The Gang That Couldn’t Snoop Straight

Image Source: Poster art for the HBO series White House Plumbers – Fair Use

The downward spiral of Dumbness in America is about to hit a new low.

– Hunter S. Thompson

On June 17, 1972, five men — Virgilio Gonzalez, Bernard Barker, James McCord, Eugenio Martínez, and Frank Sturgis — were discovered burgling the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) headquarters at the Watergate Complex in Washington, D.C. They were there to plant bugging devices to pick up confidential information that might prove valuable in undermining the George McGovern presidential candidacy and to ensure President Nixon’s re-election that fall. They had been hired by the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CReeP). Their capture was assured when ‘Alfred Baldwin, on “spotter” duty at the Howard Johnson’s hotel across the street, was distracted watching the film Attack of the Puppet People on TV and did not observe the arrival of the police car in front of the Watergate building,’ [Wiki] Amplifying the absurdity of the situation was the arrest by undercover cops dressed as hippies. Astounding stuff that a stoned Abbie Hoffman might have dreamed up.

Thinking back through all the Wonderland years ago, it’s almost unbelievable how quickly the farce and fiasco unraveled and revealed an underbelly of corruption and deceit and maybe insanity at the highest level of government. Even more unbelievable, when you realized how unnecessary it was.

Nixon was way ahead in the polls and going up against a very weak candidate put forth by the Democrats, George Mcgovern from Minnesota, whose running mate, Thomas Eagleton, was revealed to have been hospitalized and treated for mental illness. Put this together with the successful paint job the Republican National Committee (RNC) did on McGovern’s platform and philosophical leanings — an ultra-dove with socialist leanings — and you had no contest at the polls: Nixon, despite the breaking and ongoing news of the Watergate burglary, won in a massive landslide. Had it not been for the criminal activity at the DNC, Nixon might have taken Massachusetts, too, the one state that had rejected the re-election of Nixon.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then what can unnecessity be but the mother of excess? Despite what William Blake says about it — excess is the road that leads to the palace of wisdom — sometimes, nay, most times, it leads to the outhouse with conclusions drawn upon the wall, to cite Dylan, another poet. The hammy burglars of CreeP dropped a deuce on the White House and left a stench that even the MSM couldn’t avoid performing a haruspication for signs of decline of the Empire.

In White House Plumbers, a new four-part miniseries streaming on HBO, a lot of the usual secondary suspects and victims are dredged up: Dita Beard, Charles Colson, Mark Felt, John Mitchell, Jeb McGruder, John Dean, Frank Sturgis, Dorothy Hunt, and Daniel Ellsberg. And they throw in the crew — mostly Cuban exiles — who were said to be involved in the infamous Bay of Pigs fiasco of 1961, which was meant to overthrow Fidel Castro’s communist regime and make the island safe again for capitalist gangsters, booted out by the revolution in 1959. And, in keeping with the times, just a few years after the Civil Rights Act was passed, we find African-Americans employed at the infamous Watergate Complex, as banquet waiters and as security guards, and now, in this series, as token extras. A Black reporter, hearing the truth about power, dies in a fiery crash in the end. Verisimilitude.

Left out of the series is Nixon (per se) and his hubris (secretly taping conversations in the White House for his later memoirs, the taping system revealing his criminality), and his henchmen — Erlichman and Haldeman, and Henry Kissinger, whose own criminality, even treasonous behavior, has been copiously covered by his critics over the years. Indeed, as The Nation recently reminded the reader, “His fingerprints were all over Watergate.” And so much more.

Also, left out are the hollers of socialite Margaret Mitchell, spouse of Attorney General John Mitchell, especially her phone call to journalist Helen Thomas, which partially picks up (“Get away from me!”) her kidnapping-in-progress. She had information about Watergate that might have woken up the MSM. This episode is splendidly delineated and presented in a 2017 Slate Slow Burn podcast about Watergate written by Leon Neyfakh (later turned into a TV series titled Gaslit (2022) starring Julia Roberts and Sean Penn).

