‘Slow Burn’ Relives Watergate in Real Time

Come with me, won’t you, back in time to November 2017. Donald Trump was elected president a year earlier, and took office under a cloud of suspicion surrounding the myriad connections between his campaign and the Russian government. Trump did little to quell those concerns when he fired FBI director James Comey in an apparent effort to stop an investigation into those connections; instead, in May 2017, Comey’s replacement appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel to look into the matter.

That investigation had been going on for an agonizing six months when Slate’s Leon Neyfakh debuted Slow Burn, an eight-episode podcast that sought to calm the nerves of liberals and never-Trumpers impatient for the president’s removal. The podcast recounted the finer details of the Watergate scandal, with an interesting hook: What was it like to live through Watergate in real time, with no idea how it was going to turn out?

That meant going much deeper into the story than the broad strokes we all remember from All the President’s Men, and Slow Burn — EPIX’s adaptation that fleshes out Neyfakh’s podcast with archival footage and expanded material — starts with the curious case of Martha Mitchell, who in hindsight, was the unheeded whistleblower of the Watergate scandal. Married to Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell, who left that role to head Nixon’s 1972 re-election effort, Martha Mitchell already had a reputation as a garrulous socialite, eager to talk to the press about matters large and small. Seeing James McCord, a known associate of her husband’s, among the indicted burglars in the TV coverage of the initial break-in at DNC headquarters at the Watergate Hotel, Mitchell smelled a rat and called stalwart White House correspondent Helen Thomas, who later reported hearing Mitchell being dragged from the phone mid-call.

Mitchell later claimed to have been kidnapped and drugged by GOP operatives, and was roundly dismissed in the press as delusional. But over time, most of what she said panned out, and she was eventually vindicated — but only after years of being written off as a kook. 

Similarly, House Banking Committee Chairman Wright Patman, whose story dominates episode 2, made the same connection between the burglary and the White House as Martha had: James McCord. Patman launched an investigation into the matter and became one of Nixon’s most avid antagonists, though for more than two years, his investigation was written off in the press and by the GOP as a flight of fantasy, a wild goose chase. But like Martha Mitchell, Wright Patman was eventually vindicated by history. 

Slow Burn is full of these types of fascinating little gems, and while it was certainly entertaining enough to hear audio of Martha Mitchell in the podcast, seeing video of the woman in her full glory brings the experience to another level. 

White House counsel John Dean, who turned on Nixon and became the star witness for the Congressional investigation, is on hand for slightly self-serving commentary on these events. He shares the delightful detail that G. Gordon Liddy — who planned and staffed the Watergate burglary — freely admitted his involvement to Dean before it was widely known, offering, “I know you may want to have me taken out, just don’t do it at my house, I have kids…  tell me what street corner you want me on and I’ll be there.” Former Nixon aide Roger Stone, recently convicted of lying to Congress in the Mueller probe, also makes an appearance to discuss the dirty-tricks campaigns he was a part of. 

The idea of Slow Burn, the podcast, was to reassure modern listeners that — as a relieved nation told itself after President Richard Nixon left office to head off certain impeachment — “the system works,” despite how slowly the wheels may seem to turn at times. “See look, the GOP stuck with Nixon all the way up to the very end, calling the Watergate probe a waste of time and a witch hunt and a hoax, just like now! But the system works, see!” 

Now, though, two-and-a-half years later, after the Mueller probe failed to prove anything conclusively, and after the subsequent Ukraine scandal that led to a speedy impeachment process that led to Trump’s acquittal, with the Republican Party lining up in uniform, blind support of the president, the lesson seems to have shifted in a way that I doubt Neyfakh intended: “See? The system worked — a long time ago.” 

Slow Burn premieres at 9pm ET Sunday, February 16, on EPIX.