Since the 1970’s, “Watergate” or more specifically the suffix “-gate”, has been used as a metaphor for scandal. Remove “water” and add any term with the suffix “-gate” attached and you have created a scandal du jour. And while mostly confined to the political environment of Washington, D.C., it has run the gamut of marketing horsemeat in the U.K. as 100% beef (Horsegate) to the silliness of pro football’s Deflategate involving the deflating of footballs by the New England Patriots. There have been so many “-gates”, that it surely fatigues the American public all. In fact, sociologist John Thompson has referred to the phenomenon as “scandal syndrome”.
But author Joseph Rodota in his new book The Watergate: Inside America’s Most Infamous Address, reminds us that The Watergate was and is an actual six-building complex on the Potomac River comprising ten acres. Apart from ‘the third-rate burglary” that forever linked The Watergate to infamy, it was conceived as a “Garden City within a city”. It contained the amenities of a city – a bank, bakery, beauty salon, supermarket, swimming pools, internal public space, health club, pharmacy, liquor store, shopping mall, medical and dental offices, post office, and a florist. Beyond that, it housed many of Washington D.C.’s movers and shakers. But it wasn’t just the political elites that resided there. Rodota makes mention of single working women who were enticed to live there because of The Watergate’s advanced security system. It
would later become a joke when a low-level security guard just happened to be at the right place at the right time to catch the perpetrators who broke into the Democratic National Convention headquarters which occupied space in the retail section of The Watergate.
The Watergate was built between 1961-1971. It got its name simply enough from a gate that regulates the flow of water from the Potomac River into the Tidal Basin. The developer was Rome based SGI. It was remarkable at the time for its curvilinear design, a non-conforming structure which was at odds with the boxiness of most of D.C. The initial reception was poor, but the complex soon became recognized as one of D.C.’s finest examples of modern architecture.
But as valiantly as Rodota tries to separate scandal from the The Watergate complex itself, ultimately it becomes a losing cause due to the 1972 break-in that changed history forever. In fact, The Watergate was never a paragon of virtue. Even pre-Nixon, before ground was even broke, controversy engulfed the planned project. One of the financiers, The Vatican, was accused of undue influence regarding lessening zoning restrictions and its relationship to the Catholic John Kennedy in efforts to get the project moving forward. And then there were the burglaries, not as infamous as the burglary, but high profile nonetheless. Even Nixon’s secretary Rose Mary Woods was herself a victim after an overseas trip with the President in 1969.
The Watergate was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 2005 and rightfully so. But apart from the dazzling architecture, The Watergate should forever serve as a monument and a warning to us all – that hubris, paranoia, and insecurity can not only lead to the downfall of a presidency but can bring a nation down to its knees.