Frank Rich is a writer at large for New York magazine, which published his piece “Just Wait: Watergate Didn’t Become Watergate Overnight, Either.” He’s also an executive producer of VEEP at HBO. At The New York Times he was an award-winning op-ed columnist and drama critic. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: You recently wrote about how you immersed yourself in the history of the end of the Nixon presidency. What did you call that?
Frank Rich: “Wallowing in Watergate.” Of course, that’s a phrase that Nixon used after two months of brutal Senate Watergate hearings in July 1973—the “what did he know and when did he know it” part of Watergate. With his typical faux piety, Nixon said, “Let others wallow in Watergate, we are going to do our job.” That’s the sort of thing we’ve heard other presidents say when they’re under attack for scandal, including the current one.
JW: We know that times have changed since 1973 and ’74, but you found some illuminating parallels from your wallowing in Watergate. One of the most striking was a New York Times story reporting that Americans were feeling “a certain numbness about Watergate,” and that congressmen going home for the summer recess found “no public mandate for any action as bold as impeachment.” What do you make of these reports as our current representatives head home for this summer’s recess?
FR: Nixon resigned in August of 1974. This New York Times report was a year before that. It was after the hearings, and after John Mitchell had been indicted—he had been campaign chairman for Nixon and then his attorney general. Nixon’s approval rating had sunk to the mid- to upper-30s, sort of where Trump’s has been fairly recently. And yet people were sort of ready to move on.
What happened a year later? Many more revelations—and also the midterms were approaching. That’s when it all started to run downhill for Nixon. If you want to transpose then onto now, this would be July of ’73 and the 2018 midterms will be approaching next July. Under this scenario, that’s when things would blow up for the current president.
JW: Probably the biggest difference between then and now is that, in the Watergate years, the Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate. The Democrats hope to retake the House in November 2018, but it seems there’s no chance they’ll retake the Senate. That would seem to be the end of the story, at least as far as impeachment goes.