A new HBO “slapstick tragedy” mostly avoids the Oval Office in favor of the men who actually executed the infamous burglary that brought down a president.
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By Adam Nagourney
LOS ANGELES — On June 17, 1972, five men were arrested while breaking into the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate office building in Washington, D.C.
Dismissed by the White House press secretary as a “third-rate burglary,” the break-in set off a chain of events that ultimately led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon in August 1974. Ever since, the “gate” suffix has been shorthand for scandal, and Watergate has provided fodder for movies, books, podcasts, commentaries and television.
But at a time when a former president has been indicted on charges of funneling hush money payments to an adult film star, does Watergate still shock? Is it still the riveting tale of malfeasance that it was 51 years ago?
A new five-part HBO mini-series may offer answers to those questions. “White House Plumbers,” premiering Monday, recreates the events that riveted a nation and upended American politics, focusing not on the usual characters — no Nixon, Woodward or Bernstein on the screen here — but on the men behind the crime.
These are the Plumbers, led by E. Howard Hunt, the ex-C. I. A. officer played by Woody Harrelson, and G. Gordon Liddy, the lawyer and former F.B.I. agent played by Justin Theroux. Hunt and Liddy are well-known to historians and Watergate buffs, but they are — compared to a Dean, Haldeman or Mitchell — secondary players in a scandal that toppled a presidency and whose particulars have faded from the popular memory over five decades.
“I was pretty much in the dark about all this stuff,” Harrelson said. “I didn’t know much about Hunt; I was 11 when this went down.”
“White House Plumbers” comes roughly a year after another high-end Watergate series: “Gaslit,” a stylish Starz thriller that featured Sean Penn as John Mitchell, Nixon’s attorney general, and Julia Roberts as Martha Mitchell. Despite its star power, that show failed to make much of a ripple in ratings or awards, earning four technical Emmy nominations and no wins.
Even the “Plumbers” creators acknowledge that the Watergate offenses seem quaint compared to, say, Donald Trump’s effort to overturn an election that he lost by about 7 million votes.
“That was an era in which people could still be shocked that this kind of behavior went on in politics,” said Peter Huyck, who created the show with Alex Gregory. “People were shocked that people were breaking in and planting bugs, whereas nowadays that would seem like small potatoes.”
David Mandel, who directed the series, said he learned about Watergate when he was growing up from “All the President’s Men,” the book and movie about how two Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, broke the scandal that brought down Nixon.
“I’m sad to say, you probably have a lot of people that have no idea that there was Watergate,” he said.
So why dramatize a small slice of a historical event people no longer seem all that interested in?
“First and foremost, it was a great story with larger-than-life characters and astonishing twists and turns,” Gregory said. “If we’re hoping to achieve anything, it’s to get people interested in history in general by making it entertaining. Perhaps people would learn from history if it were served up as a cheeseburger instead of an undressed arugula salad.”
“White House Plumbers” is a descendant of another HBO Washington series: the caustic comedy “Veep.” Huyck and Gregory were mainstays of that satire’s writers’ room and Mandel was a showrunner. But this is no “Veep II”: “White House Plumbers” is as sad as it is funny. It’s a “slapstick tragedy” in the words of Frank Rich, an executive producer for the show, and a former executive producer of “Veep.” (A former New York Times columnist, he’s also an executive producer of “Succession.”)
Hunt and Liddy are true believers, serving their president and, in their view, protecting the country from Communism and the political turmoil of the era. And they were prepared to break the law to do it; the series follows their clandestine effort to run a secret band of Cuban American political saboteurs at the behest of the Nixon re-election campaign.
The inaugural mission by the Plumbers was a June 1971 break-in at the Beverly Hills office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, in a fruitless search for information to discredit Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers.
“It’s a wonder that this group wasn’t caught sooner,” said Timothy Naftali, an historian and the former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. “This was the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. The idea that Nixon would have put his fate in the hands of this group is one of the great mysteries of that era.”
