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A break-in that unsettled America

Times Staff Writer

In the wee hours of June 17, 1972, a young, long-haired undercover cop at a Washington hotel clicked on his flashlight and spotted five burglars in business suits rummaging through the national headquarters of the Democratic Party.

Twenty-six months later, President Richard M. Nixon would climb into a helicopter revving up on the White House lawn and leave the residence for good, his legacy seemingly in shambles.

The dramatic arc of events that was suspended between those two historical tent posts captivated a nation and, indeed, the world three decades ago, when the integrity of the American political system appeared to be hanging in the balance. In tonight’s two-hour PBS special, “Watergate Plus 30: Shadow of History,” several of the scandal’s principals provide a satisfying measure of perspective to that wildly tumultuous time (8 p.m. KCET).

The documentary, produced by Sherry Jones and Marijo Dowd and directed by Foster Wiley, uses clips from the televised Watergate hearings, news footage and snippets of the infamous Oval Office tapes to profile a president obsessed with his “enemies” and fiercely intent on wielding and retaining his power.

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One chilling exchange during the hearings between then-Georgia Sen. Herman Talmadge and White House henchman John Erlichman revealed the stakes involved.

“If the president could authorize a covert break-in and you don’t exactly know where that power would be limited, you don’t think it could include murder or other crimes beyond covert break-ins, do you?” Talmadge asked.

“I don’t know where the line is, senator,” Erlichman replied.

Other key figures such as John Dean and Jeb Magruder from Nixon’s team, former Republican senators Lowell Weicker Jr. and Howard Baker, and “All the President’s Men” journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are among the freely talking heads offering updated insights.

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Although many pundits felt the Watergate affair offered proof that the American system of government works, and that the lessons learned may even have made it all worthwhile, several of those heard tonight felt differently.

“It would be very hard to make an argument that the presidency now is not as strong and does not have as much capacity for secret mischief in the year 2003 as it did in 1973,” said former New York Times reporter Richard Reeves.

Offered Dean: “Unfortunately, I think the lesson of Watergate is, ‘Don’t get caught,’ and that’s really about it.”


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