Off The Record: The first reality TV 30 years ago, 'Watergate' captivated nation

August 11, 2003|HERB BROCK

Remember television's first real reality TV show?

It had drama. Remember when administration security official Alexander Butterfield revealed that many of President Nixon's Oval Office conversations had been taped? Au revoir, "Tricky."

It had comedy. Recall the country witticisms of North Carolina Sen. Sam Irvin? More one-liners than Henny Youngman, but in a drawl rather than a New York accent.

It had mystery. Will we ever know the identity of "Deep Throat"? Guess we have to wait till he or she dies.


It had violence. Remember the "Saturday Night Massacre" when Attorney General Elliott Richardson resigned and Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox was fired by Nixon when Cox declared the president had violated a ruling demanding he hand over the Oval Office tapes? It's not nice for the help to show up the boss.

It had heroes. Remember the politically courageous, dogged questioning of witnesses by Republican Sen. Howard Baker and the key testimony of White House Counsel John Dean when he revealed efforts by the White House to cover up its involvement in the break-in at the Watergate? Baker should've been president some day. Dean was known as much for his alluringly beautiful wife, Mo, who often showed up at the hearings, as he was for spilling the beans that led to his former boss's demise.

It had villains. Recall H.R. "Cold as Ice" Haldeman and John "Twisting in the Wind" Ehrlichman and, of course, Nixon himself? These second-rate human beings gave the White House the image of the Third Reich.

It had heroes and villains whose later lives kept them in the headlines, including burglar G. Gordon Liddy, who became a talk show host and author; White House aide Charles Colson, who became a born-again Christian, author and prison minister; GOP operative Jeb Magruder, who became a Presbyterian minister and pastored a Lexington church; and Republican Senate staff counsel Fred Thompson, who became a senator and an actor (interchangable roles).

It had a cast of other characters, judicial types like Sirica and Jowarski and journalistic types like Woodward and Bernstein, who became household names and could have starred in their own spin-offs.

It didn't have one thing that is part and parcel of today's so-called reality TV. It didn't have sex. The country would have to wait 25 years for that topic to cause a scandal in the White House. Besides, you remember that the ever-charming, engaging Nixon was the president.

Even without a Monica-esque element, it had enough material to provide monologue fodder for Johnny Carson and skit material for "Saturday Night Live" for years. In fact, on SNL, where "Babwa Wawa" often was a guest interviewer, it was called "Wawagate."

Thirty years ago this summer the televized coverage of Wawagate, that is Watergate, captivated the country. The Senate hearings and all the news reports of Watergate events - including Nixon's "I'm not a crook" speech and the time he angrily shoved his press secretary into the press room to continue lying on his behalf - kept many of us on the edge of our seats.

And those seats often were at our homes, bars and places other than work. Watergate was so riveting a lot of us couldn't wait till we got home in the evening to watch Uncle Walter's capsule accounts of the day's events. We had to see it unfold live.

This particular Watergate watcher was not surprised in the least that, as it turned out, Nixon was a crook, and I was happy to see him resign. But on the Republican side of my family, the scandal caused much consternation and even a rift among the GOP faithful.

On one side of the Republican divide was my mother. She was one of what now is a non-existent faction of the party - a moderate with some liberal tendencies. She was angry that Nixon had damaged the party and, worse, hurt the country, but she strongly believed it was best for both the GOP and U.S.A. for him to hit the road.

Mom was able to watch every bit of coverage onTV. She also lapped it up in the three daily newspapers she took. Every conversation I had with her began and ended with Watergate. Somewhere in the middle she'd squeeze in family gossip, like what her brother and sister thought about Watergate.

And her sister didn't think much of Watergate at all. That is to say, she was angered by the "inquisition" by the House and Senate and upset at the "media attacks." She was a proud, loyal and dedicated member of that 20 percent or so of the population who still backed Nixon even at the time he resigned.

My aunt was an intensely private person. Thus, it was evidence of just how strongly she felt about Nixon and "what the poor man had endured" that she went public with her loyalty on two occasions.

Central Kentucky News Articles