White House Plumbers
About halfway through the first episode of the new HBO miniseries White House Plumbers, G. Gordon Liddy and his wife, Fran — played by Justin Theroux and the impeccably outlandish Judy Greer, respectively — have Gordon’s co-worker E. Howard Hunt (Woody Harrelson) and his wife, Dorothy (Lena Headey), over for dinner.
In lieu of a little light music, Liddy puts on a record of Hitler’s speechifying, which he finds as stirring as Dot finds it repulsive. The volume is comically loud. Everyone’s screaming to be heard. The Liddys are oblivious to the offense they’re causing; Howard is a WWII vet and his wife was a CIA agent involved in recovering stolen art. The Hunts, bound by collegial politesse, won’t object to their host blasting Nazi invective into their eardrums alongside the cheese plate. It’s completely deranged and hysterical, just a few centimeters past preposterous. (It helps the joke along if you know that Liddy really did say that listening to Hitler recordings as a boy “made me feel a strength inside I had never known before.”)
Then a local kid throws an egg at the house. Liddy runs upstairs, grabs a gun, and jumps from a second-floor window to surprise and terrorize the egg assailant while Hitler barks. Despite the unflinching physicality Theroux brings to his role, this is not funny. It’s kind of stupid. Even if it really happened, it feels stupid to watch it. There’s too much happening at the same time. I already get that Liddy’s an idiot, but all of a sudden, there is confusion about what kind of idiot he is. The central proposition of White House Plumbers is the largely accepted one that the criminal masterminds behind the Watergate scandal were actually clumsy buffoons, which would be a more amusing conceit if they didn’t also completely derail American democracy, seeding distrust in the government and in elections that persists today. Not all Watergate films need to be gravely serious — I’m a big fan of the satirical teen comedy Dick — but White House Plumbers, at least in the first hour, flits so excessively between dark comedy and broad comedy, irony and slapstick, that its overall effect on me was bewilderment.
The series opens on a night that only threatens to be familiar to audiences of All the President’s Men. Gordon and Howard are poised at the entrance to D.C.’s Watergate office building, but they won’t be able to break in to DNC headquarters because they haven’t brought the right tools to pick the door lock. In fact, this is the team’s second attempt, and they won’t actually cross the threshold until attempt No. 4. Everything the first episode of White House Plumbers teaches you about the men responsible for the biggest scandal in U.S. political history, you can basically glean from this scene. It’s such a succinct depiction of what follows that I’m sort of shocked they didn’t cut it. It renders the rest of the episode redundant. And its more controlled tone — black and irreverent — makes all the farcical stuff that comes next feel chaotic.
Still, we rewind about a year. Howard, a disgraced former CIA agent, is putting in long boring days at a PR firm and writing novels on the side. At home, he rails against Kennedy for the Bay of Pigs fiasco, which Howard believes ended his career at the agency. Like many a disgruntled suburban dad, he spends long periods of time in the basement, mostly ignoring his four children, who conspicuously call him Papa and not Dad or, as I would have guessed, Sir. It’s Dot who runs the ship at home, managing their brood and typing up Howard’s pulpy potboilers at the kitchen table. When Charles Colson — Nixon’s White House lawyer — calls, Howard assumes he’s on the verge of a comeback. In the aftermath of the Pentagon Papers, Nixon told Charles to bring in “a real son of a bitch” to investigate the leak, hence the cutesy code name: White House Plumbers.
This is, to some extent, a political series, which means that, in homage to Aaron Sorkin, our characters must walk-and-talk down the hallowed corridors of American governance. As Howard gets ushered back into favor, we’re treated to a who’s who of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the federal office building in which most people who say they work at the White House actually work.
There’s Nixon stooge Bud Krogh, a deputy assistant responsible for onboarding Howard, played by Rich Sommer (in real life, Krogh’s memoir was part of the inspiration for this series). Domhnall Gleeson plays White House counsel John Dean. And then, of course, Howard meets Gordon, an eccentric ex-FBI agent, who will be his partner in crime. None of these men are individual characters at this point — just blowhards with a collective distaste for commies. And they all think they’re the one in charge of a special project to discredit Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who released a classified Pentagon investigation into the Vietnam War to the press. Gary Cole plays G-man Mark Felt, the only guy we meet who has no interest in helping the plumbers (and who, decades later, will be revealed to be “Deep Throat” in Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting).
