Reading Watergate

When I was six years old, I walked into the living room, where my parents were engrossed in something happening on television. I asked my mother what was going on, and she told me that the President of the United States had to resign; maybe she said “quit,” given how young I was. I asked her why the President was doing that, and she explained it to me in terms that were perfect for a young child to hear:

“Because he told a lie. And if you’re the President and you get caught telling a lie, you can’t be President anymore.”

This blog is, in part, a look at the events that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation on August 8, 1974. As well as being history of political corruption, the efforts to excise it, and the campaign to defend Nixon and his collaborators from those efforts, this project will focus on how people talked about Watergate as the crisis unfolded and in the years and decades that followed. I’ll be looking at a wide variety of books, interviews, articles, comics, podcasts and other media, both from the Watergate era and looking back on the events of 1972-1974 from later perspectives in order to learn about what happened and better understand how our concept of what happened has evolved.

Doonesbury, 29 May 1973

My motivations for undertaking a deep dive into Watergate are twofold. The first reason has to do with my primary writing project. I’m the author of Reading Doonesbury, a blog about Garry Trudeau’s comic strip. Some of Trudeau’s most powerful work was written in response to Watergate, but, except for one post on what is arguably Trudeau’s best-known strip, Mark Slackmeyer’s May 29, 1973 pronunciation of a “Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!” verdict against Attorney General John Mitchell, I have not touched GBT’s coverage of Watergate. This is because I don’t want to write about some of Doonesbury’s most important strips until I really understand the events that those strips addressed in their proper context. This blog will be a chronicle of what I learn about Watergate before I tackle Trudeau’s take on the crisis.

My second reason for wanting to learn about Watergate grows out of our current political times. Nobody knows how the second half of the first term of Donald Trump’s presidency will play out, but it seems likely that whatever happens, comparisons to the events of 1972-1974 will only figure more and more prominently in how talking heads discuss the Trump Administration. I’m interested in how we have remembered and mis-remembered the events that make up the crisis we call “Watergate” and the role that the received wisdom that grows out of those memories plays in shaping American political discourse as the country faces another potentially existential political crisis. I hope that this blog will help me, and maybe you, understand what the media is talking about when it refers to events and tropes like the Saturday Night Massacre, “follow the money,” or the Senate hearings, so that we can go deeper into how those episodes shape our expectations and understanding of events in the Age of Trump, and what all of that says about the fragile, contradictory, and amazing thing that is American democracy.

Thanks for stopping by.


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