This NewsBreak originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of Information Today.
Pop quiz: What does each of the following words refer to? Nipplegate. Bountygate. Gamergate. Deflategate. Pizzagate. The answers are at the end of this NewsBreak, but I’ll give you a hint. Look at the last four letters of each word. Remind you of anything? They are what linguists call a “libfix,” which sounds like a Fox News plot against Democrats but actually means part of one word appended to other words to create a meaning similar to the original word. The classic example is “-holic” being used to make “workaholic” (someone addicted to work) or “chocoholic” (a person who can’t give up Kit Kats).
The source of “-gate,” naturally, is Watergate, the Washington, D.C., building that in 1972 served as the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters. Republican President Richard Nixon was running for re-election that year, and he authorized a break-in at the Watergate complex. The fallout from that act forced Nixon to resign the presidency in disgrace in 1974. New York Times writer William Safire popularized “-gate” as a shorthand for scandal, first using it in a Sept. 12, 1974, article headlined, “The Vietgate Solution.” Now we do it for all kinds of contretemps. What’s Watergate’s legacy? What are the best information sources about it? Let’s find out.
Watergate.info has been online since 1995, and this ultra-comprehensive site has an excellent chronology that starts all the way back in 1968, when Nixon was elected to his first term. Most commentators wouldn’t start that far in the past, but it makes sense: Watergate was the consummation of a power trip that had characterized Nixon’s whole presidency. Parts of the site go back even further, such as audio clips of Nixon’s 1960 presidential debate with John F. Kennedy.
Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum
Nixon rehabbed his image a bit in the years after his presidency, writing books and speaking candidly about his career. The Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum is dedicated to his entire presidency, highlighting his accomplishments without obscuring his mistakes. The page called Watergate Exhibit Evidence is a bonanza of documents, audio/video clips, and more. Like Watergate.info, it reaches back to Nixon’s early days to try to show how he ended up the way he did. For instance, did you know Watergate was Nixon’s second burglary? The one a year before in Los Angeles known as the Fielding Break-In is widely considered to be a Watergate dry run.
Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum
When Nixon resigned in 1974, his vice president, Gerald Ford, assumed the Oval Office. Ford is the only person to have served as president without being elected to either the presidency or the vice presidency, a position to which Nixon appointed him in 1973 when Spiro Agnew resigned. Ford’s role in Watergate was to issue a full pardon to Nixon, which likely caused him to lose the 1976 presidential election to Jimmy Carter. The Watergate Files is a section of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum website that offers a slimmed-down, but no less informative, account of the scandal.
The Colodny Collection at Texas A&M University−Central Texas
The Colodny Collection at Texas A&M University−Central Texas, “the largest private collection of Watergate and Nixon related materials,” honors the efforts of Len Colodny, who was a lifelong student of Nixonia. With Robert Gettlin, he published a book, Silent Coup, which contends that the Watergate burglary was orchestrated not by Nixon but by former White House counsel John Dean, who wanted to protect his future wife Maureen Biner by removing proof of her involvement in a call-girl ring that worked for the Democratic National Committee. Sure. We’ll go with that.
The Final Report: Watergate
The Final Report: Watergate, a 2006 film by National Geographic, is exactly what a documentary should be: sober, insightful, and with plenty of grainy archival footage.
The Watergate Hearings
The Watergate Hearings project by the American Archive of Public Broadcasting includes complete footage of the Senate Watergate hearings (from May 17, 1973, to Nov. 15, 1973) plus seven sessions of the House of Representatives impeachment hearings (May 9, 1974, and July 24−30, 1974). The hearings, recorded by the National Public Affairs Center for Television, were broadcast each evening in full, or “gavel to gavel,” by PBS stations across the nation. Anchors Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer provided summaries, commentary, and interviews to supplement each broadcast.
‘Watergate Revisited—The Nixon-Frost Interview’
Three years after resigning the presidency, Nixon sat for a series of interviews with British journalist David Frost, in which he talked openly—and, at times, emotionally—about his career. More than 28 hours of discussion were recorded and edited into four 90-minute segments. “Watergate Revisited—The Nixon-Frost Interview” is the complete first episode from 1977, which focuses on Watergate. According to The New York Times, its 45 million viewers are still the record for the largest television audience for a political interview.
‘“All the President’s Men” at 40’
“‘All the President’s Men’ at 40,” a CBS interview with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, or Woodstein (their fanfic name), celebrates their 1974 book All the President’s Men, which is often called “the book that changed America.” Woodward is better known these days as the guy who can get Donald Trump to say anything and then sue afterward.
Slow Burn: Watergate
What did it feel like to live through the scandal that brought down Nixon? That is the question that Slow Burn: Watergate, an eight-episode Slate podcast, seeks to answer. In his article introducing the series, host Leon Neyfakh explains that the connections between that era and this one go beyond the similarities between Nixon and Trump. Rather, he says, “it’s that people who lived through Watergate had no idea what was going to happen from one day to the next, or how it was all going to end. I recognize that feeling.” You and me both, Leon.
‘50 Years of Watergate in Pop Culture’
The “50 Years of Watergate in Pop Culture” NPR program commemorates and “celebrates”—is that an OK word?—the impact of Watergate on American pop culture. It discusses the obvious, including Woodward and Bernstein, as well as some lesser-known fare, such as the 1999 movie Dick, in which Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst play 1970s high schoolers, one of whom who lives at the Watergate building. In Forrest Gump fashion, they become the ones to launch the Watergate scandal.
‘The Words of Watergate’
It isn’t just the “gate” suffix that is Watergate’s linguistic legacy. For the break-in’s 25th anniversary, American Heritage magazine’s “The Words of Watergate” discussed other phrases that the affair made famous, such as “stonewall,” “Deep Throat,” and “smoking gun.” An updated discussion for the 40th anniversary is available from Cambridge Dictionary.
Nixon in China
Nixon has provided the inspiration for many creative works: books, movies, television, and … opera? Yes, even opera! Nixon in China tells the story of the president’s famed 1972 visit to the communist nation. It’s available from the Metropolitan Opera’s website for a rental fee of $4.99.
‘The Doctor in the White House | The Impossible Astronaut | Doctor Who | BBC’
No tale of an inveterate time traveler would be complete without a trip to the Nixon White House. In the Doctor Who episode, “The Impossible Astronaut,” Matt Smith’s Doctor goes back to April 8, 1969, and ends up in the Oval Office. The BBC’s YouTube channel provides a clip of the scene.
POP QUIZ ANSWERS
Nipplegate: This refers to the “wardrobe malfunction” of Justin Timberlake revealing Janet Jackson’s breast during the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show in 2004.
Bountygate: From 2009 to 2011, players for the NFL’s New Orleans Saints allegedly paid one another bonuses, or bounties, for injuring opposing team players. The scandal resulted in a number of disciplinary actions, including a yearlong suspension for Saints head coach Sean Payton.
Gamergate: In 2014 and 2015, #GamerGate referred to an online harassment campaign aimed at women who play video games.
Deflategate: This one also comes from the NFL and refers to the investigation of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for allegedly ordering the deliberate deflation of footballs, which would disadvantage opposing teams’ quarterbacks. Brady was suspended for four games, and the team was fined $1 million in 2015.
Pizzagate: This conspiracy theory, which went viral during the 2016 presidential election, concerned a supposed child-trafficking ring run by high ranking Democratic Party officials out of the basement of Comet Ping Pong, a pizzeria in Washington, D.C.