Forty years ago this month—in the wee hours of June 17, 1972, to be exact—operatives linked to Republican President Richard M. Nixon’s re-election campaign broke into Democratic National Committee headquarters on the sixth floor of the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C.
They wore rubber surgical gloves, carried photographic equipment and pen-sized tear-gas guns, and were part of what newspapers termed “an elaborate plot to bug the offices.” Police discovered those five burglars in the act and placed them under arrest.
Three months later, the same five—together with Nixon re-election committee general counsel G. Gordon Liddy and former CIA operative/spy novelist E. Howard Hunt—were indicted for conspiracy, burglary and violation of federal wiretapping laws. It was an early chapter in what would be revealed as the worst example of U.S. political malfeasance since the Teapot Dome bribery scandal of the 1920s.
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The depth and breadth of the Watergate scandal was exposed with sometimes painful slowness in the media, but it offered ample dramatic moments, including a White House cover-up, televised hearings in the U.S. Senate, threats of impeachment, sudden firings at the Justice Department and eventually Nixon’s announcement, on August 8, 1974, that he’d resign from office. In the process, the journalists who provided most of the Watergate coverage—particularly a pair of Washington Post go-getters named Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein—were championed for their enterprise, encouraging myriad young journalism students (like me) to become investigative reporters.
Another result of the Watergate scandal, though, was a wave of suspense thrillers that recast members of the working press—often derided as ink-stained purveyors of sensationalism—in the role of giant killers.
Not all of those novels are worth remembering, but better than most was Conflict of Interest (1976), by Les Whitten, another Post newshawk and a frequent contributor to investigative journalist Jack Anderson’s syndicated “Washington Merry-Go-Round” column. The book introduces readers to Aubrey Warder, a middle-aged and longtime reporter for the Washington Eagle, whose stories about how prominent government officials “dipped in the till or otherwise screwed the country” had burned numerous high-level, “cozy sources” and made him no friends among his newspaper’s national staff. But the Eagle’s publisher was fine with a little “creative tension” in the newsroom; and Warder was awfully damn good at uncovering sleaze in D.C.’s legislative ranks, even if—at risk to his weak heart—he did sometimes employ sex to win the confidence of women with inside information about wrongdoings. “I don’t screw my way into many stories,” he tells a colleague, somewhat defensively, “I do my time in the files.”
The focus of Warder’s latest pursuit is the swaggering Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Republican Pommery Edwards of Kansas. Although deft in negotiating political standoffs and navigating safely through shifts of administration, Edwards is known (at least by the press, if not by the public) as “a corrupt lush, unable to function if some emergency summoned him after seven or eight.” Warder thinks voters should know about the Speaker’s weakness. Edwards’ wife, though, convinces him to back off that story—but only by feeding him a better one.
As Warder strikes up a more intimate relationship with Betty Page Edwards, he unearths still juicier scandals, one of which could earn him a Pulitzer Prize and cost U.S. President Harry Friedan his office. Getting to the bottom of that sizzler, though, will require that Warder gain access to confidential audio tapes, conceal himself—naked—in a closet while the president makes his own play for the Speaker’s spouse, and force Warder to rely on an editor he fears may have already lost trust in him.
Like Conflict of Interest, Warren Adler’s The Henderson Equation (1976) explores the corridors of power and the social circles of the nation’s capital. More importantly, it brims with the specialized mechanics of probing a front-page political scandal and putting out newspapers. But Adler, who’s better known as the author of that fiery divorce novel, War of the Roses (1981), delivers a yarn in which the broadsheet itself may lose by winning the answers it seeks.
Two years after blowing the lid off a story about White House corruption and cover-ups, and compelling the resignation of a reviled president, the Washington Chronicle is looking for something new to prop up its cachet. But the article waiting to roll through the typewriter of that daily’s cleverest young investigative reporter—the same newsie, Gunderstein, whose talents at inspiring confidence in his sources helped him topple the Oval Office’s recent occupant—offers considerably more risks than rewards.
It seems he’s come across credible allegations that Sen. Burton Henderson, the Democratic front-runner in the coming presidential election, was the “principal engineer of the assassination” of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, a killing supposedly green-lighted by President John F. Kennedy. The Chronicle’s ambitious publisher, Myra Pell, wants this investigation killed. She supports Henderson’s candidacy, and sees tremendous future benefits to her paper’s alliance with him. Does the story’s significance, though, demand defying Pell’s wishes? That’s the question facing the paper’s executive editor, Nick Gold, a guy who won’t go to print with an explosive story unless more than one source confirms its details, but who finds it hard to stomach the thought of the Chronicle concealing truths in the same way as some of the politicians occupying its beat.
Meanwhile, in his 1979 novel, False Front, Lawrence Meyer—another former Washington Post reporter who covered the Watergate mess—gives us Paul Silver, a not-quite-star reporter at a troubled afternoon paper, the Washington Herald. Silver sure could use a big story to boost his standing, and he thinks he may have found one, thanks to an anonymous tip about Carter Winston, an aristocratic and once-promising but now “overripe” U.S. senator, who’s allegedly selling information about a major missile guidance system to the Russians in order to offset his losses from bad investments. Hard as those claims are to believe, Silver chases after them, knowing that his personal Deep Throat might just have handed him a genuine bombshell. If he can prove the story’s veracity, and if the Herald is willing to publish what he finds, his professional future may be ensured.
But the suspicious death of a Pentagon liaison who’d been ferrying research materials to the Capitol, followed by Sen. Winston’s apparent suicide, cause Silver to wonder whether his grasp on the story he’s been working is as firm as he hoped. In fact, he starts to worry that he’s being used—by whom and why, though, he can’t yet fathom. In a tale that expands quickly to include blackmail and conflicts within D.C.’s intelligence community, Silver finds himself riven with self-doubt and targeted by people certain that he’s far more expendable than they are.
Meyer’s book is perhaps more consistently cynical than the first two discussed here, and his portrayal of the news business can be less romantic. “Some people find the atmosphere around the Herald stimulating, exciting and provocative,” he writes early on. “If that’s the way one would have described the mood of the Colosseum on days when the Romans threw Christians into the ring with lions, then I suppose it’s an accurate and apt description.”
But like authors Whitten and Adler, Meyer captures the post-Watergate Zeitgeist: Washington might have harbored its share of Mr. Smiths, yet its dominant and predatory breed was made up of Mr. Nixons—politicians and other strutting bureaucrats who needed to be watched closely by trusty minions of the press, and brought to justice when they got out of control.
Unfortunately, public opinion of journalists has suffered in the decades since, partly as a result of corporate media dominance and increases in the political partisanship of news coverage. So while there are still reporter protagonists in crime fiction (Brad Parks’ Carter Ross and Bruce DeSilva’s Liam Mulligan among them), they aren’t quite as convincing in the role of “giant killers” as they might’ve been 40 years ago.