Watergate Plus 30: Shadow of History, a two-hour PBS special that revisits the landmark events set in motion by the burglary of Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel, reminds you what a marvelous instrument of shared memory television can be. This is television for the civic life and soul of the nation.
The Watergate break-in that resulted in the arrest of five men who were working for Republican President Richard M. Nixon's White House, took place June 17, 1972 - more than 31 years ago. (The "30" in the title of tonight's program refers to PBS making the wise and civic-minded decision to carry hearings of the Senate Watergate Committee live during the summer of 1973.)
The Watergate saga - which at its low point felt like French farce, but at its high point was drama worthy of the ancient Greeks - unfolded during those hearings and contributed to an unprecedented constitutional crisis.
The commercial networks at the time - CBS, ABC and NBC - stuck with their soap operas for the most part. But public television in the summer of 1973 took seriously the mandate that it must above all else serve the public interest, and its televised hearings are still one of the medium's proudest moments.
Director Foster Wiley uses PBS footage of those hearings as the broth of Watergate Plus 30 - a rich and heady brew of visual images and verbal exchanges that not only resonates with collective memory but also re-ignites some of the emotions felt when first witnessing such watershed moments on TV in 1973.
One of those involves John D. Ehrlichman, Nixon's super-arrogant senior adviser, coming before the committee and daring to get into an argument about the Constitution with Sen. Sam Ervin, the crusty chairman of the committee from North Carolina who just happened to carry a copy of the document in his pocket at all times.
At the height of their back-and-forth as to whether the Constitution grants the president the power to order a burglary "in the interests of national security," Ehrlichman, with raised voice, demands of the elderly senator, "How do you know that's [what it says], Mr. Chairman?"
Ervin, who during the exchange seemed a bit addled by Ehrlichman's aggressive tone, suddenly becomes the picture of clarity and, pointing to the document in his hand, says, "Because I can understand the English language as my mother taught me." And the Senate chamber erupts in laughter, cheers and applause for Ervin.
Beyond the archival moments, producers Sherry Jones and Marijo Dowd have crafted a compelling and historically contextualized narrative, highlighted by interviews with many of the major players. They include: journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who broke one major story after another on Watergate in the Washington Post; Senate committee members Lowell Weicker Jr. and Howard Baker; committee counsel Sam Dash; and members of the Nixon White House such as Jeb Stuart Magruder and John Dean, who went to prison for their roles in the scandal.
Much has been made already of an interview from the program in which Magruder says for the first time that he heard Nixon approve the Watergate break-in.
My favorite interview in the show has Dean recounting a meeting of senior White House officials at which G. Gordon Liddy, one of the White House operatives, explained a plan he had to use a houseboat full of prostitutes as "spies" at the Democratic National Convention in Miami. When Dean told Liddy it sounded absurd, Liddy turned to John Mitchell, the attorney general, and said, "General, I want to assure you these are the finest girls from Baltimore."
The special also pulls no punches in characterizing Henry Kissinger as an Iago whispering in Nixon's ear, speaking to the president's worst impulses.
"Nixon and Kissinger had a very strange relationship, very strange," author Richard Reeves, then a reporter for the New York Times, says in the program. "They both thought each other was crazy. They may have both been right."
The special has flaws. The tape I previewed, for example, at one point gives the date of the break-in as June 7, 1972, rather than June 17. It's only two seconds in a two-hour tape, but it's a fairly fundamental factual error.
Adina Barnett, a spokeswoman for the program, said yesterday that the final version would have the correct date.
I hope so. Watergate Plus 30 is otherwise too fine an example of television as national memory to be tarnished by such a careless mistake.
Watergate Plus 30
When: Tonight at 8
Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67) and WETA (Channel 26)
In brief: PBS revisits Watergate and the role television played in telling the tale 30 summers ago.