More than anything else, White House Plumbers is essentially a buddy movie between E. Howard Hunt (played by Woody Harreson) and G. Gordon Liddy (played by Justin Theroux). Hunt is a former CIA operative. Liddy once worked for the FBI. The latter appears to be a nearly unhinged psychopath, offering up a skillset to John Mitchell, who resigned as AG to become the head of CReeP, an eager willingness to kill people for no particular reason, and who likes to hold burning matches to the palm of his hand for no particular reason. Hunt, on the other hand, is the former acting bureau chief of the CIA in Mexico, who was there when Lee Harvey Oswald visited the KGB at the Russian Embassy (purportedly), and who was present in Dallas on the day JFK was murdered. The JFK motif is played low-key until the very end of the series when it becomes an explosive detail that leaves the viewer hanging.

This series is about the gang of operatives known as the Plumbers who proved to be so inept that their stupidity and incompetence not only led to their arrest but to the inadvertent downfall of a corrupt King who, given the treasonous machinations in Paris that preceded his 1968 ascension to the presidency, didn’t belong in the White House to begin with. In fact, many have argued since that what Kissinger and Nixon pulled off in 1968 was the precursor and precedent-setting event that “justified” Reagan pulling the same treasonous activity with the Iran hostages, secretly messaging the Iranian regime to keep the hostages until after the election: The hostages were released the day after Reagan’s inauguration.

Despite their dramatic differences in approach, Hunt and Liddy get along effortlessly. Hunt has a high tolerance for Liddy’s more extreme personality quirks and killer instinct; Liddy appreciates that Hunt is game for action and dependable and seemingly at ease with Liddy’s clear psychopathology. They drink together. Their families get together, with a useful dramatic tension that develops between Hunt’s wife, Dorothy (played by Lena Headey). Dorothy, it appears, has herself been an operative for the CIA in the past (“I was on the last train out of Shanghai in ‘49 with a .25 caliber strapped to my thigh, dressed as a peasant,” she says. “If we’re taking the fall [for Watergate], we’re not going down alone”). The fourth and closing episode of the series, “The Writer’s Wife,” spotlights Dorothy and is essential to understanding the fuller implications of what intelligence operatives get up to.

The series plot is fairly straightforward. It begins with a phone call from the White House to Howard Hunt. Charles Colson, the original Turd Blossom, is at the other end of the line and wants to engage Hunt to head up a Special Intelligence Unit (SIU, aka Plumbers) to play some dirty tricks on the opposition, beginning with Daniel Ellsberg. Hunt has some choice words about the former master of war planning turned leaker of secret documents:

Son of a bitch steals 7,000 pages of top-secret documents and gives it to the goddamn press? High treason! I told Colson I think Ellsberg should be… tarred and feathered and hanged.

Of course, as Ellsberg has pointed out in his latest book, The Doomsday Machine, the Pentagon Papers (PP) were a study by the Rand Corporation that covered the war prospects in Vietnam through the Johnson administration. The prospects were grim: casualties piled high and no victory. Johnson, who dropped out of consideration for re-election in 1968, was tired of questions about a war already known, before the release of PP, to be a losing proposition. According to Robert Dallek in a Johnson biography, when some journalists insisted on an answer to why the US was still engaged in battle in Vietnam if it could only lose, LBJ got testy, pulled down his zipper, and flashed his penis, saying, “This is why!

