Watergate 45 Years Later: A Burglary That Led to Nixon’s Resignation & an Oscar-Winning Film

All the President's Men
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

June 17 marks the 45th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, a seemingly low-profile incident that quickly ballooned into an international incident and exposed a huge web of deceit. Among the many results was the eventual resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.

Five men were arrested while breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex in 1972. The Carl Bernstein-Bob Woodward book, “All the President’s Men,” came out only two years later, and in 1976, Warner Bros. released the acclaimed film from director Alan Pakula, writer William Goldman, and starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.

Redford was a driving force behind the film, which is remarkable for the speed of its completion. Most ripped-from-the-headlines projects end up as quickie TV movies, or else they languish in studio development for years.

The Watergate events electrified the world and people became addicted to the TV coverage, so the high-profile WB movie came amid mixed expectations. Were audiences still riveted by the topic, or would they be OD’d by the time of its 1976 release?

On July 3, 1975, Variety reported on a media event held at the Warner Bros. studio to publicize the film while it was in production. One of the biggest selling points was the meticulous reproduction of the Washington Post newsroom, under production designer George Jenkins and set decorator George Gaines. The Post was re-created on Stages 11 and 4. Among the realistic touches: Producer Walter Coblenz had several tons of Washington Post trash carted across the country in the name of authenticity.

The Variety story began, “The $450,000 exact duplication of the cavernous Washington Post newsroom at the Burbank Studios barely survived an invasion yesterday — by the working Hollywood press.” Invited were 100 journalists, “mainly shutterbugs,” who arrived for a session with Redford, Hoffman, Jason Robards, and Martin Balsam.

“First to appear, Redford created bedlam as the mob swarmed around him, climbing on desks, knocking over chairs as he tried to lead the pack on tour of Post’s city room.” When he tried to explain the contribution of newsmen, “Redford was largely drowned out by people screaming and yelling at each other to get out of the way. Pencil pushers shoved still photogs, who in turn knocked over TV crews.”

Hoffman then sat at a desk, but “he made the mistake of trying to answer one reporter’s question while those behind him just screamed for his attention.”

The filmmakers made a then-daring choice of not having actors portray the leading D.C. figures. Nixon, Spiro Agnew, and others appeared in the film, but only in newsreel footage, usually shown on TV monitors.

Aside from Nixon’s resignation, 69 government officials were charged and 48 were found guilty. Among the latter group were White House staffers H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman; legal counsel John Dean; and former Attorney General John Mitchell.

Nixon was not jailed because Gerald Ford pardoned him. Ford had served eight months as vice president, appointed after VP Agnew resigned. Ford served eight months in that role before Nixon’s Aug. 8, 1974, resignation.

“All the President’s Men” was a huge hit, earning $70 million, and keeping audiences on the edge of their seat, even though they knew the outcome. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning four — for writing, sound, art direction, and supporting actor Robards.

With no disrespect to “Spotlight,” “All the President’s Men” remains the best depiction of scrupulous newspaper journalism. But it’s a generally sympathetic depiction, and there’s no acknowledgment of journalists knocking each other over, as they did on that 1975 press day on the WB lot.