Indeed, Hunt and Liddy are portrayed as being slightly pathetic, but also sympathetic, if in a bumbling kind of way. Hunt, defeated and incarcerated for his role in Watergate, learns that Nixon has resigned by overhearing two fellow inmates talking — as he is folding T-shirts in a prison laundry.
Theroux said he felt conflicted as he portrayed Liddy. “I really liked him, liked playing him,” he said, adding: “I don’t fall in love with his politics or his ethics; I did fall in love with his spirit.”
Hunt, like Liddy, is a middle-aged man struggling with a flailing career, but he is also navigating a dysfunctional marriage. “All your Watergate was for nothing,” Hunt’s wife, Dorothy (Lena Headey) tells her husband after Nixon wins re-election in a landslide in 1972.
Hunt is a relatively bland character, particularly compared with Liddy, whom Mandel described as a “nut-ball.” But Harrelson found himself fascinated by, if not terribly sympathetic to this shadowy symbol of the Watergate era.
“He’s a deplorable man,” he said. “He just did some coldblooded stuff back in the day.”
The story of Watergate has until now been typically told from the vantage point of the Oval Office and the Washington Post newsroom. But “this is not your father’s ‘All the President’s Men,’” as Rich put it.
Francesca Orsi, HBO’s head of drama series, said “Plumbers” is “exploring the scandal from the point of view of the foot soldiers on the ground.”
“The heart and soul — the psyche of the show — is about these two men and the way their decisions and choices they made had wider ramifications for themselves and their families,” she said.
There has been no shortage of Washington intrigue and scandal since Nixon resigned, including the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol in 2021, the impeachments of presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, and the Iran-Contra arms-for hostages scandal that shadowed Ronald Reagan’s second term. But Watergate remains a singular chapter in American history that has continued political relevance.
”I don’t think people are that interested in Watergate, but they are certainly interested in the questions of a deep state and questions of the weaponization of the federal government,” Naftali said. “The story of Hunt and Liddy and their associates is the story of a federal government gone wild — of a president using federal power to hurt people who disagree with him.”
“Plumbers” is based in part on a book by Egil “Bud” Krogh Jr., a Nixon White House staff member who served time for authorizing the Ellsberg psychiatrist break-in. And for all the attention paid to Watergate over the decades, “Plumbers” finds some lesser-known corners of this story to explore.
For one thing, there were four attempted break-ins at the Watergate, including two unsuccessful dry-runs and a return visit to repair a failed bug. Hunt’s wife later died in a plane crash, and the series nods (but only nods) to an old conspiracy theory — “We didn’t want to Oliver Stone it,” Gregory said — that it might not have been an accident. Liddy had an odd fixation with the Nazis; at one point we see him raising his arm in a Nazi salute.
“All these things that people are going to watch and go, ‘Yeah, that didn’t happen …’” Gregory said. “Those are the things that really happened.”
And Dita Beard! Kathleen Turner plays the International Telephone and Telegraph lobbyist who, in this telling, is spirited out of Washington at the orders of the Nixon White House so she wouldn’t give damaging testimony about an alleged quid pro quo involving an I.T.T. Corporation campaign contribution to the Republican National Committee. Other cameos of note include the “All the President’s Men” star Robert Redford (actually Redford’s voice), in a scene where Woodward is heard calling Hunt.
Production on “White House Plumbers” was delayed by the Covid pandemic, which occurred amid turmoil, division and disruption in the country. During that period, Trump attempted to overturn the 2020 election, the Black Lives Matter demonstrations were touched off when Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, and the violent Jan. 6 rioting erupted at the Capitol, leading to subsequent hearings — all of which makes framing a political scandal as a comedy, even a black comedy, a bit of a challenge, even for the crew that brought the world “Veep.”
“In ‘Veep,’ we were going for the hard jokes,” Huyck said. “In this, there are no jokes.”
“The situation is organically absurd,” he continued. “You can just write completely straight dialogue and let it sit there, and it will be funny.”
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