In actuality, Ellsberg relates in his book, the real concern that he had was that Kissinger and Nixon were spying on him to find evidence he had other top secret information he was prepared to leak. In fact, he did have such information, which is dealt with in Doomsday. He says Nixon was terrified that he would tell Americans about the Nixon plan to use nukes against the North Vietnamese:

He secretly gave up his plans for attacking the North at that time. But he continued until the end of the month with a secret global alert of SAC— deliberately designed to be visible to Soviet intelligence but not to the American public, with the intent of making his nuclear threats credible to the Soviets and the North Vietnamese while keeping them unknown to the public. [p. 356]

Ellsberg wrote that he regarded the information about nuclear war that comprises his book as more important than the Pentagon Papers. He believes that Kissinger and Nixon may have been planning to have him rubbed out if they found such evidence. In White House Plumbers, there is one scene in Episode 2 where Jeb McGruder (an SIU organizer) snarks at Liddy that he should kill Jack Anderson and Liddy immediately sets out to do so — and has to be chased after and told “I was joking, you crazy bastard!” But clearly such men were available to Tricky Dick and Herr Dr. K, if necessary.

Hunt and Liddy meet with Mark Felt (Deep Throat), associate director of the FBI, to lay out the parameters of their information collection and to get assistance from the bureau in doing so:

Liddy: Ellsberg needs to be taken down, publicly discredited and fast. The President wants extensive polygraph tests from everyone with high-level access [to the PP]. DOD, CIA, FBI and State. I’ve taken the liberty of compiling a list of 500 or so names, grouped by department.

Felt: Five hundred? Things have changed quite a bit since your brief stint with the Bureau, Gordon. Director Hoover doesn’t believe in lie detectors anymore. Our machines are in a basement, gathering dust. ( Sighs )

Liddy: Well, if we’re going to turn the rats on each other, we need to create a climate of fear and distrust. Nacht und nebel. Night and fog.

Felt: We are not the White House’s gestapo.

Liddy and Hunt, and their crew of Bay of Pig failures, bungle the burgling of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, Dr. Fielding, in Beverly Hills. Wearing bizarre wigs that make them look like civilian clowns, they get nothing from the office, and ransack it to make it look like “junkies” broke in — inexplicably leaving behind pills to find. Liddy asks the crew: “What kind of a drսg addict, A, brings his own drսg to a crime scene. And B, scatters them about the floor and leaves them behind!” As if to vibe the botch, the soundtrack plays “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” Break-In Bad. Get it?

John Mitchell is furious at such stupidity. The operatives look for a chance at redemption. Then on February 29, 1972, muckraking journalist Jack Anderson reported on an ITT memo by the brusk and raspy Dita Beard (played by Kathleen Turner) that implicated the Nixon administration in corruption. The TV news reported:

Good evening. Charges made by newspaper columnist Jack Anderson have raised grave questions about the integrity of the Nixon administration. Anderson wrote today that he has evidence that the International Telephone and Telegraph company made a secret deal with the administration to obtain a favorable settlement of a giant antitrust suit. Anderson said that a memo he obtained from ITT files showed that the settlement was a payoff for a pledge by ITT to contribute up to 400,000 dollars for the upcoming Republican National Convention in San Diego. Anderson quotes ITT’s top lobbyist, Dita Beard, saying she discussed arrangements for settling the case with Attorney General John Mitchell at a party last May Dorothy knows about Dallas and appears ready to trade in on that information to gain a Nixon pardon.

Well, Hunt and Liddy, wigs and all, got her hospitalized in another state (Colorado) with a fake illness so that she couldn’t testify before Congress and allow the Democrats to hurt Tricky Dick. John Dean and Howard Hunt talk around:

Dean: A team of senators is heading to Colorado to depose her in two days, including your good friend, Teddy Kennedy.

Hunt: That fat-headed booze bag. They should depose him about Chappaquiddick.

Dean: If there were any justice in the world.

Hunt: You know, it wouldn’t be the worst thing for Beard to actually have a heart attack, right as Kennedy’s grilling her.

Dean: Then you could say, “Senator, now, you’ve killed two women!”

At her deposition in the hospital room, Beard recants, calling the memo “a fraud,” and as soon as she’s reminded that she’s under oath she begins to have “breathing problems” and the deposition is immediately adjourned, No future date for testimony is set. Soon, her memo gets forgotten.

