PBS is marking the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s resignation by running a documentary on the Watergate scandal as seen through the prism of Dick Cavett’s late-night talk show at the time.
People with memories of Watergate remember developments unfolding on the evening news or the gripping Senate hearings shown on daytime TV, but fewer recall that Cavett’s ABC program featured appearances by an array of pivotal figures. Even the former host.
“I didn’t remember how much there was,” Cavett said. “I watched some of it the other day and they were new to me.”
From 1972 to 1974, Cavett interviewed many major Watergate figures, including Nixon aides John Ehrlichman, Alexander Haig, G. Gordon Libby, and Jeb Magruder, as well as several members of the Senate committee investigating the case. Cavett’s show even taped a special edition from the room where the Senate hearings were held.
The documentary Dick Cavett’s Watergate features fresh interviews with reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, former Nixon aide John Dean, and Cavett. PBS announced Tuesday it would air Aug. 8 at 9 p.m. — 40 years to the hour after Nixon announced to the nation that he was quitting.
“I had no choice” but to spend time on it, Cavett, 77, recalled. “It was just the most fascinating thing in the world.”
Cavett’s coverage didn’t earn him friends in high places. He’s mentioned in Nixon’s infamous White House tapes some 26 times, including once when the president mused aloud in colorful language about ways the government could get back at him. Cavett later learned that virtually every member of his program’s staff had their tax returns audited.
“It’s a strange feeling to see the most powerful man in the world, not yet a criminal one, denouncing you,” he said. “It’s kind of a creepy feeling.”
He had no explanation for why so many members of the administration came on his show, since he was clearly no friend. A clip of an Ehrlichman appearance shows the Nixon aide looking at Cavett with barely disguised contempt. In one passage, the just-confirmed Vice President Gerald Ford tells Cavett that based on the evidence he’d been shown, he saw no criminal wrongdoing on the part of the White House.
Cavett asked Ford in 1979, after he’d left the presidency, if he felt he’d been duped. “I got a raw deal,” Ford replied.
Yet the program also shows how the passage of time changes opinions. Former Washington Post reporter Bernstein was furious when Ford pardoned Nixon, yet decades later he sees the wisdom in that decision, said John Scheinfeld, the documentary’s producer.
Scheinfeld, who produced a well-regarded theatrical documentary on the U.S. government’s pursuit of John Lennon, was brought in by Robert Bader, who has combed through Cavett’s tapes for various projects. Scheinfeld said the Cavett tapes provided an interesting way to get inside an oft-told tale.
“We’re not just regurgitating things that everyone knows,” he said. “There’s a freshness to it.”
Cavett’s low ratings at the time didn’t make him popular with ABC executives. His concentration on Watergate probably didn’t help — competitor Johnny Carson had Charo as a guest the night Cavett did his show from the Senate hearing room — but Cavett said he was shielded from most of what the network was saying about him.
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