Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Check Out Time – The Watergate: Inside America’s Most Infamous Address by Joseph Rodota

The Watergate complex was designed by architect Luigi Moretti in 1963 and consists of six buildings and 10 acres of land.

For me the singular political event of the 20th century was the Watergate break-in of 1972. Everything we believed about the trustworthiness of the office of the American President was crushed single-handedly when six hired henchmen broke into the Democratic National Committee offices. On that day, June 17th, the story that became “Watergate,” and its fallout, marked the end of the sixties and tarnished the highest office of the land. I believe it was the end of American idealism and, considering where we are today in 2018 under POTUS 45, it hasn’t been the same since that fateful day that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation two years later.

I’m quietly infatuated with all things about Watergate. I was 14 years of age when it all unfolded so dramatically in 1972, having just completed my first year of high school. I watched the hearings on television and I read the newspaper -- which I usually skipped, except for the comics -- daily. I saw the movie All The President’s Men in the theatre upon its 1976 release and I never missed an opportunity to watch it again on TV. I had the VHS tape and bought it again on DVD. I’ve read the original book and the follow-ups by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, The Final Days (1976). I’ve devoured Woodward’s book on his famous source, Deep Throat, called The Secret Man (2005), and his excellent book on Alexander Butterfield, called The Last Of The President’s Men (2015). I have paperback versions of the complete hearings and the Nixon transcripts. I also watched the original broadcast of the David Frost–Richard Nixon interviews on television in 1977; saw Peter Morgan’s play, Frost/Nixon, in Toronto with Len Cariou as Nixon and  Ron Howard’s motion picture version in 2008. I took a pass on Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995) since it looked so heavy-handed. Nevertheless, I’m always interested in learning more about the Watergate saga and now I have a great new book to relish, The Watergate: Inside America’s Most Infamous Address (Harper Collins) by Joseph Rodota. It’s a history of the Watergate complex and the people who lived and worked there. I would consider it the Grand Hotel of its genre, an intriguing story of the tenants, visitors and businesses that found themselves in Washington, D.C., at one of the most interesting and engaging locations in the U.S. Capitol. But Rodota’s tome best suits the serious history buff rather than the casual reader, since one needs to know something about American politics since 1965 to fully appreciate the author’s tale.

Rodota’s book is laid out in chronological order, covering the gamut of Watergate’s origins, built in the mid-sixties on a ten acres of land known as Foggy Bottom, right through until 2017 and its renaissance not only as a tourist attraction but also as a place for the one-percenters looking to impress their political friends in the so-called elite class. But Rodota doesn’t take sides in this, his first book, preferring to tell the story of Watergate from a broader perspective. As a result his writing gets a little mundane during certain passages about the bureaucracy of D.C. municipal politics. But he makes up for it with the marvelous stories of Watergate’s community of owners and workers.

Watergate is more than the sum of its parts, according to Rodota. He takes the time to discuss the history of the whole complex. It has one hotel, two office buildings, its own shopping concourse and three residential buildings that look over the south bank of the Potomac River. Watergate got its name in 1961 from a small inn of the same name that was opened in 1945. But that was the easy part, as Rodota chronicles what he calls the “long journey through the bureaucracy” to get the design approved and construction financed in 1964. In fact, it took three years before a shovel hit the ground.

The Watergate was designed by the Italian architect Luigi Moretti, who wanted to create a series of curved buildings within all the square structures of D.C. at the time. To the imaginative architect, Watergate’s shapely design is like “notes on a sheet of music.” Rodota spends a good deal of time discussing the long and often arduous process Moretti and his partners often encountered along the way. Bottom line? It’s always extremely difficult to build anything in Washington, for the simple reason that too many people from all levels of government are involved. The design was actually approved by President Johnson, and I couldn’t help but wonder why it had to reach the Oval Office for final approval, but, as Rodota points out, like its design, there are “no straight lines anywhere” when it comes to Watergate.

Rodota’s impeccable research team deserves a lot of the credit, which he acknowledges in the book as essential to his story from books, magazines, real estate records or tenancy logs. Consequently the author’s vast resources make for some remarkable stories about the many famous politicians and Washington staffers who lived in the residential buildings. A short list includes Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s long-serving secretary, whose own apartment was broken into in 1969; Monica Lewinsky, who moved into an apartment in 1995 with her mother just as she was getting involved with President Bill Clinton; Condoleezza Rice, who took an apartment under the condition that her grand piano fit in it; and Anna Chennault, now 90, one of the original owners, who still lives in the Watergate today. Along the way, Rodota pays tribute to some of the people who worked in the complex, including Frank Wills, the overnight security guard who discovered the break-in in ‘72, and Jean-Louis Palladin, the French chef who went out of his way to establish one of the finest restaurants in the United States there. Though he lacks finesse, Rodota’s economical style in these passages has a natural flow to it, much like the river that banks the complex.

Rodota does a fantastic job of putting Watergate’s history into perspective, especially when it comes to the main event, the break-in of June 1972. According to him, the Democratic National Committee needed affordable office space, so they moved into the Watergate office building in 1967. They took the entire 6th floor, which gave them a lot of space and the only outdoor terrace available in the building. LBJ visited the site: Rodota includes a photo of him touring the new computer room. This was to be the headquarters of the Democratic Party’s 1968 campaign. At the time of its opening, nobody knew Johnson would “not seek” the Presidency, but the Party was committed to the space and stayed there until April 15, 1973. When they moved out the space went vacant for a year, tarnished by the ill-fated break-in. Although Rodota doesn’t suggest it, the DNC offices probably had bad karma. As he writes, “From its beginnings, the Watergate brand meant two things: privacy and luxury. The 1972 break-in and its aftermath undermined its privacy.” These particular tales are the most interesting to me, as a Watergate history buff.

Rodota’s book also covers the long-suffering structural issues Watergate experienced. The Watergate complex looks impressive from a distance, but suffers from the classic problem of form over function. The author spends a lot of time reporting on the constant water leaks, mostly from the single-pane windows, as well as poor heating and cooling, lousy ventilation and poor security. (At one point a series of burglaries occurred in the residential buildings due to lax security at the main entrance.) But over the course of its lifetime, millions of dollars have been spent on infrastructure, and Rodota offers just enough history about the internal issues to keep the reader interested. As to ownership, the complex was sold many times over the years and the inconsistencies of building managers would make a condo owner today shake his or her head in wonderment. After reading Rodota’s book, one gets the feeling that a well-run condo/office building is almost impossible to find, be it in Washington or Toronto.

I recommend The Watergate: Inside America’s Most Infamous Address. It’s a fine companion to the multitude of titles about the Watergate saga and, for me, a satisfying addition to understanding one of my favourite eras in history.

– John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, and musician. He’s the author of Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left To Know About The Father of Invention (Backbeat Books).

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