In Starz’s new Gaslit, premiering Sunday, central Watergate figure John Dean is played by Dan Stevens. In White House Plumbers, an upcoming HBO limited series, Dean is portrayed by Domhnall Gleeson. And in The Last Witness: Watergate, an upcoming four-part CNN original series, Dean himself will “confront his own involvement in the biggest presidential scandal of the 20th century,” in the words of the network.
As we approach the 50th anniversary of the June 17, 1972, break-in at the Watergate complex, the “third-rate burglary” that brought down a presidency, Hollywood is still mining the scandal for storylines, drawing on new perspectives and points of view even as many of the central figures have long passed, the notorious aspects of Watergate have faded in memory, and D.C. has been gripped by so many other moments of abuse of power that are arguably of far more consequence. (Note: January 6).
“Watergate is one of those stories where hubris brings nemesis,” says Tim Naftali, clinical associate professor of public service at New York University and former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. “It makes it a source of optimism for people who felt that Donald Trump somehow escaped justice, escaped sort of a reckoning. And so Watergate is a story of a president who abuses power, who participates in a criminal conspiracy, and then suffers for him the greatest possible loss, which is the presidency, and he resigns in disgrace as the first president ever to do so.
“The story is picaresque, with weird and wonderful characters including Martha Mitchell, but it’s also a drama that played out differently from something that we all watched. And I think it will be a source of questions about how we have changed, how the media has changed, how the Republican party has changed since the 1970s.”
The perceptions of Watergate have been shaped from the start by not just the flood of books and documentaries that followed Richard Nixon’s resignation, but also movie and TV projects, that have kept this scandal as a kind of means to measure all of the others.
All the President’s Men is one of the great all-time classics of moviemaking, and has probably done more to keep Watergate in the sphere of relevance than another other film. But it is but one in a genre of Watergate-inspired projects through the past five decades, like Oliver Stone’s Nixon; the miniseries Washington Behind Closed Doors and The Final Days; and even the comedy satire Dick, made in the late 1990s. Dean’s own post-Watergate memoir, Blind Ambition, was turned into a largely forgotten late-1970s miniseries, this time with Martin Sheen in the title role.
Dwight Chapin, who served as appointments secretary and deputy assistant to Nixon during his presidency and authored a recent book on his experience, The President’s Man, says there is an ongoing curiosity factor, fueled in part by the tendency to label any type of scandal with a “-gate.” But the ongoing fascination, he suggested, is also that the story has so many strands.
He says that they did focus group interviews as part of the renovation of the Richard Nixon Library “and Watergate would come up as a curiosity. What was it? And of course the simplified answer is it was a break-in at the Democratic headquarters at the Watergate hotel, that’s how it got named. But to people that start getting into Watergate, it has so many facets to it. … It can get so complicated so quickly when you are trying to explain it to someone.”
What some of the new projects have in common is the focus outside of Nixon in the Oval Office. Universal is developing an adaption of Rachel Maddow’s podcast Bag Man, which will tell the story of another chapter of the era: the scandal engulfing Vice President Spiro Agnew, forced to resign in 1973 after pleading no contest to a tax-evasion charge, leveled amid a bribery investigation, which took place as the Watergate scandal was unfolding. A Netflix documentary, The Martha Mitchell Effect, focuses on the wife of Attorney General and later Nixon election campaign chair John Mitchell.
Gaslit, a eight-part series that focuses on lesser-known or even forgotten figures from Watergate — including Nixon re-election campaign chairman and former attorney general Mitchell and his wife — takes its inspiration from the podcast Slow Burn.
All the President’s Men played out like a thriller and Stone’s Nixon like a tragedy, but the Watergate of Gaslit highlights human frailty, complicity and absurdity.
“John Oliver used to call the Trump-Russia scandals ‘stupid Watergate,’ and I’ve always watched them and thought, ‘Well, Watergate was stupid,’” Gaslit executive producer Robbie Pickering says. “I think that’s all of us at a certain base level — moron — and it comes from emotional need and emotional messiness. But Watergate stories I think keep getting told because maybe it’s this form of wish fulfillment, because it’s one of the only times in a big way that the most powerful were held to account.”
He says that the series uses dramatic license, but “without violating what we see as the truth of what happened.”
Gaslit portrays the relationship of the Mitchells, with Julia Roberts and Sean Penn as the lead characters, as a “Virginia Woolf”-style marriage, as Pickering puts it: loving yet extraordinarily stormy.
In 1972, Martha Mitchell had already become a well-known celebrity figure, whose love for gabbing with the press helped earn her spots on game and talk shows. She was even dubbed the “Mouth of the South.” But she also faced mental health and alcohol issues, something captured in Gaslit. Yet she also emerges in the limited series as one of the heroic figures of Watergate, an ultimate threat to the president’s men as she very quickly connects the administration to the break-in.
