Friday, September 13, 2013

Souvenirs of “Watergate” -- 40 Years Later

During the summer of 1973, the Watergate scandal broke open as the Senate Judiciary Committee conducted an investigation into the events surrounding the 1972 break-in at the Democratic Party Headquarters in DC’s Watergate Complex of offices and apartments.   Those events and the Watergate itself have given rise to a plethora of souvenir items, many in glass, ceramic and other materials.

The Watergate complex itself was controversial, purportedly built by funds from the Vatican, of a seemingly radical architecture previously unseen in federal Washington.  Even before it became famous for the “bugging” incident, the buildings themselves had become something of a tourist destination.  A gift shop there sold patriotic souvenirs like the pitcher shown here.   Or if the tourists were more unbuttoned,  they could buy a highball glass that advertised “Watergate Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey”  at Watergate Wine & Liquors in the complex.

We don’t know what spirituous beverages the White House was serving the night in June 1962 it authorized the break-in at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters housed in the Watergate Office Building.   What we do know is that the gambit backfired and eventually  brought down a President.  Partisans on the Democratic Party side were quick to fashion souvenirs like the ceramic plate shown here to remind Republicans of the ensuing painful events   The plate was the creative work of Walt Steinsiek, a longtime cartoonist.

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearings into the Watergate scandal began in May, 1973, and continued through June.  Millions of Americans watched them on television as, one after another,  administration officials trooped to the witness stand to be as, among other things, “What did the President know and when did he know it?”  This famous event in American history occasioned any number of artifacts.  Among them was a wall plaque that showed the committee seated while President  Richard Nixon, dressed like a king in a crown and cape, walked in front of them.

Another ingenious item, apparently made in the United Kingdom was a chess set in which many of the characters involved in Watergate were depicted as chess pieces.  The White House crowd was shown as the white pieces.  Depicted clockwise from left were  John Erlichmann, Nixon,  Pat Nixon,  Robert Haldeman,  Vice President Agnew, John Mitchell and Howard Hunt.   Shown in close-up is Richard Nixon as the “king” in the retinue and  Sen. Sam Ervin, who headed the Watergate Committee, as the black king. The pieces were made of resin.

In a more contemporary vein,  on September 27, 2013, at a private gallery in Washington,  an exhibit will open that features oil pastel renderings of figures in the scancal.  Called “When What’s Right is Wrong:  Watergate Portraits and Other Drawings,”  it presents the work of Trudy Myrrh Reagan.  Her relationship to the late President is unclear.

Not everyone, of course, was enchanted with the hearings considering them a “witch hunt” perpetrated by Democrats.  One dissident was driven to produce a scalloped glass paperweight that branded them the “Watergate Circus”  beneath beneath the flags of a circus tent. The chairman was branded as “Ringmaster”  but the perpetrator failed to check the spelling of the North Carolina senator’s name and it came out “Irwen.”

The press at the time noted that the Watergate Committee members themselves had been “swamped by a flood of knick-knacks,  most of which had been given away to constituents or school children and just sent to the wastebasket.  Senator Ervin had kept  gavels;  Howard Baker, a silver pipe; and Daniel Inouye, a fruitcake.   Among the gifts may well have been the Watergate knife that presents Nixon in three poses, seeing, hearing and speaking no evil.

The last souvenir, a ceramic ashtray, probably dates from 1975 or 1976.  By this time, Nixon and Agnew, the winning Republican ticket in 1972,  both had been forced to resign and was no hint that either ever again would be a candidate for national office. Notice that both men apparently have broken their golf clubs, apparently in frustration over their situations.

For political “junkies” it would be possible to build a substantial collection of Watergate souvenirs.  Such an assemblage would be a historical reminder of a time when the attempt to bug an office ultimately brought down an American President.  In an era of what seems like ubiquitous bugging of Americans,  that idea seems almost quaint.

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