White House Plumbers
On the afternoon of December 8, 1972, United Airlines Flight 553 from Washington, D.C., to Omaha, Nebraska, via Chicago crashed from the sky, killing most people onboard. Among the victims were an Illinois congressman, a promising young CBS reporter named Michele Clark, Howard Hunt’s fed-up wife, and — if White House Plumbers is to be believed — a conspicuous stranger who gave Howard Hunt’s wife a menacing look as she boarded. The series’ most recent episode ends with standard true-story boilerplate — “some of the events, characters, and dialogue have been fictionalized” — plus an addendum: “But Dorothy Hunt definitely died in a mysterious plane crash.”
In real life, the crash was attributed to pilot error. But there were enough people to suspect foul play that the tragedy came to be known by some as “The Watergate Crash,” which is the conspiracy theory that White House Plumbers is flirting with. With only one episode left, I confess I’m less sure than ever what this show is trying to say about this black moment in U.S. history. The series started as a darkly comic story of two bumbling men who toppled an extraordinarily popular presidency by accident, but what is it now? After the arrests at the Watergate, Dorothy emerges as a hero to Howie’s disgraced band of political criminals, securing payouts from Nixon’s dubious cronies and flying across the country to collect and distribute them. By the end of the episode, though, the mother of four is gone — the death of the series’ most thoughtful character reduced to a jump scare.
“The Writer’s Wife” picks up six months earlier, in the closing moments of episode three. Jim McCord and the Cubans have just been arrested by hippie cops, whose unexpected hippie attire I assumed would be explained this week but appears to have been forgotten. (They were undercover street cops.) Meanwhile, Howard and Gordon race to cover up their own involvement in the operation, each following their distinct brands of stupidity.
For Howard, that means speeding home to “Witches Island.” In the middle of the night, he rips his teenage son from bed and confesses his identity as a CIA spook and Nixon henchman. Then he recruits the panicked kid to aid and abet in destroying evidence, forever implicating Saint John in unlawful interference with a federal criminal investigation. Yes, this is Howard’s contingency plan. This is what it looks like for a top campaign operative to break glass. He and a tearful Saint John throw Howard’s typewriter in the river, go make omelets, and wait for … what, exactly? A cop knocking at the door? An angry call from the White House? For Dorothy to race home from Paris and save them all?
In the end, it’s Bob Woodward who makes the first approach. He calls Hunt to ask about the letter bearing his name that Macho was carrying at the time of his arrest (a joyful little voice cameo from Robert Redford, who played Woodward in All the President’s Men). And from that point forward, the Hunts are forbidden from answering the telephone. The soundtrack of their lives will be the interminable shrill of the family landline.
On the other hand, Liddy is exquisitely deranged and/or frighteningly equanimous when he clicks on a bedroom lamp and lets Fran know he may soon be heading to prison. The next morning, he tracks down acting AG Richard Kleindienst — by this point, John Mitchell’s resigned to focus on Nixon’s reelection — and pressures him to somehow spring McCord, who is arrested carrying a fake ID, from lockup. Alas, it’s already too late to avoid an association between the Watergate arrests and the White House. A former colleague who just happens to be passing through the precinct where McCord is being questioned reveals his identity, giving the cops a clear link between the piece of tape on the Watergate freight door and the president’s campaign manager.
Hunt and Liddy can destroy it all, but it will never be enough: typewriters and listening devices, purloined Watergate Hotel soap. Liddy, always in a race to be the most ludicrous person in Washington, even throws the unspent cash Mitchell gave them into the paper shredder. The White House reacts by refusing to comment on every little break-in in the nation’s capital, which is the political equivalent of sticking your own fingers in your ears and screaming, Nah, nah, nah, I can’t hear you! Everyone is scrambling, but the train has left the station. The FBI will be at Hunt’s door by the end of the day.
Somehow, though, the situation is still in the process of getting worse. Remember Mark Felt, who refused to help Liddy when he proposed breaking into Doctor Ellsberg’s Los Angeles office? We haven’t seen Gary Cole’s G-man since episode one, but he’s heading up the FBI investigation into Watergate. The White House may have some modicum of plausible deniability when it comes to Watergate, but, as Liddy reminds John Dean, it was former White House lawyer John Ehrlichman who okayed the Ellsberg mission (if anyone can remember that many bureaucrats called “John” ago). But while Hunt’s beginning to doubt Nixon’s loyalty, G. Gordon Liddy tells J. Dean he’s willing to be assassinated for the president — an event that seems unlikely to deflect suspicion from the campaign, but it’s the thought that counts.
As a plan, it’s only marginally worse than what Howard cooks up. Worried that the White House will abandon the plumbers, Howard suggests to Dorothy, fresh off the plane from France, that the entire family head to Nicaragua and seek refuge with the Somoza family, who really owe Howard. A tin-pot dictator always pays his debts. Dorothy prevails upon him to lawyer up instead, and soon they’re sitting across from William Bittman, the cookie-loving attorney best known for prosecuting Jimmy Hoffa.
