Revisiting the Watergate scandal with an ‘enormous number’ of new revelations

It will be 50 years this summer since Watergate, when five burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters and set off a series of investigations that led to the resignation of then-President Nixon. A new book looks at how the scandal we thought we knew was actually a series of events. Historian Garrett Graff, author of "Watergate: A New History," joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Few presidential scandals occupy a place in America's culture like Watergate.

    And, this summer, it will be 50 years since five burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters, setting off a series of investigations that ultimately led to the resignation of then-President Richard Nixon.

    But as historian and author Garrett Graff told me recently, the scandal we all thought we knew was actually a series of events. That's the focus of his latest book, "Watergate: A New History."

    Garrett Graff, welcome to the "NewsHour." Congratulations on the book.

    So, it has been 50 years. A lot of books have been written. Why did you think it's time for another one, and another one that's 800 pages' long almost?

    Garrett Graff, Author, "Watergate: A New History": Well, as much as Watergate has been sliced and diced over the years, it's actually been a quarter-century since anyone actually tried to lay out the full story start to finish, soup to nuts.

    And, during that time, of course, we have had an enormous number of new revelations that actually really dramatically change the arc of the story that we thought we knew.

    This is the first time anyone's tried to write a history of Watergate knowing the identity of Deep Throat, former FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt, outed as that famous source for Woodward and Bernstein.

    The Nixon tapes have come out. New FBI files have been declassified. We have learned all sorts of things about some of the associated scandals with Watergate itself. And what I found in researching this is that the Watergate story that we thought we knew isn't what actually happened.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And in connection with that, you write that it's more than one event. It's not just a burglary. It's a number of things. Of course, a lot of it had to do with the war in Vietnam.

    But you went on to say it was an entire mind-set, Watergate was. What did you mean by that?

  • Garrett Graff:

    Yes, the thing that we know sort of shorthand as Watergate, the moment when the five burglars are caught in the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate office complex in D.C. in June of 1972, really is just one tiny slice of the crime and criminality and abuses of power by the Nixon administration that unfolded over the course of his presidency across what end up being a dozen vaguely related scandals with some of the same players.

    And by the time that burglary gets to the impeachment process in the spring of 1974, Watergate morphs into this much bigger umbrella that encompasses all of these different scandals and all of these shadowy, weird, zany players.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I was struck by this descriptive line. You said: "It's the greatest story ever told about power in D.C., the need and the hunger for it, the drive to protect it, how it's challenged and how it flows, the best and really the worst of this capital city."

  • Garrett Graff:

    Yes, and that's part of what made me so fascinated with Watergate at this moment in our politics, because what you see is this moment in — from 1972 to 1974 where Washington works.

    And what is so fascinating about the power as it unfolds in this city back then is, you see all of the different institutions come together to force Nixon from office, to investigate him, to prosecute his team in a way that none of them could do on their own.

    And so it becomes this incredible story about the American system, about the checks and balances and how Article 1 of the Constitution, Article 2, Article 3 all interlock and play with things like the Justice Department and, of course, the reporters who covered that story to do something that no one of them could do on their own.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You also note how Watergate was the dividing line between old Washington and new Washington. Explain what you meant by that.

  • Garrett Graff:

    Watergate, in many ways, is the turning point, the central hinge of the 20th century in the U.S. government.

    You have this moment where you have this new generation of leaders ushered into Washington. This is a generation that reshapes the Capitol, reshapes Washington. And then many of the parts of the investigative press that we are now used to, the Washington press corps, you see first come to that investigative mind-set in the midst of Watergate.

    And then, of course, so much of the reforms, the protections around abuses of power, privacy, civil liberties in America grow up out of the worst of Watergate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How much new was there to find out?

  • Garrett Graff:

    Well, one of the great maxims that sort of our whole country, I feel like, has adopted after Watergate was this idea the cover-up is worse than the crime.

    And what we learn, actually with all of the accumulated knowledge of the last 50 years, is that that's actually probably not true with Watergate, with the Nixon years, that, actually, in many ways, the crimes were terrible. There were many more of them than we knew at the time. There were reasons to believe that Nixon even walked right up to the line of outright treason in trying to encourage the collapse of the Paris peace talks that would end the Vietnam War to keep the Vietnam War going for his own political benefit in the fall of 1968, as he was running for president.

    Many of these details have only come out in the last couple of years.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You mentioned the criminality of Richard Nixon.

    I was struck, because I have seen you say that, after all this time you spent studying Nixon, that you were taken by the similarities and the contrasts with former President Trump.

  • Garrett Graff:


    As we reckon with the abuses of the Nixon years, the scandals of the Trump administration, and, of course, the two impeachments that Donald Trump went through as president and just after his presidency, and, in many ways, the things that worked in 1972, 1973, 1974 didn't work during the Trump years.

    And it's worth, I think, thinking about why that happened. And there's a lot that we can learn about how Washington doesn't work today by going back and looking at the Nixon years.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it is quite an undertaking, quite a book, "Watergate: A New History," on the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in.

    Garrett Graff, thank you very much.

  • Garrett Graff:

    Judy, it's always a pleasure to talk to you.

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