The fad for true-crime documentaries continues with this investigation into the grisliest and most unpunished true crime of all. In the course of a mammoth, horribly absorbing four-hour film from Charles Ferguson we are immersed in a world of milky TV news footage, big lapels, bulbous combovers, dirty tricks, sweat, jowls and guilt. It was a time when the nation learned its president had compiled a deadly serious “enemies list” that included Paul Newman. This was the time when the US felt its face get covered by a five o’clock shadow of shame.
America’s Watergate ordeal lasted from the first break-in at the Democratic party headquarters in Washington DC on 28 May 1972, and lasted until 8 August 1974, with Richard Nixon’s blandly impenitent resignation, tendered in return for a promised presidential pardon from his successor Gerald Ford, exempting him from the criminal prosecution that put his co-conspirators behind bars.
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Yet Ferguson doesn’t need to labour the point that Watergate carries on still, with the aftermath of its central mythological moment: the appointment of a special prosecutor to examine Watergate, Archibald Cox, whose existence was supposed to appease the press until the media storm blew over. But it didn’t. And then Nixon fired Cox, which simply made matters worse.
The current incumbent is all too clearly aware of the Nixonian model of bad faith and is learning from it. Don’t fire your special prosecutor – but wait, wait, wait, until the mood changes, wearied and muddled by endless denigration and chaotic pronouncements. Nixon barked his boorish insults and grotesque bigotries into secret tapes; Trump megaphones them via Twitter. Perhaps Trump has also studied that other teachable moment from the Watergate era when, at the end of the Yom Kippur war, Nixon took the nation to Defcon 3, the highest state of nuclear readiness,...
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