Up front let me say that my relationship with the Watergate scandal, which happened forty years ago and brought down Richard Nixon has always been peripheral; my role, merely, the typical fly on the wall observations of a novelist in search of a story to tell.
I do admit that my strange relationship with this national trauma prompted me to produce a novel entitled The Henderson Equation, which in retrospect might have unwittingly struck a vein of hard truth about this seminal event not apparent at the time.
Its premise was that a “fictional” Washington newspaper run by a female publisher had brought down a President and because of its newfound power was now poised to use it to create its own ideal aspirant to this high office.
That said, let me lay out an odd list of “coincidences” that in some mysterious way connect me to the place and the strange events that they describe. Perhaps it is all some narcissistic fantasy of a hyperactive imagination, a Zelig-like bit of egocentric and self-serving meanderings.
I named Watergate. Really. At the time I owned an advertising agency that specialized in real estate promotion and politics (for both parties). The builders who worked for the Italian firm that owned the land were my clients. I was an original small investor in the company that had bought the land from the Washington gas company. For years there was a restaurant named Watergate on the property, hence my suggested choice of the name.
At a time prior to the Watergate scandal, I was a consultant to the Republican National Committee. I was an advisor during Nixon’s campaign in 1969 and continued months after his inauguration.
As a resident of Washington during the time of the revelations, I read the daily enfolding Watergate saga as the two young reporters Woodward and Bernstein pried open the bizarre events that led to Nixon’s resignation. It was, in truth, a battle royal between a newspaper and a President, a raw and ugly war in which the besieged politician was using tactics that were fairly typical of the chicanery that had always gone on in Washington’s ruthless political arena. Had it been considered an aberration would Nixon have continued to record oval office conversations? Would the missing twenty minutes have really changed the disastrous outcome for the President?
The journalist’s timing was perfect. By then technology was making it increasingly impossible to hide nefarious tactics from an increasingly competitive press. Blatant corruption was getting harder and harder to sweep under the rug. A stupid unnecessary burglary, a street smart judge, a blundering gang of amateur thieves, a disappointed civil servant, a couple of clueless assistants and a misguided President were all caught in a conspiracy that was mother’s milk to a newspaper flushed with its own power and trying to make its biggest score.
The arrogance of political power was being challenged by the arrogance of press power. A determined and well financed news organization could mount a campaign of destruction at will. A defense against such a juggernaut was almost impossible to mount. It still is. But the Post had the bit in its mouth and ran like hell.
It was clearly a mismatch. The Post was at the peak of its power and Nixon, despite his enormous electoral wins, could never shake the “tricky Dick” nickname which the reporters subliminally resurrected as they wielded their once awesome weapons of newspaper clout. But that was then. The snipers hit their mark, covered themselves in newspaper glory, created an industry and forced the President to resign in disgrace.
In another odd coincidence at the moment of his resignation, I was on a book tour of my first novel, then called Options, now called Undertow, ironically about a Senator trying to cover up an illicit affair and save his career, an event that has become a repetitive Washington staple. My only real major booking on television was in San Francisco where I was scheduled to be on its most popular TV station. I was poised on the set ready to go when the program switched to Nixon leaving Washington on the day of his resignation. I never did get rescheduled.
Yet another odd sidebar was my frequent social contact with Judge John Sirica, the judge who was more than anyone responsible for initiating what became the cataclysmic event. The Judge, now deceased, was a kind of uncut diamond, an ex-boxer who blew the whistle on the perpetrators of the burglary.
He regaled me with behind-the-scenes stories of these events but expressed his disappointment that no one had made a movie about him and his role, while the notoriety and celebrity went to prime perpetrators like Gordon Liddy who now hawks gold for a living and is a talk show host, and the late Chuck Colson who became born again in prison and created a pulpit on behalf of convicts. The event also made fortunes for Woodward and Bernstein and created a hundred spinoffs in movies, television, and a bookshelf of awesome proportions.
When my novel The Henderson Equation published by Putnam came out in 1976, The Washington Post refused to print a word about it, obviously thinking that it was an anti-Post roman à clef, a reasonable interpretation. During this time I met Kay Graham, the Post publisher, at a spa in Mexico. Kay and I bonded as tennis partners and friends at the spa.
On her numerous calls to the paper she learned that I had written this book, which touched a raw chord particularly in her tragic private relationship with her husband. I doubt if she read it but someone had provided her with a summary. Although I explained to her that this was pure imaginative fiction, she imagined it as “real” and spent an entire afternoon remonstrating and offering tearful personal revelations of her life. It left me shaken and profoundly stunned, although it did give me insight into the enormous suggestive power of the novel form to slice into the heart of the truth.
In an attempt to mollify her, I said:
“Kay you are the most powerful woman in America. You brought down a President.” She thought for a long moment, then shook her head. “No. He brought himself down.”
What that conversation taught me is that behind the façade of power lies human vulnerability, insecurity and self-delusion. Although we were never close friends, Kay was always charming and pleasant when we met. She was an extraordinary woman and her autobiography was one of the most insightful that I have ever read.
I did meet most of the significant players in that strange era including John Mitchell, Ben Bradlee, and those who surrounded Nixon as he tried to wriggle out of an untenable position. In retrospect, the event can be characterized as the fifth assassination of an American President who was hardly the reprobate he was made out to be. True, he had his glaring faults but then as we learn in the age of Google more and more about our Presidents present and past, he was hardly as evil and blundering as some and, in many ways, more competent than most. There are those still alive whose still hot hatred of Nixon cannot be chilled at any resurrection of his image. His punishment was disgrace in his lifetime.
But for many who have not lived through those days, the patina of evil is rapidly flaking off his sculpted image revealing a President whose strange lack of public charm, and an odd transparency that favored his darker side, was a detriment to his defense. But then if he hadn’t single-handedly unbolted the gates of China who would we be borrowing money from to sustain our way of life for decades after his demise?