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A conversation with Dick Cavett about Watergate and Richard Nixon

When PBS airs Dick Cavett’s Watergate Friday night at 9 p.m. Eastern, it will be 40 years to the date and time that President Richard Nixon appeared on national television to announce his resignation, to take effect the next day, August 9, 1974.

Dick Cavett
Daphne Productions

The hour-long program excerpts interviews with key Watergate figures on his ABC-TV show The Dick Cavett Show from 1972 to 1974, when no one outside the nightly network news devoted more airtime to the Watergate scandal than Cavett. Also featured are interviews with other Watergaters on Cavett shows from the late ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s.

Dick Cavett’s Watergate begins with the arrest of five men for breaking and entering into the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., on June 17, 1972. Cavett then recalls how he first heard about the break-in and became "a Watergate junkie," as well as the first mention of the scandal on his show--two days after the burglary--when his guest was Senator Edward Kennedy.

The program features new interviews with Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who partnered in breaking the Watergate story at the Washington Post; former White House Counsel John Dean, who became a key witness for the Watergate prosecutors and received a reduced prison sentence; and Watergate historian Timothy Naftali. Among those whose interviews come from the original Cavett shows are President Gerald Ford, author Gore Vidal, Senate Watergate Committee members Sam Ervin, Howard Baker, Daniel Inouye, Herman Talmadge, and Lowell Weicker, and Watergate conspirators John Ehrlichman (Nixon’s counsel and Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs), G. Gordon Liddy and Jeb Magruder.

Cavett actually did a show from the Senate Watergate Committee hearing room, bits of which are shown on Watergate. Also heard are tapes of Nixon discussing with his chief of staff H.R. Haldeman their “war” against Cavett and asking if he’s Jewish and “Is there any way we can screw him?”

“The White House burglars were called ‘plumbers’ because their job was to plug leaks and information,” Cavett jokes in a vintage tape of The Dick Cavett Show played at the start of Dick Cavett’s Watergate. “How did they go about plugging leaks? They opened a Watergate. Think about that and try to find some humor in it.”

At the end of the program, he concludes: “People have asked, ‘Are you proud of your role?’ I set out to do an entertaining talk show when I went into television, never dreaming I’d get up to my neck in a national scandal and would influence people’s lives and careers and fates and prison terms and books they wrote and things written against and for them, and when it was over I kind of shook myself and said, ‘I’m glad that’s over.’”

Forty years later, Cavett’s trademark dry and droll humor and wit are still intact, as evidenced in this interview from yesterday:

Even if you lived through Watergate, and all the head-spinning daily revelations and developments almost from the date of the break-in to Nixon’s resignation, the show really brings back how gripping that time was.

I was so so sorry when it was over, because I had nothing to do anymore! It’s best described in the show by Gore Vidal: “I wake up and I’m trembling and shaking until I get my Watergate fix.” It was the best soap opera that’s ever been done.

As it shows, you were maybe the first besides the Washington Post’s Woodward and Bernstein to focus on it.

One thing I want to say right now is, I was not [legendary anonymous informer, much later revealed to be FBI associate director Mark Felt] Deep Throat!

But what prompted you to get involved?

I don’t know! I never said, “Let’s drop everything and say, ‘Let’s do Watergate,’” which is the impression you might get from watching the show. I’m actually stunned myself by how much more we could have done with all the stuff we had! I forgot we had so much, but it wasn’t every show--although at that time, if Tony Randall or Tony Bennett came on, Watergate came up one way or another.

What was it like doing the show from the Senate Watergate Committee hearing room?

There was controversy when we did that show. They felt, “What’s a cheap vaudevillian doing in an important, sacred place like this?” I remember the first time I was there I sat behind [author and political activist] Mary McCarthy-- and had a fun lunch with her—and there they were, all my heroes of the day! I noticed one of them whispering something to another, and passing it on--“There’s Cavett down there!” And I went into the back room--wearing just a work shirt and pants--and they were all in the room, and you’ll never guess the first line: “How do you manage to keep so slim?” This from my heroes!”

Compare that with what Nixon said about you!

Yeah, it’s better than some of Nixon’s questions about me: “Is he a Jew?” I never need refreshment during the day. I just go to YouTube and look at him say, “Cavett. What can we do to screw him?”

It must have been a far cry from your original vision of the Cavett Show.

I thought at the time, “How did I get into this?” I set out to do an amusing talk show like my Nebraska friend Johnny Carson, and then this whole thing fell into my lap—much like the presidency later fell into the lap of Gerald Ford! It’s beyond fiction.

It’s just amazing that you were on to Watergate from the beginning.

