The Three Most Hilarious Things About Watergate, According to David Mandel, the Man Behind ‘White House Plumbers’
“A third-rate burglary attempt.”
That’s what Ron Zeigler, President Richard Nixon’s press secretary, first called the Watergate break-in during an official press conference. While he was obviously attempting to downplay the seriousness of the crime, it was also an entirely apt description. It took four tries for the Cuban burglars hired by the Republican “Committee to Reelect the President” to burglarize the DNC headquarters at the Watergate Hotel, and when they were caught, one of them had a check in his pocket from Howard Hunt — among the Watergate “masterminds” — to the Lakewood Country Club for $6.36. The man had forgotten to mail the check before the break-in.
And that’s just the tip of the Watergate stupidity iceberg, the subject of the new HBO miniseries White House Plumbers, a comedy/drama from Seinfeld and Veep writer/producer David Mandel. Given all the unintentional hilarity, it’s hard to pick just three of the most egregious — and tragically hilarious — comedy of errors surrounding Watergate, but Mandel gave it his best shot below.
It Took Four Tries to Break into the Watergate Hotel
The big one, and we talk about it at the beginning of the show, was that there were four attempts to break in. The first was when they booked a banquet hall in the Watergate Hotel and planned to sneak up to the DNC headquarters upstairs afterward. The men split up into two teams. Howard Hunt (Woody Harrelson in the show) and Villo are going to stay in the banquet room and go up the stairs and break into the DNC, while G. Gordon Liddy (Justin Theroux) and the rest go to the (Democratic candidate George) McGovern headquarters.
Both teams get screwed up. At McGovern headquarters, the “inside guy” freaks out and runs off, and Liddy never gets inside. And at the Watergate Hotel, the security guard tells Hunt and Villo to get out of the banquet room because the banquet was supposed to be over, so they hide in a closet and get locked in the banquet room and never break in anywhere.
Attempt number two, they get upstairs, but Villo, the locksmith, can’t get the lock open. He’s got the wrong lock pick.
Three, they get in, they plant the bugs, but the main bug on (DNC Chairman Larry) O’Brien’s phone line doesn’t work, and neither does the one in the smoke detector. The only working bug was on a secretary’s line, but they only heard her yap about her new hairstyle. Maybe we wouldn’t even know this had happened if those other bugs had worked.
But the bugs didn’t work, so they had to go in a fourth time. There was such desperation to succeed — to please Nixon — that they got sloppy and arrested. Hunt and Liddy weren’t there, but Hunt was immediately connected to it because one of the guys had had some of Hunt’s mail on him, which is absurd. If I wrote a movie and I said that the police were going to find out who one of the guys in charge was because one of the burglars got caught with an envelope they forgot to mail before the break-in, they would tell me, “You’ve got to take that out. You’ve got to find a better way for the police to figure it out. That seems stupid.”
Another funny thing about all these attempts is that, from reading various interviews with some of the Cubans, what technically is an attempt means different things to different guys. Some guys don’t count the first one because they never got out of the banquet room. That really makes me laugh — the nomenclature of what is and isn’t an attempt.
G. Gordon Liddy Was a Very Strange Dude
Liddy was one of the guys put in charge of this operation, but it was clear he was put in charge of some critical work without really being vetted. Liddy was a guy who admired Adolf Hitler. He admired Hitler’s strength and used Hitler to overcome certain fears in his life. Now, he would say, “I know that the Nazis were not good, but…” But you still kind of go, “Okay, but it’s still Hitler.”
Strangely, there were a number of things about him that were very admirable and even refreshing. He and his wife were together until the day she died — they had a very loving, tight-knit family. Also, he never broke. He stuck to his word and his code. These are things we normally put in the category of “honorable,” but it’s in this crazy guy who ate a rat to overcome his fear of rats.
It Was All Entirely Unnecessary
The entire thing was pointless. When the Pentagon Papers (detailing operations in Vietnam) were leaked in 1971, Nixon took his lumps, but other presidents were put on the mat far more than Nixon was at that point. But Nixon’s anger toward (leaker Daniel) Ellsberg caused him to launch this entire thing, which eventually led to Watergate.
Nixon was popular, too. He went on to win 49 states. We even have Hunt’s wife say in White House Plumbers, “Why are you doing this? What’s the point? Nixon just signed a giant treaty with Russia. He just came back from China.” Nixon was winning. It all spoke to Nixon’s weird feelings of inferiority, as well as the dedication of the “true believers” — like Hunt and Liddy — that none of them could leave well enough alone. Had Nixon not done any of it, Nixon would have served his second term happily, Carter never wins and Reagan wins in 1976. It’s a completely different “What if?” scenario.
Most of all, though, what’s so funny is that we’re talking about a plan to break into the Democratic National Committee; we’re talking about the subversion of democracy. If they were trying to steal a recipe, I don’t care. If it was an art heist, whatever. But this was happening while they were trying to bug the DNC, and that’s sort of cosmically funny. I love the fact that I’m laughing at something that’s so horrible. Because, to me, that’s what Watergate is — a very funny tragedy.