The names Haldeman, Erlichman, Mitchell, and Liddy are etched in the collective memory of political junkies. Watergate, the infamous break-in that ultimately led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation, stands as a defining moment, with its echoes reverberating through subsequent political controversies, from Billygate to Bridgegate to Deflategate.
On June 17, 1972, precisely 50 years ago, a group of covert operatives, popularly referred to as the “plumbers,” orchestrated a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, nestled within the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. This audacious act would set in motion a chain of events that would forever alter the course of American politics.
It wasn’t until the following year, months after Richard Nixon’s resounding re-election in November 1972, that the connection between the break-in and the President’s reelection committee was unveiled, primarily due to the tenacious reporting by The Washington Post. The Senate established a select committee to probe the matter in February 1973, leading to a series of televised hearings that exposed a wide-ranging cover-up and various abuses of power. This tumultuous journey culminated in Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of this historic break-in, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has curated an exhibition titled “Watergate: Portraiture and Intrigue.” This unique exhibition primarily features the works of artists, cartoonists, and photographers from the era, originally intended for journalistic use. These artistic creations underscore the profound impact of interpreting significant events through art, with Watergate serving as the subject for over 40 Time magazine cover stories alone. Among these, 12 covers are prominently displayed in the exhibition, showcasing the magazine’s extensive collection of more than 2,000 cover art pieces donated to the museum since 1978.
A few remarkable pieces are particularly noteworthy. A photograph of a triumphant Nixon waving a victory sign on election night in 1972, captured by Dirck Halstead, eerily resembles his final wave as he left the White House for the last time in 1974, as immortalized by George Tames, a distinguished Capitol Hill photographer for The New York Times. In between these two pivotal moments, an illustration by Italian-born graphic designer George Giusti for Time Magazine portrays a brooding Nixon, encapsulating the gathering storm of scandal that would ultimately shatter his presidency.
Richard Nixon’s image was a frequent target for editorial cartoonists. One such cartoon in the exhibition, created by Patrick Oliphant, humorously places Nixon alongside a Kafkaesque, giant bug, alluding to the surreptitious Oval Office recordings that played a critical role in his downfall. Another striking piece, by Mad magazine’s Jack Davis, showcases a whirlwind of prominent names involved in the White House cover-up, each pointing fingers at the others, all ensnared by audio tape.
Martha Mitchell, the wife of Attorney General John Mitchell, who played a role in the Watergate affair, is also honored in the exhibition with a 1970 Jan De Ruth oil portrait commissioned by Time. Interestingly, this portrait was initially created for a feature story titled “The Wives of Washington,” reflecting the limited roles women held in the early 1970s, particularly in the realm of politics.
The exhibition also pays tribute to a lesser-known figure of the Watergate era, Sen. Howard Baker, through a cartoon by Robert Grossman. Sen. Baker’s famous question during the hearings, “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” resonates even today.
The artworks on display are a compelling testament to the multifaceted nature of the Watergate scandal and its enduring impact on American politics. Watergate remains a poignant chapter in the nation’s history, underscoring the resilience of democracy and the power of investigative journalism. The “Watergate: Portraiture and Intrigue” exhibition encapsulates this tumultuous period through the lens of art, preserving the memory of the scandal and its key players for generations to come.