Full disclosure, I can’t take credit for the incredible, wonderful coincidence that Ted Kennedy was already booked on the show and appeared two days after the break-in, so I was able to talk about it with him. Watching him now, I see that slightly sly look on his face when I ask, “Do you think [disgraced Nixon Attorney General and then head of his re-election campaign] John Mitchell knew about this?”

Did you have any opposition from the network?

If I did, it was kept from me, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised. I had a producer then who liked to keep bad news from me, which in retrospect was a good idea. I remember Brando was booked and forgot he was on the show, and had to be awakened that night, but they got him there—and he mentioned Watergate.

You must talk about Sam Ervin!

What a guy! A great, wonderful character out of a nice piece of fiction, almost a stock character of a country lawyer who turns out to be smarter than everybody. He presented himself as a down-home guy who wasn’t sophisticated, but he was. He graduated from Harvard Law School.

Did you have any other favorites among the Watergate personnel you interviewed?

Howard Baker. I’m sorry he didn’t live to see this [the ranking minority member of the Senate Watergate Committee, Baker died in June]. I don’t know who’s still alive.

G. Gordon Liddy, John Dean, Fred Thompson—then the committee’s minority counsel.

It seems like a different Fred Thompson than the guy who’s now doing those mortgage lender commercials.

Any of the players that you particularly didn’t like?

[Disgraced Nixon Attorney General] Richard Kleindienst, which is fairly obvious. While doing the interview he clumsily pretended to be cordial to me. Then during a commercial break we were sitting there and the audience was there and the band was playing and I leaned over to him and said that I’d seen a reviewer saying in effect what a s**t Nixon is, and Kleindienst said, ‘Well, f**k him!’ so loud that 90-year-old ladies in the audience heard him! He’d obviously gotten his vocabulary from his boss—who had an unbelievably foul mouth, which in my mind tied up with his obsession with masculinity: He was always talking about “real men.”

What was it like hearing him talk about you?

Not only am I on the tapes you hear in the show, but there are 30 others I haven’t heard yet! On one he asks if I’m a Jew—and he asks to have about 25 of my shows to take home. It’s nice to know I had one fan out there! He was always saying, “Can’t we get our ideas [presented] on the Cavett show?”—as if he were a fan of the show! Maybe Pat [Nixon, his wife] loved me. I really liked her. My heart went out to her.

You actually met Nixon once.

I wrote about it in an opinion piece for The New York Times [in 2007], “Hey, Listen! This One’ll Kill Ya!” It was about meeting Nixon by sheer accident in an outdoor restaurant years after his “abdication.” He was with his daughter Julie. One of the worst things the bastard did was let her go all around the country and even abroad defending him, denying that he did things he knew full well he did.

Incredibly, you interviewed John Ehrlichman.

Looking at it now, he seems uncomfortable. He had a little trouble being cordial with me, but he seemed human in a way. I’m almost kind of embarrassed for him. Overall I come away from it with what a close shave Nixon had, in that as somebody says somewhere in there, if he just had had the wit to say early on, “I did a bad thing, I’m ashamed about it and I’m asking for forgiveness and from this point on nothing like that will ever happen again.” But he had to go with his “I’m not a quitter,” and the country came very close to utter calamity. Like Bernstein says, from the first day [after his landslide re-election], instead of a celebration, it was, “Here we go. Let’s get this guy!” It’s too bad, because he was so damn smart.

Such a paradox of a person.

A friend of mine at Time Magazine said that when he was a lawyer, his presentations were dazzling--beautifully ordered and well presented. Such an intelligence, but to be tainted with paranoia and willing to commit a crime is not what you want in a president. As Gore said, he was the most honest president we ever had, that he always told the truth--except that the truth was always the exact opposite of what he said.

What was it like to hear that he wanted to “screw” you?

It was a strange setting: I’d just got off a plane in L.A. and a limo came to take me to some awards thing, and a man out of a spy novel sat behind me and flipped open a laptop and played me the tape and I was knocked out. Have you ever had the most powerful man in the world say he was going to screw you? And then his lickspittle [disgraced Nixon White House Chief of Staff] H.R. Haldeman saying, “We’re doing everything we can.”

What about now, when every day we hear another Republican speak of impeaching Obama?

These are largely people who think the earth is 6,000 years old and that there’s no climate change. Back then, "impeachment" was such a dramatic word. You never heard it in real life.

You had some of the most important people of the generation as guests on your show. Where does Watergate rank?

When I look at the guest list I’m stunned by who I had on. Watergate is right up there at the top. I just hope that young people who have no idea what Watergate means watch the show.

It’s hard to imagine.

I’ve had to endure two things in the last month—people who don’t know who the Marx Brothers are or Johnny Carson. How do they know anything about Watergate?

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