Mark Danner in Conversation with Charles Ferguson

Mark Danner: Charles, I was exhilarated by your film WATERGATE: OR HOW WE LEARNED TO STOP AN OUT OF CONTROL PRESIDENT. What shocked me was how compelling the story was, even though I knew the ultimate outcome. And how vital it feels right now. Reader’s will understand by the subtitle “HOW WE LEARNED TO STOP AN OUT OF CONTROL PRESIDENT” perhaps part of why that is. . . but there’s also a kind of epic quality to it, it’s like the American Oresteia, the story of justice triumphing. Why did you feel compelled to tell the story now?

Charles Ferguson: Well, I am perhaps ashamed to say that I had the idea – that I first had the idea to make this film about five years ago, and I actually wrote an early treatment and proposal at that time, and my idea then was I had made three very heavy duty documentaries, about very serious, difficult, painful subjects, uh, and I wanted a relief. I wanted to do something that was just going to be fun, that would be a real-life political thriller where the good guys win, with absolutely no contemporary political relevance or resonance. And then—

MD: [laughs]

CF: And then, as we know, life played a few tricks on me. And so by the time I actually started making the film, it was obvious that I had to make a much more serious film. A much more sober, careful, rigorous film, which I have to say was an enormously interesting exercise in its own right. Because it turned out there were many important things about Watergate, including some things with implications for our current condition, that I had not known or understood.

MD: Where you—I know I was kind of a Watergate dweeb (??) at the time this was really—watching the hearings was really my first intense political experience. I was about 15, and I found myself glued to the television set to the extent that my mother—I remember my mother calling and saying “go outside and do something, stop watching TV!” I couldn’t stop watching. Did you take a similar interest in the original hearings.

CF: I absolutely did. I found I had not been aware of Watergate or its importance in its early phases in 1972, but, I can’t remember exactly when it was that I suddenly became aware or conscious, but it was before the hearings started. Perhaps when McCord came forward, I honestly don’t recall. But a couple of months before the hearings started, I had been turned on. And I found the hearings absolutely mesmerizing. And yes, as did everybody around me, by the way, I too was a teenager so it was a combination of high School and college, late high school early college, and I was – everybody around me was completely transfixed and the very few people who wanted to watch something else on television were out of luck [laughs].

MD: [laughs] Why do you think the hearings—I mean, now, you saw them the first time and then now you’ve crafted with great skill and meticulousness a movie based on them, so you know them perhaps as well as anyone drawing breath. Why do you think they’re such compelling viewing?

CF: Well I think one reason is that unlike congressional hearings now, you know, I don’t know, you probably watched a number of congressional hearings, as have I, as have most people I suppose. And I’ve testified in congress a number of times, I don’t know if you’ve done that, but these days they’re totally fake and staged and done for public relations consumption. You know there’s very little about them that’s real and serious. Whereas it became very clear to me, when I was examining this material, that in the case of the Senate Watergate Committee, and the Senate Watergate Hearings, those people took their job really seriously. And when they were questioning witnesses, um, they really cared about getting answers, and they really cared what people said. And these people were testifying – many of them for the first time. Some of them with grants of immunity, most notably John Dean, but several other people as well. Uh, and they were testifying for the first time in public after there had been this massive cover-up. So there really was a great deal to learn and to uncover, and it turned out that Watergate, what we’ve come to call Watergate, included many forms of misbehavior beyond the burglary itself. And so we were watching live this kind of excavation of the political underbelly of the Nixon administration, America, the intelligence community, the law-enforcement community, corporate America and the beginnings of money and politics as we see in a much more toxic for today, and so—and it was largely un-staged. And in some cases it had to be un-staged because there were legal constraints on who people could talk to and what they could say until they appeared. And so it was really amazing. And I think another very important thing was that the members of the Senate Watergate Committee and many members of congress were very intelligent, serious, committed people. Uh, the quality of people in congress was – not that congress was perfect by any means—but the quality of people in congress and certainly the quality of the members of the Senate Watergate Committee, was far above what we expect of members of congress now.

MD: uh huh, I know that many of the characteristics, that I think the film conveys so well is this real time shock of some of the testimonies, notably Dean’s first testimony when he talks about the answer on the presidency, and also of course the little-known [xxx] Butterfield who reveals the taping system. And it seems to me as you say, it never happens now that you have true shock in real time, and this was happening on national television. This kind of whodunit that was being revealed and shocking the investigators at the same time as it was shocking the audience.

CF: Yes, yes. Uh, it – and there were many many surprises. Some of them produced by the senators themselves, several whom undertook their own independent personal investigations, most notably Lowell Weicker, but several of the other senators did as well. And the investigators on the staff who were also very serious people, uh, yeah. It was a remarkable thing.

MD: Let me ask you, I mentioned at the beginning that seeing the film now, Watergate strikes me as a kind of American Oresteia—I refer to Aeschylus’s plays that show the birth of justice in Athens, the birth of the court system, the birth of independent justice taking over from vendetta. And there is a kind of – in your film—I think one of the things that it does so well, is it shows this kind of pageantry of justice, of no man is above the law, and in a sense, of what we think we are. You know it became a stock phrase of the Obama era—“it’s not who we are,” they would say when talking about torture for example. It’s not who we are. And it seems to me that Watergate as you convey it so well it’s a kind of demonstration of either who we are, or who we think we are. Um, and were you conscious of that in making the film? And after dealing with this material for so long, how true do you think that assumption is?

