Slow Burn

Lie Detectors

Read a transcript of Slow Burn: Season 1, Episode 4.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of Episode 4.

Marc Lackritz: My name is Marc Lackritz. I was an assistant chief counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee staff.

Mary DeOreo: I’m Mary DeOreo. I was hired initially as a researcher and then graduated to become an investigator on the Senate Watergate staff.

Lackritz: We’ve only been married for 45 years. We think we’re off to a good start.

DeOreo: [Laughs]

Marc Lackritz and Mary DeOreo went on their first date on June 17, 1972. It was only later that they realized it was the same night as the Watergate break-in.


They had been going out for less than a year when Marc, who was in his final semester at Harvard Law School, got a call from someone high up on the staff of the Senate Watergate Committee. He was calling to offer Marc a job. This was in April 1973, about a month before public televised hearings on Watergate were scheduled to begin.


The Senate had voted 77–0 to form the committee and hold the hearings. The committee’s mission would be to figure out whether “illegal, improper, or unethical activities” had taken place during the 1972 election.

Strangely, the Nixon people didn’t even try to pressure Republicans in the Senate into voting against the investigation. You would think they would have, given how hard they worked to interfere with Wright Patman’s inquiry in the House. Maybe the vote took them by surprise. Maybe it was because the election was over, and there was a sense that Nixon was out of the woods. Or maybe no one thought these hearings would lead to anything: You know, let them dig, fine—who cares? It’s not like Nixon was gonna get impeached. The truth is, I haven’t been able to figure out definitively why the resolution to form the committee passed so easily. What I can say with confidence is that if these Senate hearings were ever going to be a low-key affair, that possibility went out the window as soon as James McCord sent his letter to Judge John J. Sirica.


Reporter: Good evening. There was a sensational development in the Watergate trial today. One of the key defendants says there was political pressure and perjury involved in the trial.

James McCord was one of the burglars who broke into the Watergate. He had pleaded not guilty, been convicted, and was facing decades in prison. And then he wrote this letter. In it, McCord informed Sirica that the Watergate conspiracy went way beyond the seven low-level operatives who had appeared in Sirica’s courtroom up to that point.

Reporter: Then came the bombshells: “There was political pressure on the defendants to plead guilty and to remain silent,” quote McCord. Perjury occurred during the trial, in matters highly material to the very structure, orientation, and impact of the government’s case.


Why McCord wrote the letter is a matter of some debate—a lot of people say it was because he was facing such a stiff prison sentence, and he wanted leniency from the judge. McCord himself insists that he just wanted to set the record straight. Regardless, when Sirica read the letter in court at the end of March 1973, Watergate instantly entered a new phase. And just like that, all eyes were on the Senate Committee.


Reporter: The full story of Watergate now will come out.

Marc Lackritz got that fateful phone call from the Senate committee higher-up about a month later: Did he want to come work on the Watergate investigation? Yes, he did.

But there was one small problem. Marc’s girlfriend, Mary, was happily living in California and working at a law firm, and she had been expecting Marc to move out west to live with her once he was done with law school. She didn’t want to move to Washington, D.C.

DeOreo: I’m looking at him thinking, I’ve got the apartment, I’ve got the view, I’ve got me, I’ve got this life in San Francisco, I’m skiing every weekend, I’m going sailing—what is your problem? “No, no, no,” he says. “We’re gonna do this.”

In the end, Mary agreed to go along with Marc’s plan.

DeOreo: This really was going to be important to him, and I was in love, and so therefore it was important to me.

When Marc and Mary arrived in D.C., Mary landed a job working for the committee as well, as a researcher. At first, she mostly read and summarized the reams of documents, and interviews, and credit card records that the investigators were collecting from witnesses. Later she was promoted to investigator, and she started working alongside Marc.


DeOreo: I was not political. My family was Republican. My parents were not delighted with what I was doing: 1) living with this guy; 2) working on this committee.

Neither Mary nor Marc had any idea what was coming when they got to Washington.

Lackritz: We were clueless. We didn’t know how big it was going to be. We sort of suspected because of all the things we saw and read that something wasn’t right in the state of Denmark, but we had no idea that it was going to blow into what it blew into.

That spring and summer, the Senate Watergate Hearings became the greatest show on earth.


Person 1: Political pressure from the White House was conveyed to me.

Person 2: He told me to shred the documents and deep-six the briefcase.

Person 3: He indicated he would kill me.

Person 4: There was no need to buy our silence. We are not for sale.


As one Nixon higher-up after another came before the seven senators on the committee and revealed unthinkable things, the senators fired pointed, dramatic questions at them.

Unidentified: You were concerned because the action was known to you to be illegal. What on earth would it have taken to decide against that plan?

And those questions were informed by hours and hours of research and investigation by committee staffers like Mary and Marc.

The senators didn’t just ask about the break-in at the Watergate office building. They asked about illegal fundraising, about the campaign to sabotage Ed Muskie, about a whole panoply of dirty tricks and possible felonies.


