It is the 10th anniversary of the Watergate burglary. America, let's wallow!
Like has-been stars of the silver screen returning for guest passage on "The Love Boat," shadows from not-so-recent, not-so-distant history will resurface on television today as the "Jaws" of political scandals is recalled. Names and faces that had wandered into remote crannies of the national memory will be moved back to momentary prominence. Then recede again. And then, 10 years from now, who knows?
One might like to be able to summon new anger when some of these characters return to the TV screen where we first saw them, but it's just as possible to feel pity and bemusement. Whatever it represents in terms of politics, and however it fostered cynicism, Watergate, on television, was Great Theater. And it still is.
More or less the cornerstone of the observance, a "That's Entertainment" of Watergate, is Nancy Dickerson's two-hour syndicated special "784 Days That Changed America," a quixotically organized but generally absorbing flashback culled from hundreds of hours of news footage, much of it from the Senate Watergate hearings. Channel 5 will air it at 8 p.m.
Channel 26 and other public television stations, meanwhile, will hark back to Watergate with the first rebroadcast in five years of David Frost's Watergate interview with Richard Nixon, the first of four lengthy Frost interviews telecast in 1977. The 72-minute fandango, at 10 p.m., will be followed on Channel 26 by a rebroadcast of a Bill Moyers essay on Watergate and What It Means from his old PBS "Journal" show.
ABC's "Good Morning, America" plans a special Watergate edition this morning that will feature live or taped interviews with Charles Colson, Donald Segretti, Maurice Stans, John Sirica, Elliot Richardson, Carl Bernstein (now an ABC News executive) and Frank Wills, the security guard who first discovered evidence of the most famous third-rate burglary in American history.
James Whooten will deliver a special report on ABC's "World News Tonight" (where-are-they-now? updates will abound on all three networks) and the "Nightline" show, starting 15 minutes later than usual at 11:45, will also be devoted to the aftershocks of Watergate. "Nightline" may be expanded to 45 minutes to accommodate an interview with Bernstein and Bob Woodward, which anchor Ted Koppel taped on June 9. This is, apparently, the only joint appearance Woodward and Bernstein will make on the air today.
NBC's "Today" show will have an interview with John Sirica (who seems to be turning up on more of these shows than any other single figure) and, tomorrow morning, as part of a week-long Watergate orgy, John Dean will be interviewed live in Washington by Douglas Kiker. The "CBS Morning News" show had announced that anchor Bill Kurtis would interview Woodward--now an assistant managing editor at The Washington Post--from the very Howard Johnson's motel room that E. Howard Hunt and cohorts used as an observation point for the burglary, but that interview fell through. Instead, there will be a report featuring interviews with Bernard Barker, Charles Colson, Sirica and Peter Rodino.
Earlier this month, the "Morning News" beat other shows to the punch with an exclusive week-long series of Nixon interviews conducted by co-anchor, and former Nixon aide, Diane Sawyer, at Nixon's home in Saddle River, N.J. The interviews contained enough vintage Nixoniana to delight his defenders and absolutely thrill his enemies; the man may be the most sure-fire interviewee alive. He looked older, of course, and his jowls seem to be growing together into a configuration reminiscent of Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion makeup in "The Wizard of Oz," but he still sounded combative and intransigent.
Nixon began to fidget in his chair during the Watergate portion of the interview. He kept saying he wanted to look to the future and not sit around "wringing my hands" about the past. When Sawyer asked why he didn't make the simple statement to the country that "I covered up, and I'm sorry," Nixon said, "That is, of course, not true." When Sawyer pressed on with questions about Nixon's opinions of John Mitchell and John Dean, Nixon said, "I think we've covered enough now."
Nixon has become a wonderful, or horrible, sort of constant in an iffy world. He's as consistent as Muzak. He always gives us, and always has given us, a good show.
The biggest Watergate production of them all is Dickerson's, co-produced by Robert L. Drew and William Carpenter. It is also disappointingly slapdash, opening with a White House scene from June '73, then bouncing around in time when a straight chronology would have been preferable. Dickerson was a TV trailblazer, but she has never been known as a really tough cookie. She has an innocuous persona, and when she says in her narration, "The cover-up worked very well," she sounds chirpingly approving, as if she were saying, "Clear skies tomorrow."
But there are a zillion memories--nutty, appalling or hilarious--packed into this show, whose illustrious cast, on tape and film, includes John Ehrlichman, H.R. Haldeman, John Mitchell, Martha Mitchell ("Do you think my husband is that stupid?"), Alexander Butterfield, Archibald Cox, Spiro T. Agnew and many, many more. And, of course, Richard Nixon and his greatest hits, from "Well, I'm not a crook" to his magnificently naked farewell to the White House staff: "Nobody'll ever write a book probably about my mother. Well, I guess all of you would say this about your mother: My mother was a saint."
The documentary doesn't utilize many resources of replay television, though occasionally there is a deft touch, like a medley of "I don't recall" and "I can't say" testimony from co-conspirators at the Watergate hearings. Dickerson conducted a few new interviews for the program (she gives Elliot Richardson a premature eulogy, extolling him to the heavens, but he doesn't have all that much to contribute), including one with Gerald R. Ford, who says of the man he pardoned, "Mr. Nixon . . . in effect admitted guilt" for the cover-up.
Dickerson says she tried to get Nixon for her show, having interviewed him in the past, and even used Nixon's pal John Connally as an intermediary, but to no avail. She also says her staff went through 400 hours of videotape on a "treasure hunt" for material that became "a very expensive ordeal" when it came to getting permission to use footage from the three networks. One of them originally wanted to charge $3,000 a minute for anything used, but Dickerson says "We got better arrangements" after negotiating.
In the protracted introduction to the program, Dickerson tells viewers, "Chances are, you won't see your favorite moment" from Watergate Land, and one's immediate reaction is to ask in return, "Well why the hell not?" That would seem to be central to the function of the program. It's not, alas, the Watergate show to end all Watergate shows, but it certainly plucks a lot of painful chords.
Somewhere in "784 days" the sentiment is rendered that Watergate proved again, so the whole world could see, that "the system worked." Right, it worked. But only by a jowl. The chill inspired by this and all the Watergate shows has to do with the gnawing suspicion that the scoundrels in question came just that close to getting away with it all.