This week marks the 40th anniversary of Watergate. In this piece by Ron Rosenbaum, originally published a decade after the scandal broke, he reflects on the hold that the mysteries of Watergate still had on the players involved.
“I AM AWARE,” H. R. Haldeman writes, “that I there is a cult of people in this country who collect every scrap of information about Watergate because of its many fascinating mysteries.” He's more than aware: his memoir. The Ends of Power, is a seething nest of almost every conceivable scrap of Watergate conspiracy theory developed to date. The Democratic Trap Theory, the CIA Trap Theory, the Blackmail Demand Theory: you name it, H. R. Bob buys it. Indeed, the former chief of staff is nothing if not a buff himself, and he spices his book with tantalizing buff-to-buff hints for further investigation of the “fascinating mysteries.” “I'll only pause to bring out one more fact about the $350,000,” he teases, “this one for the Watergate buffs....”
Although such recognition is welcome, the tone of the reference is regrettably uncharitable. By calling serious students of Watergate a “cult” of “buffs,” he is, of course, lumping us with the much-abused “assassination buffs” and the aura of bad taste and futility that is associated with their efforts.
But there is a difference between these two domains of buffdom. Perhaps because—as Nixon partisans like to remind us—“nobody drowned at Watergate,” the conjectures and conspiracy theories that have sprung up in its wake lack the taint of ghoulishness that has continued to plague grassy knoll theories, the most recent excrescence of which (David Lifton's Best Evidence) insists on conjuring up a gruesome postmortem surgical alteration of the fatal wounds to fit a favored bullet trajectory theory. Although certain Watergate theorists venture equally far into fantasy (I have in my Watergate collection a curious vanity press volume called The journal of Judith Beck Stein, written by a former patient in the Chesnut Lodge sanitarium, which seems to allege that the entire Watergate conspiracy and cover-up was engineered to cheat her out of a legacy and silence her exposure of the banking system), the eyes of Watergate buffs tend to twinkle rather than stare. Ours is a civilized passion.