Sunday, February 11, 2018

Slow Burn

Watergate. The mere name conjures a time in our country’s history when the rule of law was challenged in ways we would hope would never happen again. And yet, its relevance is greater than ever, and thankfully, Leon Neyfakh’s hypnotic, addictive eight-episode podcast Slow Burn not only takes us back to that time when it seemed like our nation teetered on the precipice of collapsing, but forces us to consider what might happen if history repeats itself. 

Neyfakh is not content to simply convert All The President’s Men into podcast form. In fact, his goal, at least in the first few episodes, is to sniff around the lesser-known angles or those simply lost to history. And so we start with the curious case of Martha Mitchell, the wife of Nixon’s first Attorney General and the weekend she was essentially kidnapped and held against her will in order to quell any risk that she might go public with what she knew, almost in real time, about the break-in. There is also Congressman Wright Patman, a Democrat who was onto Watergate early on, only to be kneecapped by a coalition of Republicans and some of his fellow Democrats, who put a quick end to his investigation. 

There is value in understanding these stories because it forces us to reconsider the accepted narrative that essentially boils down to two dogged reporters from the Washington Post working sources and breaking front-page news that inevitably led to Nixon’s downfall. And while there is truth to that (although, interestingly, Woodward and Bernstein are barely mentioned in the season’s eight episodes), the effort Neyfakh put in, through interviews, research, and writing, gives the story greater resonance. Whether pulling clips of then-RNC Chairman George H.W. Bush inveighing against Nixon’s antagonists in late 1973 (“let the man do the job”) or Nixon’s maudlin and rambling April 1974 address to the nation as he desperately clung to power, it is clear there is much more to the story than Deep Throat leaks in parking lots and the “missing” seventeen-minute tape. 

Slow Burn operates on two levels - it tells the story of Watergate, but its subtext could not be more clear, the (potential) parallel between Nixon’s downfall and the current investigation into President Trump, his aides, and the 2016 campaign.

For those who think today’s reporters spend too much time fetishizing Trump’s die hard voters, consider the episode True Believers, where we learn that the same thing was being done 45 years ago, when the bar flies and blue collar Democrats of Queens who supported Nixon did so because they feared societal changes reflected in the anti-war, women’s rights, and civil rights movements. They did not much care whether Nixon was guilty of any crimes (a vague whiff of “fake news” permeated their thinking) so long as he pushed back against the cultural changes they hated. Their attitude echoes forward today, where the xenophobia and racism of Trump’s “white working class” voters in the midwest is channeled through Trump’s demands for a border wall, criticism of NFL players, and wink-and-a-nod at white supremacists in Charlottesville. Indeed, stoking these racial prejudices was at the core of Nixon’s political strategy long before Trump appropriated it for his own gain. 

Or take Rabbit Holes, which focuses on the proliferation of conspiracy theories during the Watergate-era. On the one hand, that this happened is unsurprising. As Neyfakh points out, Watergate was a conspiracy, and so, its existence allowed for a cottage industry to sprout where a plane crash that killed one of the Watergate burglar’s wives (Dorothy Hunt) who had $10,000 in cash on her when the plane went down, was believed to be an assassination because she had information that could have harmed the President. Mae Brussell, who is the focus of much of Rabbit Holes was, in her way, the Alex Jones of her day. On her syndicated radio show, she mused about the imminent revocation of the Constitution and the military’s use of dune buggies (don’t ask) as signs of a pending coup d’etat. Her 18,000 word manifesto, which spun out her various theories on shadowy figures controlling our government, was published during the heart of Watergate, and would not be unfamiliar to modern day Americans who think FEMA is herding people into concentration camps or Obama is a secret Muslim. 

Slow Burn picks up speed as the inevitable denouement comes into focus. Saturday Night is a thriller in miniature, detailing the frenetic 36 hours that led to Nixon’s firing of Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox and the resignation of Nixon’s Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General, who refused to carry out his order. The episode is made better by interviews with the Special Prosecutor’s staff reminiscing about a mad dash back to the office as word broke of their boss’s firing to ensure the evidence they had gathered would not be taken and the excavation of newscasts at the time, reporters at a loss for words and fearing for the future of the country. Listening to Saturday Night you can feel how close we came to a true constitutional crisis, but in pondering that near escape, you inevitably wonder, if something like that happened today, would we survive? 

Of course, the comparisons to the Trump/Russia investigation are inevitable, but the distinctions are, in some ways, as important as the similarities. As Neyfakh discusses, the original Watergate Special Prosecutor, Archibald Cox, was almost a caricature of everything Nixon stood against - an east coast elitist (Harvard Law professor) who had served as Kennedy’s Solicitor General. His staff was full of young liberals who despised Nixon and wanted to see him taken down. Now compare Cox with Robert Mueller III, the man investigating Trump - Mueller, unlike Cox, is a member of the same party as the President, with “law and order” bona fides that stretch back decades. His team is made up of deeply-experienced career Department of Justice prosecutors and FBI agents, yet Trump is attacking Mueller and his team as rank partisans whose bias is disqualifiying. While Nixon did ultimately fire Cox, he did most of his fighting before that fateful weekend in the courts, not in the court of public opinion. That Nixon did not fully appreciate how badly he misjudged his action may be what is keeping Trump from doing the same. 

It is also important to consider that Nixon did not have what Trump has - a right-wing echo chamber that functions on a daily basis to undermine the investigation. While both men had/have die hard supporters who either refuse to believe the allegations or do not care if they are true, the fracturing of news media today is a benefit Nixon could not take advantage of. And perhaps most importantly, Nixon was faced with a Democratic Congress, which exercised its investigative prerogatives in ways that the Republicans who run Congress today, refuse to do. 

The essential thesis of Slow Burn is that Nixon’s resignation was not foretold and, in real time, the idea Nixon would quit the Presidency at the pain of impeachment and removal, was farfetched. It may be true that if Trump follows a similar path, we will look back the same way. Sitting here today, there seems like a lot of smoke around Trump, but as he chisels away at the credibility of Mueller’s work, a hurried resignation seems like a pipe dream as Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill lay the foundation for dismissing the results of Mueller’s work as partisan and biased. Of course, as Neyfakh shows, this same strategy was being deployed by Nixon, but ultimately, when the proof became incontrovertible, Nixon fell on his sword. I am not as confident Trump will do the same. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

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