New podcast revisits Watergate in the Trump era

At the height of her fame, Martha Mitchell was one of the most popular women in America. Today, she’s largely forgotten. The wife of President Nixon’s first attorney general (and a central figure in the Watergate scandal), Mitchell was known for her big hair and even bigger mouth—she had an insatiable appetite for talking to the press. Her love of blabbing to reporters didn’t become a problem until June 1972, when the threads of Watergate started to unravel. In the days after the break-in, Mitchell was held captive in a California hotel room (and forcibly tranquilized!) so she wouldn’t tell reporters what she knew.

The story of Martha Mitchell, and others like her, is the focus of a new podcast from Slate, Slow Burn. The eight-part series is the unofficial guide to everything you never knew about Watergate—those bit players and subplots absent from the collective memory of the political scandal. It’s not about the Deep Throats, or Woodward and Bernsteins, though it’s impossible to tell the story of Watergate without them. As host, Leon Neyfakh, a reporter at Slate, excavates this history through compelling firsthand accounts, extensive use of archival tape, and smart sound design.

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Neyfakh spoke with CJR about the inspiration behind Slow Burn, the process of culling archives, and the parallels between then and now. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity. New episodes of Slow Burn will drop every Tuesday; Slate Plus members get a bonus episode every week.

It’s been nearly five decades since Watergate. Why revisit it now?

We just chose it at random. It’s not at all relevant to the present moment. We just picked it. [laughs] The reason we decided to do it was we were personally interested in revisiting the last time in American history when the government felt this precarious and unpredictable. I think a lot of people feel overwhelmed by the barrage of news we’ve had over the past year.

There’s a natural desire to understand what Americans were feeling under similar circumstances. We just suspected there would be an infinite number of subplots and bit players who have not become canonical—people who wouldn’t necessarily be featured in All the President’s Men. They’re not Deep Throat or John Dean, but they’re stories that are nevertheless extremely engaging and important in the sense that excavating them is a way to put ourselves back in the minds of people who lived through Watergate.

As you mention, the podcast is about the lesser-known figures involved in the scandal. Why was it important to spotlight the stories of people like Martha Mitchell?

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You think about what’s happening now and all the storylines we’re intimately familiar with, like the Roy Moore saga. You have this insane story with The Washington Post being set up by Roy Moore apologists, people who see liberal media as an enemy. My suspicion is this little episode, in which the Post revealed the scheme, is not going to be part of the collective memory of this period in history. But if I was alive in 50 years and interested in what it was like to live through right now, that’s what I’d want to read about or listen to in a podcast because it transports you into the experience of the people absorbing this stuff as it came, not really knowing the scale of it, or where it would ultimately fit into the plot. That’s why revisiting someone like Martha Mitchell serves the broader ambition of the show.

How did you first become interested in telling these “new” stories? And how did you decide on which ones to tell?

My first thought when we started this project was, “How are we going to make this feel fresh?” Everyone knows what happened with Watergate. For me, my main sense of Watergate came from All the President’s Men. I don’t think I’m in the minority on that. One of my first eye-opening experiences was realizing All the President’s Men covers the first five or six months of the story. The movie ends on inauguration day, and there’s just so much more that comes after. When I started researching and reading the major works on Watergate history, these little stories jumped out at me [like the Martha Mitchell story]. It was insane that it happened and insane that I had never heard about it. I’ve heard now from listeners who are a little older that are sort of astonished I’d never heard Martha’s story. Even my boss Jacob Weisberg, when we talked about the show, was like, “You really hadn’t heard about Martha Mitchell before this?” And I hadn’t. I’m not sure I could’ve told you who John Mitchell was, to be honest.

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I was happy to build Episode 1 around Martha Mitchell because her story was the first one that got me excited to excavate material I knew would surprise and intrigue people like myself whose understanding of Watergate is limited.

What are some stories we can expect in future episodes?