Big-sky thinkers Howard and Gordon concoct a scheme to break in to Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to see if maybe he confessed his Russian allegiances to his shrink. But they spend more time bickering about whether to call the mission “a black-bag op” or just a “black op” than they do planning the top-secret scheme. White House Plumbers is the story of two unexceptional men finding friendship and failing up. They recon the doctor’s Beverly Hills office in ludicrous yet entirely penetrable disguises. They take photos of themselves on a camera borrowed from the CIA but then forget to take the film out before returning it. Not so top secret after all.
When it comes to conducting the actual theft of Ellsberg’s medical records, Howard recruits some of the Cuban operatives he worked with back in his CIA days to do the job for free. But there’s no plan B in case the doctor’s cleaner happens to lock the back door or if the doctor’s filing cabinet can’t be opened, both of which happen on the night of the attempted burglary. The walkie-talkies don’t work. Howard, who is meant to be staking out the shrink, loses him. A low-speed car chase leaves Gordon covered in two hot coffees, which didn’t really work for me as a gag but left my husband in hysterics. (“It’s because it’s two coffees,” he patiently explained.)
In the end, the Cubans completely trash the doctor’s office but still don’t find the file. Not that it matters — the LAPD improbably attributes the crime to drug-seeking junkies, and Nixon’s people approve of Gordon and Howard’s tactics even if they didn’t get results this time around. The Bozo Brothers are moved off the White House roster and onto the payroll of CREEP. Forget traitors. Now, Gordon and Howard are in the crucial business of keeping Nixon president by whatever means necessary. “You impressed the right people,” Dean tells the boys just after Nixon fires Krogh for being unable to stomach the darker electoral arts. He gives them a million dollars to put toward espionage and sabotage, electronic surveillance, and better walkie-talkies. It’s so much money that the Plumbers absolutely should have sprung for the full suite of lock-picking tools, but like the show’s cold open itself, I’m jumping too far ahead.
Lingering among the scenes in which two American idiots jump-start dead careers are glimpses of Gordon and Howard and their families — moments which, to some extent, transform them into real people. In these scenes, Gordon is more than a blundering weirdo; he’s a Nazi who makes his kids line up on the stairs like the von Trapps and rehearse how they greet colleagues such as Howard when they come to dinner. Gordon’s still a caricature — don’t get me wrong — but it’s all somehow sadder.
And sadder even still is the Hunts’ homelife. Howard and Dorothy’s daughter, Lisa, was in a car accident a few years ago and continues to suffer from PTSD. She wants to quit college, but her dad won’t let her. Meanwhile, the couple’s younger sons are disconcertingly adept at managing and avoiding the conflict in their house. At one point, Dot tells Howie that they need to have a “serious talk,” but we can’t be sure what it’s about because it never happens. The closest they come to intimacy is bad sex, which Howard initiates after a flight attendant slips him her number on the flight back from Beverly Hills. Howard doesn’t finish until Dorothy agrees to call him Edward in bed, the code name he was using on his successful/unsuccessful L.A. mission.
Created by Veep writers Peter Huyck and Alex Gregory and directed by another Veep alum, David Mandel, White House Plumbers occasionally elicits laughs worthy of that series. But mostly, the pilot had me thinking about Scandal, another show about the distressing underbelly of U.S. politics. Shonda Rhimes has said her show worked, in part, because Obama was president and the country was optimistic. “You can always tell any horror story you want to when the light is on,” she said in 2017, reflecting on scripting political drama in the age of Trump. “But now the lights are off, and now I think people don’t want to watch horror stories; they want you to light a candle somewhere.”
I don’t think anyone watching White House Plumbers will fail to see the parallels between the cynicism of what happened with Watergate (or didn’t happen three times, and then finally happened) and the state of politics today, in which Trump is leading in the Republican polls after, well, everything that happened after the last election and the one before that.
But after the first episode, it’s hard to trust the show has a candle — or even just a matchbook — at the ready.