The way that Liddy and Hunt deal with the Beard “problem” impresses John Mitchell enough that he gives the two another chance to help CReeP and the president by breaking into the DNC at the Watergate Complex (where Mitchell himself lives). The pair, and their crew, quickly fall back into their previous pattern of ill-planning, cartoon hubris and maybe some kind of insanity not yet in the DSM, but for which signs are clear and present as dangers. Instead of the one definitive failed break-in, there were actually four of them, each seemingly more miserable than the last attempt. White House Plumbers does an excellent job of conjuring up the comic stupidity of their cause.

During the first break-in the group attend a phony banquet in the Watergate, with Liddy’s “inside” man meant to open the back door for the crew only to chicken out and literally run from Liddy and the crew after saying he’s “not cut out” for B and Es; Liddy yells after him, “Gutless Mormon”; meanwhile, Hunt and a Cuban get locked in the banquet room for the night, and Hunt is forced to piss in a bottle of whiskey for relief. During the second attempt, they bring the wrong lock-picking tools and have to abort. On the third attempt, they succeed in breaking-in, but their bugs are faulty and, so, useless. During the fourth attempt (successful) they tape a door lock open, which gets discovered by a security guard, and the undercover hippie cops arrest the five inept plumbers. It’s farce and it’s fun to watch.

The Watergate fiasco introduced Americans to the concepts of “slush” money and “hush” money. Mitchell paid the stupidos out of a slush fund set up for dirty tricks and evil deeds. When the shit hits the fan, the slush money in Liddy’s possession needs to be shredded, as the serial numbers on the wads have been recorded and are traceable back to CReeP. The hush money is to keep the crew afloat in their lives and keep a lid on what happened. Mark Felt. aka Deep Throat, tells WaPO reporters Woodward and Bernstein to “follow the money.” Had Felt been promoted to director of the FBI when Hoover died, he’d never have uttered those words but would have helped cover up the Watergate fiasco.

Once things collapse, and it’s looking like Hunt may end up in prison, Dorothy Hunt rises to the occasion, and essentially becomes the hush fund manager, demanding more money from the White House to protect the Hunts (and the crew). She is talking about writing a tell-all book about Watergate and Howard’s days with the CIA, including Dallas. After a fresh infusion of cash, following Nixon’s landslide victory, Dorothy boards a plane for Chicago to distribute $10,000 ($72,000 in 2023 dollars). In the last scene of the series Dorothy is talking with Michelle Clark, a Black reporter from CBS News, and is asked about the JFK event and says to the reporter, “The truth is–” when the plane crashes.

In the Sunday News Journal article (linked above), the reporters write that Hunt was in Dallas on the day JFK was killed and that he was there to arrange for the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald. While Hunt maintained an alibi that said he was with his wife at a Chinese restaurant in DC at the time of the JFK killing, he dropped the alibi later when he thought he was on his deathbed and, according to a Rolling Stone piece, “The Last Confession of E. Howard Hunt,” named names and told hows. In this 60th anniversary year since the assassination, we inch closer and closer to understanding what happened in Dallas in November 1963. Author Jefferson Morley is producing outstanding curated pieces out of the newly released declassified documents remaining; more needs to be released.

The series reminds one of the delicate nature of democracy in America. When you get past the bombastic rhetoric of politicians (Woody Allen’s Annie Hall character, Alvie Singer, once described politicians as being “one rung below child molester.”), there’s a lot of emptiness to fill up or replace with fantasy and illusion. Today, we seem to have accepted the premise that Americans vote the “lesser of two evils” on a regular basis, and have extremely low expectations of progress. White House Plumbers reminds us of the excesses of executive power and the criminality that lurks in the background of each administration’s support network.

White House Plumbers does an excellent job telling the old story from the crew’s POV, which hadn’t been done before. In a companion podcast for the series, Woody Harrelson says, “It was so cool to see it from the burglars’ perspective. I don’t know why that hasn’t been done before.” The companion podcasts for White House Plumbers can be found at YouTube and Spotify. The lighter touch is easy to watch. The series is highly recommended.


John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.