The Watergate Girl: My Fight for Truth and Justice Against a Criminal President
“It’s one thing to watch an impeachment proceeding play out on television. It’s another to be behind closed doors where strategies are devised and decisions made. The Watergate Girl puts the reader in that room. For the history or politics junkie, there is no better place to be.”
Watching the recent impeachment proceedings was, as Yogi Berra reportedly once said, “like déjà vu all over again.” More so than the end of the 20th century impeachment of Bill Clinton, readers of a certain age who viewed the proceedings against President Donald Trump will likely experience flashbacks approaching a half-century to the Watergate era and Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974 that short-circuited his impending impeachment.
And just when we thought we’d read all the Watergate books and learned all there was to know about that scandal, along comes Watergate prosecutor Jill Wine-Banks and her The Watergate Girl: My Fight for Truth and Justice Against a Criminal President. The Watergate Girl, coming from a Watergate insider, is invaluable in understanding what happened then and, sadly, raises questions of whether we, as a nation, learned anything at all from that experience.
When it comes to Watergate, over the years, we’ve heard from the president’s men, whistleblowers, politicians, reporters, and even the judge who presided over the criminal trial of the Watergate Seven (John Mitchell, Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, Charles Colson, Robert Mardian, Gordon Strachan, and Kenneth Parkinson), but now Wine-Banks puts readers inside the prosecutors’ war room, picking up where congressional committees left off. She offers insights into prosecutorial decisions and little known, or previously unknown, stories that offer a new appreciation for hard-working lawyers who endured the thankless task of taking on the most powerful man in the world.
Those stories include the process of deciding not to indict Nixon along with the Watergate Seven and fallout from the Saturday Night Massacre, when Nixon ultimately fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Returning to the prosecutors’ offices the following Monday, Wine-Banks writes: “The ninth floor looked like a crime scene. The desks and phones had been taped up, the file cabinets padlocked.” When she began to peel tape from a desk drawer where she kept her notes, she was blocked from doing so by an FBI agent.
The saving grace, though, was that in the weeks and months prior, and without telling Cox, the author and others had been making copies of documents and storing them at their homes. So even with the office officially shut down, they still had access to proof of presidential wrongdoing to facilitate their work until a new prosecutor was appointed and the office was up and running again.
Even that makes great fodder for Watergate afficionados. The prosecutors, who loved Cox, were initially suspicious of his replacement, Texan Leon Jaworski, though that attitude changed as they worked with him. Wine-Banks admits that “He deserved more respect than we gave him.”
If there is any criticism of the book, it is that the author might appear to be overly sensitive to sexism she perceives as being leveled at her. On the other hand, it’s unfair to write off her complaints of treatment in the early 1970s by viewing them through the prism of 2020. Of course, sexism still exists today, but 50 years ago it was more overt and far less subtle. The author was often referred to as “the lady lawyer,” while the men weren’t given any gender modifier.
At the first meeting with Jeb Stuart Magruder, a deputy campaign manager for Nixon who was turning state’s evidence, trial team leader Jim Neal asked if anyone wanted coffee. “Magruder and his lawyer turned to me, the only woman in the room, and simultaneously said, ‘I’ll take mine black.’” So perhaps Wine-Banks can be forgiven for her sensitivity. As the saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.
On the other hand, Wine-Banks was more than willing to exploit the gender issue when it benefitted her cause. At the criminal trial of the Watergate Seven, she was chosen to cross-examine defendant Robert Mardian, because he was a “hot-tempered, nasty guy,” and the prosecution hoped he could be provoked into yelling at her. They believed his yelling at a woman, instead of at a man, might outrage the jury. The fine line she had to walk, she writes, was to “be careful to question him sharply enough to elicit his rage, but not so harshly as to be perceived as an aggressive bitch.”
Although Wine-Banks also finds time to weigh in on the current state of political affairs, and their parallels to the Nixon era, the book’s real value lies in lessons learned, and perhaps some not learned, from the past. It’s one thing to watch an impeachment proceeding play out on television. It’s another to be behind closed doors where strategies are devised and decisions made. The Watergate Girl puts the reader in that room. For the history or politics junkie, there is no better place to be.