Watergate, 20 years later 'Third-rate burglary' remains riveting drama


The script for tonight's CBS special, "Watergate: The Secret Story" (at 9 o'clock, WBAL-Channel 11), divides the segments into "Act I," "Act II," and so on. And why not? The story of a "third-rate burglary" that toppled a president remains great theater 20 years later.

Indeed, the chronological presentation by Mike Wallace gnaws away at some of the remaining mysteries about the June 17, 1972, break-in at the Democrat National Headquarters in the Watergate apartment complex. The burglars were nabbed in the act, and eventually traced back to the committee to re-elect President Richard M. Nixon. A White House cover-up, eventually brought out in captivating live, televised impeachment hearings in the U.S. Senate, led Mr. Nixon on Aug. 9, 1974, to become the only president to resign from office.

"A story of power and corruption in this country -- the power of a president to break the law and the power of the people and the press to do something about it" is how Mr. Wallace introduces the drama, addressing himself especially to "those of you who know nothing about Watergate."

Why did the burglary occur in the first place? In part, the show reveals the burglars arrested in the act were actually making a second break-in, to check why a phone tap planted earlier was not working.

And Mr. Wallace suggests an anti-Vietnam War protest at President Nixon's 1968 inauguration planted seeds of rage that led to a level of White House paranoia and "dirty tricks" that many of the principals still seem barely able to believe.

"The Watergate break-in really came from a series of meetings, believe it or not, and it's hard to believe even now, in the attorney general's office -- John Mitchell, chief law enforcement officer of the land," asserts reporter Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, for example.

Viewers should know "Watergate: The Secret Story" is actually a CBS News/Post-Newsweek co-production, so the Post's dogged role in reporting the Watergate scandal provides a consistent thread to the tale.

Mr. Woodward and partner Carl Bernstein make frequent comment, as do former Post Executive Editor Benjamin Bradlee and publisher Katherine Graham. The staid Ms. Graham, in fact, utters a quote from the late former attorney general, Mr. Mitchell, in which he suggested a certain part of her anatomy "is going to get caught in a wringer" if the newspaper ran a certain story.

Nobody, however, reveals the identity of the so-called "Deep Throat," a well-placed administration source seemingly key to Mr. Woodward and Mr. Bernstein's investigations. Both reporters insist their source was a single person, a man who is still alive but wishes to remain secret. Upon his death, or the deaths of the reporters, says Mr. Bernstein, the man's identity will be revealed.

During the show, however, Mr. Wallace takes an educated guess at the most likely identity. Is he close? Viewers will have to wait and see, for the advance tape and script omitted this portion of the show.

The speculation about "Deep Throat," in fact, commands too much attention tonight. Far more interesting from a journalistic point of view is what former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite has to say about top management of his own network.

"I went through life saying this [TV news] is the purest form of journalism. . . . I had to back off of that when I learned the truth about the Watergate episode," he says.

What truth? As related in the preview tape of tonight's broadcast by Mr. Cronkite, current CBS anchor Dan Rather and Watergate/White House figure Charles Colson, CBS chief William Paley conversed several times with Mr. Colson and subsequently brought pressure to bear on network news director Dick Salant to downplay Watergate stories.

Why should we care today about the intricate details of a 20-year-old scandal? Tonight's special follows the theatrical metaphor by offering a denouement of speculations on the lessons of Watergate from a variety of figures.

Not surprisingly, not everybody agrees. But Samuel Dash, the lawyer for the Senate who argued the case against Mr. Nixon, offers the most colorful assessment: "It's like cleaning the kitchen of roaches. You know, you can spray once and they'll be done for a while, but the damn roaches come back again, similar to the corrupt politicians. You've got to keep spraying."

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