Book cover

As I mentioned in a previous review of a Richard Nixon biography, Watergate was the beginning of my fascination with politics and American history. The hearings were high theater, and one of the most interesting political spectacles ever. In The Watergate Girl, Wine-Banks tears down the curtain of the legal drama and shows us, among other things, what it was like to be the only woman on the team of lawyers who were prosecuting the president and his henchman.

Wine-Banks was thirty when she was tapped to join the team of prosecutors charged with finding out the truth of Watergate and ensuring justice for the American people. She had been the only woman on the criminal prosecution team in the United States Department of Justice. Smart and always thoroughly prepared, she was assigned to appellate work, but it wasn’t long before she noticed her male colleagues were trying cases in addition to their appellate work. She was told that it was too dangerous for a woman to do so as many of those being prosecuted were members of organized crime groups. She pushed back and was soon prosecuting cases.

Looking back on this is like being in a time warp. Some of the sexism she endured in that era looks positively stupid today. The media often referred to her as a “woman lawyer”; the New York Times went so far as to write a profile of her titled “A Lawyer in Miniskirts.” The sexism came from the bench, too. During her aggressive questioning of Rosemary Woods, Nixon’s executive assistant and the person thought responsible for the 18-minute gap on one of the crucial tapes, the judge admonished them both. “All right. We have enough problems without two ladies getting into an argument.” Once while trying an organized crime case, another judge tossed off her gender as if it were a sweater on a too-hot day, and purposely referred to her as “Mr. Volner.” She did not let these slights go unnoticed, and refused to be bulldozed by her male colleagues, whether they were lawyers, reporters or judges. 

It is difficult to remember what life was like in those years. For one thing, the news was more democratized, if only because there were only three major television networks–CBS, NBC, and ABC–and so most everyone had to wait to see what was news. There were many more newspapers then, though; indeed, many large urban cities had morning and evening editions.  But there were no personal computers. I remember during my first full-time clerical job when we got our first IBM Selectric typewriters and our own copy machine, and even then we continued to use carbon paper. There were no FAX machines or cell phones. Many outlets still relied on film and photos to be sent by airplane when time was of the essence. And of course, there was no internet or social media.  

Another thing that did not exist then was the hyper partisanship in Washington, D.C. This is not about harkening back to those supposedly halcyon days when politics stopped at the water’s edge, and Democrats and Republicans went out drinking together. Politics has never been squeaky clean, and government officials have engaged in dirty tricks, name calling, and hurling nasty accusations at each other since the first Congress. Still, there wasn’t the irrefutable certainty that a colleague of a different political party or opinion on a piece of legislation was stupid, craven, and just this side of the Antichrist. Furthermore, when many of Nixon’s fellow Republicans determined he had crossed one line too many, they weren’t afraid to tell him he had to resign.

The confusion in Congress last year as to whether a sitting president could be indicted, or if    impeachment was a criminal procedure or a political punishment, bedeviled Wine-Banks and her colleagues also. She felt strongly that a president who broke the law could be indicted. So did the grand jury. After much reflection, they sent a letter to President Nixon in which they invited him to appear before them and present his knowledge of the matters being investigated; he did not reply. They settled for charging him as an unindicted co-conspirator while never using his name. Of course, most people knew to whom the grand jury was referring.

The Watergate Girl fairly gallops. Wine-Banks is a graceful writer, and she presents her once-in-a-lifetime experience with crispness and verve. Moreover, the timing of The Watergate Girl is perfect. Then as now we have a president in office who thinks he is never wrong, and above the law, and a staff that willingly stands by and does nothing while he trashes the historical norms of the office and shreds the Constitution. Like Nixon, Trump accuses the media and anyone who dares question his inane utterings or opposes his making policy making solely based on his gut feelings as enemies trying to bring him down; as did Nixon, he claims those enemies are conducting a witch hunt and threatening the institution of the presidency. Like Nixon, Trump refuses to acknowledge the system of checks and balances and separation of powers the Framers built into the Constitution. Comparing the two, Wine-Banks wrote,  “Donald Trump is more dangerous than Richard Nixon . . . he exceeds Nixon in hatefulness and venality.”

At least Nixon was smart.