America noir: The biggest ‘gate’ of all

By Neal Gabler
June 6, 2013

ILLUSTRATION: Matt Mahurin

It is scandal time again in Washington, with a triple-header to boot – Benghazi-gate, IRS-gate and AP-gate. The “gate” being the obligatory suffix ever since the biggest “gate” of them all: Watergate. How do they rate? Well, Carl Bernstein, the reporter who helped break the Watergate story, has gone so far as to compare AP-gate to the transgressions of President Richard M. Nixon.

But no matter how much the media may froth over them, none of these scandals has the heft, the cultural, political and social weight of Watergate. These are all skirmishes in an age of “gotcha” polarization. Watergate was no skirmish, even if some Republicans at the time and even today characterize it as such. It was a vast, complex metaphor for a country in extremis – which is why it still dwarfs every other aspiring “gate.”

Metaphors function much like art, and you might consider Watergate not as a scandal but as a gigantic movie. Not just any movie blockbuster, either, but as America’s epic noir. Film noir was a genre that began in the late 1940s, when America was forced to confront the darkness within itself after World War II. “Film noir” translates into  “black film, and the noir movies of the time were literally and figuratively dark. They involved corruption, deceit, amorality and the potential rot of the American soul – capturing the anxiety of the Cold War era.

Similarly, even before the Watergate scandal led to Nixon’s resignation, there was a cluster of films that, like those earlier noir movies, tapped into the national bloodstream and addressed a larger sense of American corruption. Call them neo-noir. Chief among these was Chinatown, which vividly demonstrated the feeling of national imbalance and unease that preceded Watergate.

But however great Chinatown is, the most powerful metaphors are those revealed not on film but in life. That is what Watergate was – our quintessential noir. It was the fulfillment of the long-brewing suspicion that something essential in America had gone wrong – our institutions had failed, our leaders were deceptive and self-serving, and, perhaps, above all, our idealism had curdled.

Just as the original noirs erupted from postwar malaise, Watergate was situated at the junction of a host of unsettling forces that it drew upon and reflected, particularly the Vietnam War, which continued to simmer despite Nixon’s election campaign promise to end it.

The war served as the entr’acte for Watergate. It was itself a giant metaphor for doubts about American power and morality, as well as a continuing illustration of “credibility gaps” in government information. The cynicism it engendered may have been instrumental in lighting the pyre that became Watergate.

In addition to the fight over Vietnam, and also fueled by it, there was a domestic war between generations – between Nixon’s “silent majority” of middle Americans and their teenage children. This battle was over the nation’s misbegotten values, which Vietnam generally and Nixon specifically seemed to embody: values that privileged might and materialism.

Both the war and the cultural divide contributed to doubts about U.S. institutions, especially government, that went a long way toward inflating Watergate, the drama in which these doubts ripened. It was as if, long before the Watergate break-in, the country was seized by an inchoate uncertainty about itself and its direction.

If Watergate had the grandest of backdrops, it also had the greatest of dramatis personae – personae right out of noir. Nixon was Shakespearean in his dimensions – a veritable American Richard III. He was the president of umbrage, personifying middle America’s populist resentment against the elite Eastern establishment. That meant that Watergate was hatched not, as most garden-variety scandals are, by greed or lust for power or stupidity – to wit, IRS-gate. Watergate, like noir, was hatched from the deepest wellsprings of paranoia – namely, Nixon’s paranoia that his social betters were out to get him, to deny him the honor due – and he had to get them first.

Watergate was the scandal of revenge.

It helped Nixon’s own dramatic narrative that he was hounded by the “liberal” media and various liberal antagonists in Congress. It also helped the Watergate “movie,” then unfolding on television and in newspapers, that the weasely and furtive Nixon was being investigated by the foxy and folksy Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina, who headed the Senate Watergate committee.

The contrast could not have been starker. Nixon was dark and hooded, uncomfortable in his skin – an ideal noir villain. Ervin was the proverbial country lawyer, his eyebrows dancing as he asked questions, his syntax seeming to dither while he slowly and stealthily encircled his witness.

Nixon vs. Ervin was compelling theater that achieved operatic dimensions as Nixon and his gauleiters, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, entangled themselves in ever greater webs of deceit and Ervin looked like the definition  of homespun transparency. It was a great narrative: a master manipulator undone by a Southern cornpone Columbo.

Still, the most popular movies do more than present entertaining narratives – they hit the zeitgeist while doing so. Watergate did exactly that.

The scandal satisfied the national desire for a large, complex metaphor for the angst, turbulence, dissatisfactions and disappointments of the post-Kennedy years.

Billy-gate, Iran-gate, Lewinsky-gate and now the three Obama-gates are like television episodes – not movies. They are not only small narratively but also thematically.  If they tap into anything, they tap into niggling political and ideological divides. By comparison, Watergate taps into the entire American psyche.

It not only has the best plot and the most fascinating characters of any scandal. it has the most thematic amplitude. That is why everything else seems so insignificant.

After all, Watergate was Chinatown, Jake.

 

 

PHOTO (Insert A): President Richard M. Nixon gives his farewell speech to his Cabinet and staff in the East Room of the White House, following his resignation, Aug. 9, 1974. REUTERS/File

PHOTO (Insert B): Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson in Chinatown (1974). REUTERS/Courtesy Paramount Pictures.

PHOTO (Insert C):President Richard M. Nixon boarding a helicopter to leave the White House after resigning from the presidency because of Watergate, Aug. 9,1974. REUTERS/Courtesy Nixon Library

PHOTO (Insert D): Senators Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) and Sam Ervin (D-N.C.) during the Watergate hearings. REUTERS/U.S. Senate


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