I’m an American living in Britain. Since late 2016, I’ve been asked the following question many, many times: “When are you going to get rid of Trump?” People in Europe are more accustomed to Prime Ministers being dumped out of office the moment they become unpopular. Trump’s tax cut which disproportionately benefitted the well off, his continual verbal gaffes, his crude behaviour, have all made America seem like it has taken leave of its senses.
Surely, there must be a means for him to be deprived of office. After all, Richard Nixon was unceremoniously dumped out of office too. The documentary “Watergate” by Charles Ferguson, available on Apple TV, helps to clarify how difficult it was to get Nixon to that point.
Mr. Ferguson has form in producing exceptional documentaries. Previously, he produced “Inside Job” which articulated why the financial crisis of 2007 / 2008 occurred. His pointed, though polite, interviews showed the corrupt practices which lay at the heart of the financial industry. It is fitting in a time of a questionable president that he would turn his keen eye towards the past.
The documentary is in excess of 4 hours long. However one isn’t conscious of how long it is going on while watching it; the narrative proceeds briskly, the story is compelling.
Richard Nixon was the author of his own destruction. He surrounded himself with figures of questionable talent and morality such as G. Gordon Liddy and Chuck Colson. Nixon had a bad habit of speaking off the cuff. His closest aides such as his Chief of Staff, H. R. “Bob” Haldeman knew him well enough to discern when he was merely blowing off steam. Colson did not. This led to outright criminal behaviour such as the theft of records belonging to Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist; Ellsberg was a famed whistleblower, who revealed to the public the “Pentagon Papers”. The Pentagon Papers showed the US government had been lying over many years about the Vietnam War to the American public. Liddy used some of the same perpetrators in his attempt to plant listening devices into the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee. The burglars were caught. Nixon and his staff did their best to cover it up, including through bribery, perjury and outright intimidation.
The break-in occurred in 1972. Nixon left in 1974. It was no easy matter to find the truth: the documentary interviews Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the intrepid Washington Post reporters who uncovered the facts. There was a dependency on Republicans as well as Democrats being appalled by Nixon’s crimes. The head of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Peter Rodino of New Jersey, ensured that his chief aide for the impeachment enquiry was a Republican. A key judge, John J. Sirica, was also a Republican. The Senate committee enquiring about Watergate would not have been able to proceed without a key Republican senator, Lowell Weicker.
When it was discovered that Nixon had recorded most of his conversations, that led to a further furore: Nixon’s various attempts to prevent their release are covered in detail.
In the end, it was popular pressure, combined with the Republicans bailing on their president, which forced Nixon out. However, as the documentary shows, it took a lot of time, it depended also on Nixon having at least the semblance of a guilty conscience and sense of duty. This clarifies why a Trump, shameless, and abetted by Republicans who are just as shameless as he is, can only be removed by the voters at the ballot box in November. Perhaps this shows a critical flaw in the American system. Nonetheless, these flaws make for an intriguing drama, which bears watching over and over again.
29 May 2020