Water over the gate?
Not to me. A tidewater lock begat some marble steps which begat an ugly building which begat a political scandal whose central riddle remains unsolved 50 years later. I try to solve it.
Behold Watergate. I refer not to the office, hotel, and residential complex you see in the background, site of an infamous break-in 50 years ago today, but to the ruins of an old tidewater lock, built in the 1830s, that separated the Potomac from the C&O canal. It’s no longer functional but it’s still there. A century later some marble steps were built nearby leading down to the Potomac as part of the Lincoln memorial complex. It was hoped the steps would provide a grand entrance to the city for barges along the Potomac, sort of like at Henry VIII’s Hampton Court palace. That was of course a silly fantasy, but remember there was a Depression on and the main thing was to get people working on federal construction, any federal construction, so they could feed their families. Instead of welcoming foreign potentates to the federal city, the Watergate steps became, starting in 1935, the site for National Symphony Orchestra concerts. The audience would sit on the steps or paddle over in canoes. The symphony would play from a barge. You can glimpse what it looked like in the 1950 movie Born Yesterday, in a scene filmed on location where William Holden (playing a New Republic writer!), who is tutoring Judy Holliday in the ways of Washington, takes her to a Watergate Barge Concert. It looks heavenly, and I wish they’d bring the concerts back, though probably too many people live in and near Washington these days to make that practical. Today the only purpose served by the Watergate steps is to build core muscles for joggers running up the steps and down alongside the riverside promenade.
In 1960 the adjacent land, previously occupied by a gasworks, was purchased by Società Generale Immobiliare, a century-old Italian construction firm whose majority stockholder was the Vatican. This is the company that Michael Corleone uses to launder his ill-gotten Mafia gains in 1990’s Godfather III. That story is of course fictional, but in real life the Vatican Bank did get itself mixed up with the mobbed-up Banco Ambrosiano, whose chairman, Roberto Calvi, (a.k.a. “God’s banker”) was eventually found hanging by an orange nylon rope, with 12 pounds of brick fragments stuffed in his pockets, underneath London’s Blackfriars Bridge. The 40th anniversary of that unsolved crime, as it happens, is tomorrow. It’s a bitter disappointment to me that Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, after realizing Calvi’s story supplied the perfect raw material for the final installment of the Godfather saga, made such poor use of it (though I remain partial to Donal Donnelly performance as the chain-smoking Archbishop Gilday).
But I digress.
The Lord, through his earthly representative the pope, decreed that on the site of Washington’s former gasworks should be built what remains the ugliest single edifice inside Washington’s storied ten miles square, a quasi-brutalist beast whose balconies look like the teeth of some rabid animal. For some reason The Atlantic is situated there. In 1972 the Democratic National Committee was situated there, and somebody ordered President Richard Nixon’s re-election committee to break into it. Fifty years after the event, we still don’t know who.
As I argue, though, in my latest New Republic piece, we have a pretty good idea that it was Nixon himself. Journalists and historians have shied away and even belittled the question of who ordered the Watergate break-in because “the cover-up is worse than the crime,” which was bullshit then and remains bullshit today. “The cover up is worse than the crime” is just a fancy way of saying the cover-up is easier to prove than the crime. I maintain it remains a matter of strong interest who ordered the Watergate break-in. I deplore the continuing tendency to hold Nixon harmless for it simply because we can’t prove it beyond a reasonable doubt (as we can for the Watergate cover-up and various other crimes). The evidence that Nixon ordered the break-in is not conclusive, but it’s much stronger than you probably think. In my latest New Republic piece, I review it. You can read that piece here. Please do, it’s one of my better ones.
Earlier this week I wrote about Microsoft’s pledge not to interfere with a union drive at Activision Blizzard, a gaming company it’s trying to acquire. I think it’s significant.