“I’ve never escaped Watergate,” says John Dean, as once again he allows the years to melt away, the old faces to crowd in and the secret tapes to whirr in his mind. “There’s just no choice. I’m living in the bubble. It’s become a fact of life.”
America has never escaped Watergate either. The biggest political scandal of the 20th century, and the only one to cause a presidential resignation, has become a byword for lost innocence and lost faith in institutions. Along with the Vietnam war, it marked the end of an era in which a president’s words were met with automatic trust rather than default scepticism.
Such is the notoriety that the “-gate” suffix has been applied to dozens of controversies, from Sharpiegate (Donald Trump showing a map altered using a black marker pen) to Deflategate (allegations that Tom Brady’s New England Patriots used deflated footballs) to Partygate (British prime minister Boris Johnson’s social gatherings that flouted Covid-19 restrictions).
Today the luxury Watergate hotel’s phone number ends in 1972 – the year of the burglary – and callers are greeted by a message that begins: “There’s no need to break in,” as well as recordings of President Richard Nixon. This month’s 50th anniversary of the break-in is being marked by books, exhibitions, TV dramas and a four-part CNN documentary series, Watergate: Blueprint for a Scandal, narrated by Dean himself.