forward to talking about this film.”

There’s certainly a lot to talk about. Dark River is a powerful but understated examination of abuse, and the psychological damage done when a person’s protector is also their abuser, their home also the site of their trauma. Alice is determined to fix the farm – which has fallen into disrepair while her father and brother have been in charge – but she can hardly stand to be there. The memories cling to it as stubbornly as the rats that have overrun it. “She can’t step a foot in that house,” says Wilson, “but she feels it’s what’s owed to her, so it’s that constant fight she has within herself. It’s a past, it’s a grave, it’s a memorial, but she has to come back and reclaim it in some way.”

Alice is also trying to reclaim the farm on behalf of her mother and grandmother, who once ran it. “She’s having to stand up to these men in every area,” Wilson says. “Whether it’s [the men] selling the sheep, or it’s her brother, or the guy coming to buy the land, everyone is a man that she’s having to kind of negotiate. She’s this woman struggling to have her own space and her own voice in a very male world.”

Wilson in a scene from Dark River. Credit: Arrow Films.

Through this film, Barnard wanted to explore objectification – both of the land and of the female body. “The way we objectify the countryside, and make it all seem beautiful and glorious, that’s what patriarchy has done to women for so long,” says Wilson, “objectify it, put it on a pedestal, [without seeing that] it’s much more complex than that, and it’s much more interesting and whole and full. Patriarchy has oppressed women and reduced them or undervalued them. It’s the same with the land, it’s much more brutal and complex than the beautiful countryside that we put on our posters.”

Wilson returns to the word “complex” throughout our conversation – in relation to the land, to the nature of victimhood, and to the relationship between Alice and her brother  –  but she rolls her eyes when I recall a quote from a recent profile: “Complex women are becoming something of a calling card for Wilson.” “People are complex aren’t they?” she says. “That’s what’s so annoying. Everyone is complex. We’re all a bit mad.” She thinks for a moment. “I suppose a lot of female parts are two dimensional. It’s not that there’s a certain brand of ‘complex woman’ to be played, [it’s that] so few people give female characters the time of day.”

The Affair, which made Wilson’s name in the US (after a potentially star-making turn alongside Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger turned out to be a flop), lends equal weight to the inner workings of its two leads – a man and a woman, both battling demons, who cheat on their respective spouses with each other. But has Wilson seen progress, over the past decade, when it comes to the industry’s willingness to tell female-centric stories? The kind of stories that would pass the Bechdel test? “Uhh, no not really,” she says. “I mean that show fails the Bechdel test in every scene. If women do talk to each other, it’s about men.” A week or so after we speak, she reveals another of the show’s gender parity issues – that her co-star Dominic West earns more than she does, despite their equal billing.

Wilson in 2015 with her co-star from The Affair, Dominic West. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless she does hold out some hope that movements like Time's Up will finally accelerate the rate of progress, particularly when it comes to women's voices being heard. “Actually what is happening is that there’s a community of women now that are talking to each other. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that before; we’d be in competition with each other, or were made to feel that we were anyway. A consequence of all this stuff is that it’s actually bringing women together who are very talented, and they’re gonna support each other to make stuff for each other. I’ve never been in so many groups of women, and actually it’s been glorious. The piece I’m doing now is my own family history, but it’s all from the female point of view.”

That piece is The Wilsons, which Wilson is executive-producing and starring in as her own grandmother, Alison, who discovered on her husband’s deathbed that he was a spy in the inter-war years, had four wives whom he never divorced, and children with all of them. It’s a truth stranger than fiction. Last week, Wilson was auditioning boys to play her character’s son. So he’d be playing her real life father? “Yeah!” she laughs. “It’s so weird. I might have a breakdown at the end of it. If you never see me again, that’s why.”

Potential breakdown aside, Wilson is palpably excited about the project – particularly as it gives her the opportunity to centre women’s stories on screen. It’s the kind of work she’s confident this newly discovered support network is leading towards. “I hope this whole community just drives forward the female lens and the female experience,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t end, you know?”