CF: Well, I would say that I became conscious of it through making the film. I had known because I’d watched the hearings, because I’d followed Watergate to some extent, I’d known that there were some uh heroic figures in Watergate—Woodward and Bernstein, Judge Sirica, Lowell Weicker, but I had not realized um, until I made this film, that this really was an extraordinary demonstration of just about everything that we think is valuable about the American system, democracy, the rule of law, the media, the courts, um, the will of the people, and the importance of individual character. Um, and what we—I think like to think of as the American character. Upright, courageous, believing in freedom, sticking up for what is right, and it really is a remarkable thing. A very high fraction of the people who contributed to the results—the eventual triumph of the good in the Watergate case, were extraordinarily young. Woodward and Bernstein were in their 20s, Elizabeth Holtzman was 32, the three assistant prosecutors who were in the film and most of the other prosecutors who were on the staff of the Senate Watergate—pardon me, the Watergate Special Prosecutor, were under the age of 30 when they took their jobs. And these were not wealthy people, they did not come from wealthy families, they did not make a lot of money, they had no personal financial security, and they were putting absolutely everything on the line.

MD: Uh huh.

CF: And that—uh it really was a remarkable demonstration of personal courage, but it was also a remarkable demonstration of important things about the American constitutional, legal, political system, some of them which are now under threat. One thing that turned out to be quite important for the prosecutors for example, was the existence of the Civil Service, and the Civil Service protections. And the independence of the Federal Judiciary obviously very important, the role of the Supreme Court obviously very important. Um, yeah.

MD: I think this is really [unintelligible, 17:05]conclusion here – I mean really two points that are connected, the first is that there is an ideology imbued in this story which is very vital not least for journalism, which is the notion that it’s the journalist’s job to uncover wrongdoing, and part two, once wrongdoing is uncovered, the system will deal with it. Um, this is in a sense the sort of liberal view animating journalism, that if you can bring out the truth, the system itself will deal with the wrongdoing that’s been show. And it seems to me, just watching your film, really fascinated by it, and compelled by it, I realized how much that assumption or that premise had underlain my own life and career as a writer. That you know you just have to expose things and they will be made right. And it strikes me watching the film that that precept might not be universal, and in fact, it might be wrong. That is that Watergate might be a one off, it might simply be the conjunction of different things, the Vietnam War, and you know, unusually corrupt president in Nixon, coming together at a given time, and that this might not be universally a statement about who we are. And obviously that brings us forward to the present very much so. So I want to conclude by saying, key questions, do you think Watergate was a one off in the way I suggested? And secondly, what are its implications as clearly pointed to in your subtitle for the political world we find ourselves living in?

CF: Well I wouldn’t say that Watergate was a one off, but I would say that it benefitted enormously from the period in which it occurred. And we now live clearly in a very different period, and I think we’ve been sliding continuously from the way the world was then, the way America was then to the way it is now. And, and the way the world is now is unfortunately difficult to see how the same results would come to pass. I wouldn’t say it’s impossible, but it certainly would be much more difficult, much more contingent, much less likely. And yeah, very sobering conclusion. Very sobering conclusion.

MD: Can you speak about why you think that?

CF: Well, um, I think that what has happened to the credibility of the media and to the media itself, or themselves, is one factor. The role of money in politics and what’s happened to the quality of congress and the members of congress is a second factor. Um, and I think there has been an erosion partially for those few reasons, partially for other reasons that I wouldn’t say I fully understand, there has been an erosion in the rule of law, and in the ability and the willingness of the legal and judicial system to bring violators of law to account when they are financially or politically powerful. And I would say the first time that we saw this in a really egregious way was in the wake of the financial crisis where the Obama administration literally prosecuted zero senior financial executives despite the fact that most people who have studied the question agreed that at least several hundred people should’ve been put in prison. I would say that was the first really huge instance where we saw this phenomenon, and now one fears that the same thing or something similar might happen again. But maybe not. Mr. Muller certainly seems to have a spinal cord, and we’ll see what happens.

MD: We’ll see what happens, including, and to the discussion—by the way it occurs to me that you show in your field Caulfield describing his offer of a pardon, which had to be done surreptitiously, and it should be noted in our own age that Rudolph Giuliani simply goes in front of television cameras and offers pardons publicly which is similar indication of how far we have fallen, it seems to me.

CF: Yes, I certainly agree. Even in the Nixon administration it’s difficult to imagine a figure like Rudolph Giuliani saying the same things he’s recently been saying. Yeah.

MD: Well thank you, thank you very much.

JS: Thank you both, and Mark, I will hopefully see you next week and I’ll send you a transcript of this and we can work it through. Charles thank you so much for taking the time and congratulations on the film.

MD: What was the last thing you said I missed it?

JS: Oh I said I will hopefully see you in person next week but I’ll send you a transcript soon. We’ll get this transcribed this right away and we can make it work as an article.

MD: Excellent. That’s great. Well thank you so much.

CF: Thank you both. Thank you both.

© 2022 Mark Danner