President Donald Trump’s admission on Friday that he is under investigation only underscores what’s ahead in Washington: Weeks, months, or maybe even years of questions of secret tape recordings, the legal standard for obstruction of justice, and the rationale for invoking executive privilege.
With those unfolding storylines, it’s been almost impossible for journalists, commentators, and columnists not to compare the current atmosphere to Watergate, and this weekend will be no exception. Saturday marks the 45th anniversary of the break in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, when a group of “third-rate” burglars were caught with the intention of bugging the place.
Among the specials marking the Watergate anniversary is ABC’s “Truth and Lies: Watergate,” which actually was put into production well before the Trump investigations. Richard Nixon’s downfall is still the political scandal by which all others are measured. It hangs over Washington not just for the memory of the crime and the cover up, but for the cultural moment.
“One of the dangers of doing a deep dive in Watergate, and also covering this Trump business of Comey, all of the themes that are happening in Washington, is that it becomes sort of a bloodless procedural,” David Sloan, senior executive producer of the special, tells Variety‘s “PopPolitics” on SiriusXM. “And what we have been careful to do … is to create the atmospherics, to create a time machine, to transport you back to 1972 and provide the emotional context.”
He points to what was going on in the West Wing at the time, something that they have pieced together from past interviews that Barbara Walters did with Nixon as well as his daughter, Julie Nixon Eisenhower.
“Pat Nixon could barely leave the residence. He was drinking more,” Sloan says. “He would at dinner time come back to the residence, have dinner with the family, and just eat and leave and go back to the Oval. He was just keeping them at arm’s length. And Barbara’s interview with Julie Eisenhower, she gives us all of that color. All of the human side, and no one has this, except ABC News, and Barbara was uniquely qualified to get it. It is pretty rich in that way.”
Sloan said that even though “we are seeing some of the same themes in headlines today” as there were back then, it was not their intent to inspire comparisons of then to now. Historians caution against getting too carried away in invoking Watergate to what is now unfolding.
“The audience can draw its own conclusions, but when you look at themes like executive privilege and obstruction of justice, it’s all there,” he says.
Sloan also said that the special, which airs on Friday at 9 p.m. ET, will capture the “pop culture of the era, and how late-night comedians would increase his paranoia.” That, too, is a parallel to today, as entertainment still “turns up the heat and makes the debate more vituperative.”