If you haven't seen it, there's a wonderful documentary running on PBS, Dick Cavett's Watergate, using Cavett's relentless programming of Watergate on his talk show as the focal point, but expanding it with current interviews, as well.
What leaps out is seeing a talk show spending SO much time on such a deeply and divisive political matter. Indeed, they play the audio of a Nixon tape where the people in the Oval Office are pissed off at Cavett, “Is he Jewish?”, Nixon asks. The response is "I don't think so. He doesn't look it." As Cavett tells the camera, when he found out about it later, it was hilarious and chilling, since Nixon talks about screwing him, and it later turned out that a lot of his staff had gotten audited. While that could have been coincidental, it's much too great a coincidence.
(This below isn't the sequence from the documentary, and it's not the whole exchange, but here's part of it.)
There's a remarkable sequence when Cavett's show got permission to broadcast directly from the Senate Hearing Room where the Watergate hearings took place, and he interviewed senators on the committee all at the podium. In fact, my favorite moment of the broadcast is Cavett telling Sen. Howard Baker that when he sat in the witness chair earlier, simply being in the seat he felt guilty. And Baker laughs and then sardonically quips back, “You may be the first one.”
Keep in mind that Howard Baker was a Republican from Tennessee. And also participating was Lowell Weicker, almost a liberal Republican from Connecticut. That’s the other thing that leaps out -- moderate Republicans, and true bi-partisanship. (This is something I wrote about here, "Yes, Virginia, There Were Liberal Republians," for the Huffington Post, an article later included in the anthology, Clued in to Politics)
A lot of people came across well -- John Dean, of course. But surprisingly the best may have been Timothy Naftali, who is, of all things, the former director of the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. (I recall when the museum was turned over from private hands to the government a few years back, and reading how Naftali would be in charge and had no intention of making the place a whitewash.) He's very dramatic and clearly loves talking to the camera, but his blunt criticism speaks well for his tenure.
My only complaint is that it was only an hour. I'd have loved more. While watching the documentary and remembering the time, I so related to the moment when Gore Vidal was on Cavett's show and talked about needing his Watergate fix every day. Gad, it was one of the most compelling times imaginable.
I was also reminded of all the Republican faux-cries -- since almost the day he was inaugurated -- to "impeach" President Barack Obama. Because they don't like his policies. Because they don't like that he's publicly signed Executive Orders. Because he's black. Because he's more liberal than they are (something more sentient beings are). Because...because...because. Pick your reason. (I could go into the impeachment of Bill Clinton here, as well, but that's a longer discussion about merits, actions and actually impeachable offenses. Suffice it to say that petulant payback, "You impeached our party leader, now we're going to impeach yours," was roiling throughout the groundwater -- and I suspect still is.) At the foundation of everything, this documentary shows what the impeachment of a president is all about. Whatever president one wants to point to. I don't even most-mean the charges, though that, too. I mean, above all, how serious everyone took the process and the charges. How bipartisan and mutually supportive so much of the events eventually became. How heart-heavy and angered and even-handed the best of both sides took this, understanding that impeachment and the actions which led to .it were matters of such depth and gravity that called for them as representatives to act in the best interests of forces larger than themselves or their parties, but of the nation. It was a situation where the charges only surfaced after extensive, impartial and joint investigation, not before. It was a remarkable time. Not one of smallness.
As it turns out, I know the guy a bit who made the documentary, Emmy winner John Scheinfeld. He did a very good documentary about the Chicago Cubs five years ago, We Believe, (for which I was kindly asked to suggest some uncommon Cub-questions for interviews). And a very good one on Harry Nilsson. His best-known is probably The U.S. vs. John Lennon.
Dick Cavett's Watergate is airing at different times around the country. It was shown in New York last week, and Los Angeles had it yesterday. But they were halfway through when I noticed. Happily, they re-aired it overnight, and I recorded it. But when I started watching today, it was bizarrely about two-seconds out of sync and unwatchable. However, happily, it's available online, though I don't know for how long. So, check your schedule or just click here.
Here's a long, excellent preview. In fact, see this image below? That's the sequence I referred to above with Howard Baker in the Senate Hearing Room, and Cavett is laughing at Sen. Baker's line.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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