The weekend of the burglary, she and Mitchell were at a fundraising event in Southern California. When informed of the arrest of the burglars, John Mitchell rushes back to D.C. and leaves his wife at the Newporter Inn in Newport Beach, under guard and supervision with her access to a phone taken away. In Gaslit, her confinement culminates in a brutal confrontation with the bodyguard, chosen by her husband. She falls through a glass table, and eventually is restrained and sedated.
“A lot of the history of Martha looks at her as this object of scorn, of annoyance, or of pity,” Pickering says. “And it’s like ‘Man, this woman told the truth before all of them.’ Who cares if she had mental problems or alcohol problems or whatever? She should be looked at as a truth-teller. If John Dean is looked at as some great truth-teller when he was there from the beginning, plotting, and only from a certain point of view. You look at it an he only testified out of convenience, well why does John Dean get lionized as a hero for the rest of time, but Martha is forgotten?”
Dean, who had been White House counsel, is portrayed in Gaslit is a bit more opportunistic than in other Watergate retrospectives, which have focused on Dean’s role as the star key witness during the hearings in 1973, in which he testified to a cover-up that extended to the president himself. The project also spotlights the initial bumpy relationship between Dean and Maureen Kane (Betty Gilpin), a flight attendant who would later become his wife.
He was not consulted for Gaslit, as Pickering says that there already was an extensive public record of his story. Dean declined to comment for Deadline, but the upcoming project promises to divulge “more than he ever could under oath, shedding new light on the back-channeling, the back-pedaling, and the backstabbing.”
Pickering says, “He got his version of the story out there. Martha Mitchell did not get a chance to do that. That’s the only person I would have liked to have talked to, or her children, but her children are extremely private.”
Gaslit EP Robbie PickeringWatergate stories I think keep getting told because maybe it’s this form of wish fulfillment, because it’s one of the only times in a big way that the most powerful were held to account.
Chapin served nine months in prison after he was convicted of lying to the grand jury, though his case did not have to do with the Watergate break-in or cover-up. He is not portrayed in Gaslit and he has not seen it, but he reminds that Gaslit and other projects are entertainment dramatizations, including those projects where he has been depicted. “It’s very hard to identify with it because it’s not exactly how it happened,” he says.
The past 50 years also have seen a number of counter-narratives to those in the initial years after Nixon’s resignation. “There is this ongoing side of what really happened in Watergate,” Chapin says.
In his book, Chapin lays out a view that challenges the image of Dean as a heroic figure, but rather someone who bore much responsibility for engulfing the White House in the debacle, keeping Nixon in the dark. He contends that Dean knew about the break in plans and “is at the heart of all this,” but never tells [chief of staff} Bob Haldeman, his boss, or Richard Nixon that he knew anything, so Nixon is in the dark.”
“Nixon viewed [Watergate] as, in fact, he uses the term, it was really his last campaign. And he lost it. But it was a campaign to get him,” Chapin says.
That is a version different than has been depicted in a number of movies and books — including those that will unfold over the next few months. Chapin says that he got to know reporter Carl Bernstein when he was living in East Hampton, N.Y., and the historical narrative proved to be a topic of debate. Over breakfasts and lunches, Chapin says, they would argue about the version of events. “He’s 180 degrees away from Nixon. I’m on one side, he’s on the other.”
Chapin also has a more nuanced view of Martha Mitchell. He argues that at the time, she was exploited by the media, and that as they built her up into a “folk hero whistleblower,” it also hastened her downfall.
In his book, Chapin writes that when Martha was drinking and tried to call the White House to try to get in touch with the president, Chapin was the one who took the calls and then, when she was off the line, would dial up her husband. In his book, Chapin writes that as Watergate began to unfold, Martha “spoke of things she claimed to know — and in some cases actually did know — which caused a huge problem for our administration.”
Garrett Graff’s book Watergate: A New History, published earlier this year, confirms a number of the details of Mitchell’s confinement at the Newporter Inn, but also notes that even though they made their way into the press at the time, “the city had already written her off. She wasn’t a power player; she was entertainment.”
By the time that she died in 1976, Mitchell had faded from the limelight, she wasn’t totally forgotten in Hollywood. Through the years, actress Diane Ladd has pursued a project on her life, and Ryan Murphy has been attached to a project that would include her story, with Meryl Streep in the lead role.
“I hope this helps us re-examine the stories we tell ourselves about history, and the heroes we make, and how selective we are about those heroes,” Pickering says. “What the show is saying on a certain level is history sometimes picks people out because they’re the guy with good hair, and that’s who should be the hero, and this woman was an alcoholic, and she did have mental problems, and that’s why she will be forgotten.”