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Dick Cavett’s Surprising Influence on Watergate

A PBS documentary shows how the talk show host cut through the fog


In June of 1972, news broke that burglars were caught at the Democratic National Headquarters in Washington, D.C.’s Watergate Hotel. It was impossible to know then how important the incident was or how it would eventually engulf and destroy Richard Nixon’s presidency.
 
For late-night talk-show host Dick Cavett, the big question at the time wasn’t what the president knew or when he knew it. The question on his mind was: “How can the Democrats afford the Watergate Hotel,” one of the most expensive in town?
 
In the early 1970s, Cavett was the thinking-man’s alternative to Johnny Carson and his The Dick Cavett Show aired at the same time as Carson’s The Tonight Show. Carson tended to be unfailingly cordial to his guests; Cavett had a sharper wit and pricklier sensibility.

Dick Cavett's Watergate

He did not suffer fools gladly, but was happy to have fools on his show and give them the opportunity to reveal themselves. Politicians were among his favorite guests.

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In a fascinating PBS documentary, Dick Cavett’s Watergate, the tale of the only government scandal ever to take down a sitting president is told through clips from Cavett’s show, historical footage and photographs and interviews with Henry Kissinger, author Gore Vidal, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and Cavett himself.
 
Though Cavett was a self-proclaimed “entertainer,” serious subjects did not faze him. From 1972 to 1974, Cavett interviewed major players in the unfolding Watergate scandal, including G. Gordon Liddy, the “mastermind” of the burglary who proudly (and amazingly) told Cavett on live television what “the plan” for the break-in was and why it was necessary.

Cavett’s uncanny ability to get important people to confide in him on camera so vexed Nixon that the president once famously asked in the Oval Office: “Is there any way we can screw him?” (According to Cavett, Nixon tried by having most of his TV-show staff audited by the IRS.)
 
How Watergate Changed A Nation
 
For the generation of Americans who grew up seeing Cavett on TV, Dick Cavett’s Watergate offers more than a nostalgic historical flashback. It also serves as a reminder that 1974 may have been the last year that the majority of Americans had faith in their government and its institutions.

Coming as it did on the heels of the Vietnam War, Watergate provided more evidence that Washington’s political class was essentially corrupt and untrustworthy — a sentiment that seems universal nowadays.

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For those who didn’t live through Watergate, it may be difficult to appreciate how much media attention, particularly on television, the scandal received.

The trial of O.J. Simpson may be the closest parallel, except that Watergate played out over the course of two years, involved the most powerful people in the country and eventually toppled the most powerful of them all: Richard M. Nixon. 
 
Woodward and Bernstein, who gained fame for linking Watergate to Nixon, were frequent guests on Cavett’s show. In the documentary, they appear as their younger selves on Cavett and today as grizzled veterans narrating the unfolding scandal they helped uncover. They don’t pull any punches.

In explaining the mindset of G. Gordon Liddy, if not the entire Nixon administration, Bernstein says his thinking was, “To hell with the law, to hell with decency, to hell with the real political process and to hell with the Constitution of the United States.” Nixon’s was a “criminal presidency,” he adds — end of story.
 
Why Cavett Got The Story
 
Cavett was not the first person you would have thought would provide ongoing news about Watergate. And it wouldn’t have happened, says Cavett, except that Watergate “had the feel of a John Le Carré novel, so it appealed to me.”
 
Cavett’s interviewing style is to approach subjects with moral seriousness, but not be above cracking jokes or lightening the mood with silly asides. In one famous segment, aired during the Watergate Senate hearings, Cavett broadcast his show from the Senate chambers. In so doing, he acted as the eyes and ears of his audience, noting for example that the chamber was smaller than one would expect, and at the end of the day, quite a bit of trash got thrown on the floor — a perfect metaphor for the hearings themselves.
 
While interviewing Republican Senator Howard Baker, Cavett remarked that when he was sitting in the Senate “hot seat” moments before, “I felt guilty. It was a strange feeling.” To which Baker replied, “You may be the first one.”
 
Through such unscripted moments of sly candor, Cavett was somehow able to capture the curious mix of entertainment and dismay with which people absorbed the ever-more-sordid details of Watergate. He and Gore Vidal discuss their mutual addiction to Watergate coverage and are both obviously delighted that America’s politicians are fulfilling their maximum entertainment potential. The gravity of the situation is never dismissed, but Cavett the entertainer had an unerring sense for when the discussion was getting too serious to actually be taken seriously.
 
Some of the documentary’s best moments are viewed through hindsight, because we now know that the people involved were lying through their teeth.

In one segment, the then Vice President Gerald Ford gives an unequivocal, full-throated endorsement of Nixon, saying, “I have no doubt whatsoever that the president is not guilty. I am absolutely certain of that.” To Ford’s credit, he returned to Cavett’s show as President to explain why he pardoned Nixon. “I was trying to heal the country, not tear it apart,” Ford says — by avoiding a protracted trial that could have taken years to worm its way through the courts.
 
As for Cavett’s role in all of this, he admits that it was quite accidental and entirely unplanned. “I set out to do an entertaining talk show,” Cavett recalls. “I never dreamed I would get up to my neck in a national scandal.”
 
And yet, by wielding a tongue sharpened by skepticism and polished with levity, Cavett was able to cut through the fog and nonsense of Watergate in a way that other observers couldn’t. By making light of Watergate and its cast of unsavory characters, he exposed the irony and hypocrisy of America’s ruling class, but he did it in an uncommonly gentle and compassionate way.
 
In Dick Cavett’s Watergate, Cavett reminds us what a class act he was — and why, strangely, serious news filtered through the mind of a comedian is often preferable to the real thing.

Tad Simons is an award-winning journalist whose writing has appeared in Variety, The Washington Post and Mpls.St.Paul Magazine.

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