On June 17, 1972, five men, among them Cuban emigrees from Miami–Bay of Pigs veterans–again working under the direction of ex-CIA officer James McCord, broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Complex in Washington, D.C. The break-in on the 17th saw the burglars, who included McCord, acting Security Director for the Committee to Reelect the President, apprehended by local police sparking the ultimate unraveling of Nixon’s presidency.
It was the second time then-president Richard M. Nixon’s Committee to Reelect the President (CREEP) had orchestrated a break in at the rival party’s offices. This mission was undertaken to fix problems with wire taps and surveillance bugs previously installed by McCord.
“The Watergate burglary was not the beginning; it was like America walked into the second or third act of a play and needed some time to figure out what was actually going on,” Garrett M. Graff, author of “Watergate: A New History,” told the “Welcome to Florida” podcast. “I thought I knew the story of Watergate before I started this book and was surprised by what a bigger and weirder and zanier story it actually turns out to be.”
Graff’s book, published in February of 2022 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the break-in, takes a swing at telling the full story of presidential mania and abuses of power which have come to be grouped under the broad heading of “Watergate.”
“What actually turns out to be the story of Watergate is that Watergate was a less a single event and more a state of mind,” Graff explained. “It was this dark, paranoid, conspiratorial mindset that permeated the Nixon presidency and led to what are actually–as I’ve pieced together in the book–about a dozen distinct, semi-interrelated scandals, some with vaguely overlapping sets of characters that unspools from 1968 straight through the summer of ‘74 when Richard Nixon finally stepped down from office.”
Over time, “Watergate” would introduce Americans to a universe of scoundrels surrounding the president through daily newspapers, nightly TV newscasts and weekly magazines. These villains–along with a couple heroes and some innocents–return to life during the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.’s ongoing exhibition, “Watergate: Portraiture and Intrigue,” which further explores the anniversary by combining portraiture and visual biography to bring visitors face-to-face with the story’s key players.
Watergate in Portraits
Nixon was the head of the snake, but the body included Henry Kissinger (national security advisor), John N. Mitchell (attorney general), John Ehrlichman (domestic affairs aide), and H. R. “Bob” Haldeman (chief of staff). With the exception of Kissinger, these figures, composing Nixon’s inner-circle “guard,” were eventually found guilty of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and other charges after the Watergate break-in.
During the cover-up, it was Mitchell who encouraged another actor, Jeb Magruder, deputy director of the Nixon re-election committee, to give perjured testimony. Mitchell also directed White House counsel John Dean, yet another name synonymous with the scandal, to have presidential aids raise and deliver hush money. Mitchell remains the highest-ranking U.S. government official ever sentenced to prison time.
During the Watergate investigation, Kissinger, who authorized wiretaps of the phones of journalists and government officials, somehow managed to escape criminal charges.
Further down the body were Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt, former FBI and CIA agents, respectively. They were arrested for organizing the break-in and later convicted of burglary, wiretapping and conspiracy.
FBI Acting Director L. Patrick Gray who in January of 1973 revealed to the Senate Judiciary Committee investigating the scandals that he had destroyed documents and regularly reported to Dean. Alexander Butterfield, a presidential aide, who described in the Senate hearings how Nixon had installed an elaborate Oval Office taping system. Nixon’s longtime secretary Rose Mary Woods who “accidentally” erased eighteen-and-a-half minutes from a taped conversation that took place between the president and Haldeman on June 20, 1972, which forensics revealed to contained evidence that Nixon knew about the Watergate scandal and its cover-up.
Wearing white hats were Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward and the newspaper’s owner and publisher Katharine Graham. Barbara Jordan, a congresswoman from Texas who delivered the opening statement at Nixon’s impeachment hearings. And FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt, who would famously come to be known as “Deep Throat,” leaking contents of the bureau’s interviews and grand jury testimony to Woodward. His true identity was not revealed until 2005.
