I spent this afternoon watching the last half of something I forgot I even had, the 250-minute documentary about Nixon’s second term simply called Watergate that BBC and The Discovery Channel put together about 15 years ago. I have about five documentaries and specials about the mess but this one is the mother of them all. That’s partly because it isn’t fixated on The Washington Post’s role the way the others are—Woodward and Bernstein make an appearance alright, but they’re onscreen just a tad longer than Tony Ulasewicz, and they get a helluva lot less face-time than Dean or McCord or that bow-tied dandy known as Archibald Cox. Another thing that makes it great is that the filmmakers somehow put all the subjects at their ease, with Haldeman and Ehrlichman in particular showing hitherto hidden human faces. Nixon himself is present only in the form of generous excerpts from the David Frost interview in ’77, and when describing the meeting in which he fired Haldeman, Nixon describes his old chief of staff, spitting the words out as they come to him, “not as some Germanic…Nazi…stormtrooper,” which does pretty much nail the public’s perception of the guy, but as a “decent public servant.” That last phrase might be stretching a point but Haldeman comes off well. With his hair grown out a tad and wearing a plaid shirt, khaki pants, and a pair of half-glasses, he comes across like an uncle at his favorite fishing lodge. And he’s not alone. Ehrlichman, Liddy, Dean, Magruder, Colson, Mardian, Porter—damn near all of them—speak out with a surprising openness and lack of rancor, and the way their interviews are woven together makes us feel for once that everyone’s telling the truth.
There are exceptions. John Mitchell, who died years ago, isn’t on-hand, of course, but you get the feeling that even if he was he wouldn’t have been interested in opening up to a film-crew for a documentary narrated by Dan Schorr. He’s the one who bluntly told the Ervin Committee that he considered Nixon’s re-election so important because of “what the other side was putting up” that he would’ve done anything to accomplish it, and he’s also the only one who failed to see the humor in his exchange with Sam Dash. When Dash asked Mitchell why he hadn’t thrown Liddy out of his office while Liddy was describing one of his hare-brained (and highly illegal) schemes, Mitchell, pipe in hand, evenly replied, “In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t just thrown him out of my office, but that I’d thrown him out of the window.” With a professional’s timing Dash let the answer hang in the air before prefacing his next question with, “Seeing as how you did neither…” As the caucus room rang out with spontaneous guffaws, the camera zoomed in on Mitchell who, judging by his expression, looked as if he were trying to decide whether it would be more fun to kill Dash by roasting him on a spit or throttling him with his bare hands.
Still, the man who comes off the ugliest isn’t named Mitchell or Haig or even Richard Milhouse Nixon. It’s E. Howard Hunt, the reputed “spymaster” who did us all a favor by dying and going to Hell just a few short weeks ago. Hunt, it will be recalled, led the planning for the break-in along with his co-mastermind Gordon Liddy, and it was he who began squeezing his former bosses for hush money after his arrest. Hunt, too, appears in contemporary interviews, but where even the likes of Colson, Magruder, and Ehrlichman mellowed with age, and managed to recognize the tawdriness in their own souls somewhere along the way, Hunt gazes into the camera as one might regard a bottle of cyanide as he talks about the “considerations” he felt were due him. It’s a disgusting, even disquieting, performance.