This is when Dorothy takes the reins. Howard refuses to make a deal to avoid prison, preferring instead to take the fall and pray for an eventual pardon. Dorothy can’t make him cough up the names of the president’s inner circle, but she’s the one to remind the White House that the kind of loyalty Howard’s offering doesn’t come cheap.
Eventually, Nixon’s posse comes through with cash for Howard, McCord, and the Cubans only. There won’t be any help for Liddy and his five kids, though it’s unclear why. Maybe the White House is sure he’ll stay silent for free? Maybe they don’t think anyone would believe a nut like Liddy anyway? However, Howard refuses to see his partner cut out of the arrangement and persuades a reluctant Dorothy to part with some of their share of the money. And just like that, Dorothy gets dealt back into the spy game. With Howard under FBI scrutiny, she’s the one with the physical freedom to fly around the country collecting moneybags from airport lockers, delivering payouts to the Liddys in baking tins like the little housewife she pretends to be. (The Liddys keep her cash casseroles in the freezer — a delightful detail.)
The more secure the president’s reelection becomes, even in the face of the blossoming Watergate scandal, the less generous the cash hose flows. It’s more of a slow dribble, really. Dorothy is angry and astonished, but McCord sees Nixon and his men for what they are. They’re motivated by “fear and power,” he explains, suddenly far more astute than he’s ever been before. “Mainly the fear of losing power.” Now that they’re no longer afraid of that, there’s no reason to pay up. For McCord, it turns out, politics was always a job. For Howard, who’s since been fired by the PR firm, too, it remains a religion.
But Howard still likes the finer things in life. Over the course of yet another unbearable couples dinner with Fran and Gordon, he suggests they pair up to write a tell-all, which his agent thinks will fetch the small-time crooks half a million dollars. His logic is sound if naïve: The story of Watergate will come out no matter what. What difference does it make to the president if the men he entrusted with his campaign make money from it? Maybe they can even accomplish a little reputation rehab in the process — from “third-rate burglars” to patriots. Predictably, Liddy shuts the idea down on the spot, which doesn’t sound like a bad outcome for the Hunts necessarily. Half a million dollars goes much further when you don’t have to split it.
Unfortunately, Liddy wants to make sure they both stay broke. It turns out that Howard’s been sending out notes on White House stationery, including to the flirty flight attendant who he met on the way home from the Ellsberg break-in. I think the threat is that if Howard writes the book on Watergate, the Ellsberg scandal will break, too? I’m not entirely sure, but seeing as the book seems like a TERRIBLE idea, I guess it’s just as well! For retaliation for Gordon’s refusal — not to mention his callous willingness to embarrass Dorothy by implying Howard’s roving eye — Dorothy discloses that the money she’s been bringing over has come directly from the Hunt family coffers. Needless to say, the quartet never makes it past the salad course.
The next day, everyone is arraigned. Liddy’s mom pays his bail, a detail so bizarre it must be true. A further disgraced Howard tells Bittman to put more pressure on the White House, to remind them that he could still disclose the truth of the Ellsberg break-in and, in the series’ most long-running innuendo, Kennedy’s assassination, too. But why should they fear this guy now? His credibility is nonexistent.
The show reminds us again and again how broke the Hunts are, but it’s hard to drum up too much sympathy for the new economic reality they’re facing — a hardscrabble future in which they don’t have the money to spoil their tennis whites at the country club or maintain a private stable of horses. Saint John tells his mother that Papa dragged him into the Watergate cleanup, but I think the real last straw for Dorothy is Nixon’s landslide victory. “Well, it was all for nothing,” she spits. “Fuck Nixon.”
A month later, Dorothy boards a plane to Chicago to move some illicit money into the hands of men who broke laws on behalf of a president she hates, but before she goes into the airport, she breaks the bad news. When she gets back from this one last trip, she’s leaving Howard. She’s leaving because he made her befriend racists. They fight over who’s been more unfaithful and how many times, but then Dorothy plays her trump card: She knows he used Saint John.
Their conversation is set to somber music, but it’s not actually sad. Dorothy hates her husband. He never appreciated her and how it bored her to type up his inane novels, how it enraged her to eat baked ziti with Nazis. On the flight, she tells Michele Clark everything she knows about Watergate, and then she dies. Did she take a stand against corruption and against her husband too late? Yeah, of course. But that she was finally taking a stand at all proved to be useless. And, in the end, maybe that’s part of what White House Plumbers has to say about what it takes to stop endemic political corruption. A lot more than one woman’s sacrifice or a vengeful tell-all. Perhaps there’s no force big enough to stop it at all.