Somewhere in between rests Mitchell’s wife, Martha, who was “basically” kidnapped–according to McCord–by an ex-FBI agent working as a security aide for CREEP while attempting to share details of what she knew about the break-in with a journalist over the phone.
The National Portrait Gallery’s entrée into Watergate is how absorbing depictions created by cartoonists, illustrators and contemporary artists helped the public digest the events as they unfolded.
“Art is squarely in the focus as well as journalism and history. It deserves to be part of that conversation,” National Portrait Gallery acting senior historian and exhibition curator Kate Clarke Lemay told Forbes.com. “Everyone talks about the enormously important work of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and other reporters for breaking the story, but art was key in helping the public understand what was happening. If you look at those newspaper articles, they’re dense, they’re convoluted, and then you have artwork accompanying (the stories), it really does help the public get to the spirit of what’s happening at that time. That’s the layer that has been understudied in all of this history.”
Everything on view in the Portrait Gallery’s exhibition comes from its permanent collection, including 12 portraits used by “TIME” magazine as cover images during its extensive coverage of the story. Political cartoons from the institution’s prints and drawings collection introduce another critical element as tens of millions of Americans consumed the story through this medium.
“We had a previous generation of curators that were really interested, and rightly so, in caricatures because they reveal so much of the every man’s experience of politics, of culture, they’re like shorthand to a greater message,” Lemay said.
“Portraiture and Intrigue” examines the relationship between portraiture, investigative journalism, activism and politics. While Watergate created its own Washington maelstrom, it coincided with another–the Vietnam War. The revolutionary artwork created during this time in D.C. is further explored at the Phillips Collection, two miles from the Portrait Gallery, during its upcoming exhibition, “Lou Stovall: The Museum Workshop,” (July 23–October 9, 2022).
Revealing the history and legacy of the Dupont Center, an artist’s museum founded in 1969 through the collaboration of curator Walter Hopps and artist Lou Stovall, “The Museum Workshop” shares how the Dupont Center presented a new model for the museum as a place for artmaking, community building, organizing and activism.
The Legacy of Watergate
“Watergate in many ways creates modern Washington; it changes the presidency, changes the way Americans look at the presidency, it rewrites America’s trust in institutions,” Graff said. “It creates the modern surveillance state, the way that law enforcement and intelligence agencies are able to conduct surveillance inside the United States is a direct outgrowth of Watergate. It creates executive privilege. This thing that we’re still seeing the Trump Administration argue with the January 6 committee today is a direct outgrowth of Nixon’s campaign to keep secret his White House tapes.”
Ehrlichman argued that the president could do almost anything in the name of national security, including authorizing burglaries. Chilling echoes to today as a former president tries defending his actions in attempting to invalidate an election and promote the overthrow of the government.
In February 1973, when it became apparent that the Watergate trials in federal court were not yielding all evidence of nefarious activities by government officials, the U.S. Senate voted, unanimously, to establish a special Senate committee to investigate. No such unanimity in the service of truth exists at the Capitol today. In the spring of 2021, Senate Republicans blocked a bill seeking to establish an independent inquiry into the deadly attempted coup by white nationalists January 6, 2021, egged on by Donald Trump that day and in the weeks leading up to it as he continued touting his “Big Lie” of a stolen election.
All of which stems from Watergate.
“In many ways, Watergate and the Nixon presidency writ large is the turning point of the entire American century, the 20th century, and ushers out the end of the New Deal, Great Society liberal consensus and delivers us the Republican Southern Strategy and lays the groundwork for what we now recognize is the Reagan Revolution that in many ways was really the Nixon Revolution first, and I think, leads in pretty direct ways to the party that nominates Donald Trump in the summer of 2016,” Graff said.
“Watergate: Portraiture and Intrigue” can be seen through September 5, 2022. Also on view at the Portrait Gallery and not to be missed is “The Outwin 2022: American Portraiture Today,” the culmination of its sixth triennial Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition celebrating excellence in the art of portraiture.
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