Dick Cavett is not the first name that pops to mind when contemplating the 40th anniversary of President Nixon’s resignation, but it does have the attraction of providing a completely new angle on a familiar if still-fascinating story. And as “Dick Cavett’s Watergate” makes clear, a legitimate one.
The popular talk show host was an early and avid disseminator of the reporting that led to Nixon’s fall, interviewing an amazing assortment of government officials and pundits (oh, Gore Vidal, do tell us more about everything) pretty much from the moment the break-in was reported.
Along the way, Cavett earned the honor of Nixon’s personal vitriol (26 mentions on the Watergate tapes, none of them friendly) and a chance to film an episode of “The Dick Cavett Show” from the Senate chamber in which the hearings were taking place.
So if the hour-and-a-half documentary, premiering Friday on KOCE, seems a bit slight and self-congratulatory, it, like the man himself, moves nimbly enough to cover a surprising amount of ground.
Foremost it tells the story of the scandal. Deftly wielding archival footage and present-day interviews with the usual suspects, including Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and John Dean, director-writer-producer John Scheinfeld relates Cavett’s experience to the broader landscape. It remains a riveting, alarming tale of massive chicanery and petty vendetta, or, as Nixon Library historian Timothy Naftali puts it: “‘House of Cards’ on steroids.”
Like many Americans, Cavett was fascinated and disturbed by the seemingly endless revelations sparked by the break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters. Unlike most of his fellow citizens, he had his own show (complete, it must be noted, with the Peter Max-inspired graphics of the period).
So while most other television outlets ignored Woodward and Bernstein’s initial reporting on the Watergate break-in, Cavett latched on — three days after the break-in, he asked then-Sen. and presidential hopeful Ted Kennedy what the burglars hoped to find at the Watergate — and did not let go.
A former comedian and “Tonight Show” writer, Cavett was charming and literate, with a dry but aggressive wit. His easy conversational style, both with the audience (“Well, you all know what’s happening,” he says at one point, after a brief description of how the scandal did not seem to be hurting Nixon’s chances for reelection) and his guests, masked a reportorial doggedness.
And the guests he had! G. Gordon Liddy, explaining why the bugging of the Democrats was necessary, the attorney general lying his head off, the newly named Vice President Gerald Ford zealously proclaiming Nixon’s innocence.
Anyone still laboring under the assumption that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert invented the comedic yet revelatory political interview needs to watch “Dick Cavett’s Watergate.”
But more than Cavett’s personal abilities are on display. The willingness of so many participants on either side of the hearings to even talk to Cavett in the middle of a scandal reveals both a political hubris and a misunderstanding of television. The Watergate hearings occurred in people’s living rooms, allowed them to be judge and jury.
So when Nixon, on one tape, can be heard targeting Cavett, it’s really just another example of his underestimating television, a miscalculation that plagued his career to its final collapse.
‘Dick Cavett‘s Watergate’
Where: PBS, KOCE
When: 9 p.m., Friday
Rating: TV-PG (parental guidance suggested)