One of the stories that I learned and hadn’t heard before is about the Stennis compromise. John Stennis was a senator from Mississippi, an ally of Nixon, and a well-known Senate war horse. Around the time of the legal battle of the tapes, Nixon proposed a compromise. He said, “I’m not going to give you the tapes themselves, but I will give you summaries of the conversations you’re interested in, and I will let a specific senator of my choosing, John Stennis, listen to the tapes, and he will confirm for you that my summaries are accurate.” Not only was Nixon proposing a close ally to play this role, which made the deal iffy to begin with, but more importantly, Stennis was famously old and also famously hard of hearing. This was like a set-up for a joke. This was the guy Nixon wanted to be the referee on this. It was a minor episode, but also helped precipitate the Saturday Night Massacre which wasn’t a minor episode. That’s a cherished example of something we’ll be getting into in the show. The more specific the story you have, the more it tells you, even though it seems narrower.

History can be very dense and dry. How did you and your producer, Andrew Parsons, go about bringing these stories to life?

I’ve never worked in audio before, but I wanted to for a long time. The reason the show works in the audio format is our producer Andrew Parsons used to be a producer of a podcast called BackStory (a history podcast). He knows his way around archives. He knows how to request tape from various institutions like NBC News or some museum. He knows how to negotiate those rates. He knows how to explain to librarians what it is we’re looking for. He has intuitive sense of what tape is going to work.

It’s easier in audio (to bring history to life) because hearing people’s voices is so powerful. I’ve loved being able to play people’s voices instead of just quoting them like I’m used to as a print reporter. And using archival footage, too, is such an easy way to transport people into the past. As far as finding what’s going to work, it’s a matter of taking note when you’re reading a book about Watergate. Like here’s a reference to a press conference, or here’s a reference to a televised interview or radio interview, or here’s a piece of newsreel being quoted. Then you go and find it and get the rights and figure out if it’s going to help you tell the story.

I’m also wondering why you choose a podcast as the place to tell these stories. What about the medium is ideal for it?

I don’t know if this medium is specifically well-suited for this topic. It feels like it’s working so far. It’s easier to feel viscerally what it was like when you’re able to hear people emoting, whether it’s an interview that I’ve done with someone who was around for it, or whether it’s a piece of archival tape.

Let’s unpack the title of the podcast. What were you hoping to communicate with the phrase “slow burn”?

We had a long back-and-forth about the title that lasted way longer than anyone expected. We landed on Slow Burn thanks to one of my colleagues. The phrase evokes a tension, an imminent danger, or crisis that is approaching slowly. And it’s sort of ominous, maybe you’re not aware it’s happening until it’s too late, like with Watergate.

You’re not alone in spotlighting the parallels between the Nixon and Trump administrations. What do you think are the most striking similarities?

In the show, we made the decision to approach it with a light touch, the work of drawing parallels. Some people think it’s irresponsible or reductive to track the echoes. Some historians caution against that. That’s one of the reasons we didn’t want to be too explicit or overbearing with the parallels in the show. The other reason is [the parallels] are kind of obvious. These things will be in the back of people’s head when they’re listening.

As far as specific similarities, the most obvious one is the crime and misconduct under discussion is similar. We’re talking about the manipulation of an election. In our world, it’s the Russian meddling. In 1972, it was the Nixon campaign’s attempts to manipulate the Democratic primary so they got the opponent they wanted. I also think the broader political dynamics are not super different. Like the way Nixon apologists defended the president back then and attacked the liberal media for trying to take him down. It’s very similar to the way people who are diehards for Trump talk about the Russia investigation now.

Finally, I’d say some of the unknowns are the same. We wake up every day wondering whether Trump’s going to fire Mueller today. There are echoes of Nixon firing Archibald Cox during the Saturday Night Massacre. I also think the question of what will it take for his political allies to abandon him is as present now as it was then.

Last question: What does Watergate tell us about the present moment?

Maybe I’ll know once we’re done with all the episodes. I’m hesitant to say here are the lessons. But one lesson I’ve learned is a lot of what we’re going through right now, a lot of what feels important and like critical developments in the story, will be totally blurred and forgotten and misremembered in a couple of decades. They will be relegated to footnotes in the future.

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Meg Dalton is a freelance journalist and audio producer based in Connecticut. She's reported and edited for CJR, PBS NewsHour, Energy News Network, Architectural Digest, MediaShift, Hearst Connecticut newspapers, and more. Follow her on Twitter: @megdalts. Find her on Twitter @megdalts.