Inside Story

Current affairs & culture from Australia and beyond

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Remembering Watergate in the age of Trump

22 December 2017

Podcasts | It started slowly, but became the best-known of all political scandals

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US president Richard Nixon announces during a nationally televised speech in April 1974 that he will turn over the transcripts of Oval Office tapes to impeachment investigators. AP Photo

US president Richard Nixon announces during a nationally televised speech in April 1974 that he will turn over the transcripts of Oval Office tapes to impeachment investigators. AP Photo


It’s been an off-balance year in politics, here and elsewhere, but the Trump presidency remains the biggest show on earth. The great political question for the coming year is whether — lurching from scandal to scandal, interspersed with tweeted threats of nuclear war — it will survive.

Trump’s candidacy survived the Access Hollywood tape, so it’s almost impossible to tell whether any of the existing scandals — Russian collusion, sexual misconduct, unreleased tax records, dodgy business deals — will yield the fatal barb. Among the podcasts to have pondered these issues during 2017 are Slate’s Trumpcast, the New York Times’s The Daily, NPR’s Embedded, and locally, Mamamia’s Tell Me It’s Going to Be OK.

While the investigations continue, it may help Trump unbelievers to listen to Slate’s new podcast, Slow Burn. Slow Burn examines the unfolding of the Watergate scandal, reminding us of something that can still seem surprising: for a time, it wasn’t much of a story, and Nixon seemed to have got away with it. Despite evidence of possible White House involvement in the break-in at Democratic Party headquarters, the leads went cold. Congressional hearings faced empty chairs; editors told their reporters to drop the story and find something else to cover. With the public’s attention elsewhere, Nixon won a landslide election.

Of course, that all changed. In Slow Burn, Slate’s Leon Neyfakh unpacks how Watergate was gradually transformed into the biggest political scandal of all time. He begins with the story of Martha Mitchell, the outspoken wife of Nixon’s first attorney-general and close friend, John Mitchell. Martha liked to eavesdrop on her husband’s telephone calls, and by the time Watergate hit the press she knew far too much about the inner workings of Nixon’s administration. Incredibly, she was forcibly sedated and held hostage to prevent her from speaking to journalists.

This ultimately didn’t stop her going public, but her claims seemed outrageous and she wasn’t believed. The Nixon administration portrayed her as a delusional, attention-seeking drunk, and her life was ruined. But, as Neyfakh points out, she had the last word. The Martha Mitchell Effect is the clinical term now used to describe the process by which a person’s accurate perception of real events is misdiagnosed as delusional.

Only time will tell whether it is Trump who is delusional, or those who believe he will be impeached. In the meantime, Slow Burn offers the reassurance of a guaranteed outcome, richly illustrated with archival sound. Three episodes have been released so far (and extra interviews for subscribers), and there are more to come.

If that’s not enough Watergate, you can find further reflections at WNYC’s Here’s the Thing, hosted by Alec Baldwin, which on 12 December featured an interview with former White House counsel John Dean, who flipped on Nixon. Nixon also sought to discredit Dean, but this time — unlike with his treatment of Martha — it didn’t work. Happy holiday listening. ●

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Barnaby Joyce and Malcolm Turnbull campaigning in Tamworth on Saturday 2 December. Tracey Nearmy/AAP Image

Barnaby Joyce and Malcolm Turnbull campaigning in Tamworth on Saturday 2 December. Tracey Nearmy/AAP Image