About two months into the hearings, Republican Sen. Lowell Weicker questioned John Mitchell, Nixon’s first attorney general and the chair of his reelection campaign. The senator asked about a meeting in 1972 during which G. Gordon Liddy, one of the organizers of the Watergate break-in, pitched a roomful of top Nixon officials on some pretty extreme election-year shenanigans. One of them was to drug and kidnap radical leftist leaders, like Abbie Hoffman, and keep them in a Mexican safehouse to prevent them from causing trouble at that year’s Republican Convention.


Here’s Weicker:

Weicker: … That plan, complete with visual aids, included elaborate charts of electronic surveillance and breaking and entering and prostitution and kidnapping. Now, you’ve indicated that in hindsight, you probably should have thrown him out of the office.

Mitchell: Out of the window, I think I said.

Weicker: Maybe even out of the window, in hindsight. Do you mean to tell me that you sat there through that meeting and, in fact, actually had the same man come back into your office for a second meeting, without in any way alerting appropriate authorities, in this particular case, the president of the United States?

Mitchell: That is exactly what happened, Senator. It was a grievous error.


Moments like this didn’t happen every day during the roughly four months that the Watergate hearings were on TV. But they happened a lot, and many of them had been choreographed by people, like Mary DeOreo and her boyfriend Marc Lackritz, who were not in front of the cameras.


Lackritz: There was an enormous gap between what the public saw and what was going on behind the scenes. We were like the script writers of the soap opera.

In this episode, we’re going to hear about that scriptwriting process. But we’re also gonna hear some of the soap opera itself. Because it was such a good soap opera—one that introduced the country to a whole cast of strange characters, featured breathtaking twists and revelations, and generated a number of honest-to-goodness pre-internet memes.

What was it like to watch this spectacle on TV and get utterly sucked into the scandal as it became a national obsession? And what was it like to orchestrate that obsession—to expose a high-level government conspiracy on live television before an audience of millions?


This is Slow Burn, a podcast about Watergate. I’m your host, Leon Neyfakh.

Reporter: John Dean implicated perhaps a dozen people in his sworn testimony today—and the president himself.

Unidentified 1: They would maintain what was called an enemies list, which was rather extensive.

Unidentified 2: Why on earth should I believe anything that John Dean says?

Episode 4: Lie Detectors

The two people who did the most to shape the Senate Watergate Hearings were a pair of guys named Sam, one young and the other old. The young one was Sam Dash. He was the chief counsel for the Democratic senators on the committee, and he was in charge of leading the team of staffers, including Mary and Marc, who had been hired by the Democrats. Sam Dash’s job was to oversee these young, ambitious lawyers and investigators as they conducted closed-door interviews and research and figured out who to put on the stand and what to ask them. Sam Dash pushed his staff to be as aggressive as possible.


The other Sam, the older one, was Sen. Sam Ervin. He was there to reassure the general public.

Ervin was a conservative Democrat from North Carolina. He was chosen to lead the committee because he wasn’t seen as a partisan.

Reporter: The reason most people think this hearing won’t be a circus is that the chairman of the select committee is Sam Ervin of North Carolina. Sam Ervin is probably the most respected man in the U.S. Senate.

There had been some talk about putting Ted Kennedy in charge. The senator from Massachusetts had shown an early interest in Watergate, and he had been the one to offer the resolution to form the Watergate Committee in the Senate. But it was clear to everyone involved that it would have been a bad idea to have Nixon’s No. 1 political enemy running the show. Sam Ervin, again, was a conservative Democrat. He was seen as someone who could win the trust of people on the left and the right. Someone who could be fair.


With his jowly face, his cartoonish eyebrows, and his wisp of gray hair, the senator from North Carolina was basically a perfect Southern grandpa.

Ervin: This statute has nothing to do with the burglary.

Unidentified: How do you know that, Mr. Chairman?

Ervin: Because I can understand the English language as my mother tongue!

Although he had a degree from Harvard Law, Ervin cultivated the image of an old country lawyer.

Ervin: I’m just a country lawyer from way down in North Carolina. I probably make inquiries with a little bit more vigor than some of these highfalutin city lawyers do.

“I’m just a country lawyer” was Ervin’s catchphrase. It was later used as the title of his biography.


Unidentified Tennessee senator: The chairman omits to say that he graduated from Harvard Law School with honors.

Ervin: If the senator from Tennessee will yield, I’d like to say a word in my own defense.

In addition to routinely making the hearing room erupt in laughter, Ervin used his status and his credibility to keep the committee on track behind the scenes. When his Republican colleagues pushed to investigate Democrats in addition to the Nixon campaign, Ervin insisted on staying focused. Expanding the committee’s purview, he said, would be “as foolish as [going] bear hunting and [stopping] to chase rabbits.”


When the hearings began on May 17, 1973, Ervin made it clear in his opening statement just how high he thought the stakes were.


Ervin: If the many allegations made to this date are true, then the burglars who broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate were in effect breaking into the home of every citizen of the United States. And if these allegations prove to be true, what they were seeking to steal was not the jewels, money, or other property of American citizens, but something much more valuable—their most precious heritage: the right to vote in a free election.

Remember when I said there were memes that came out of the hearings? Sam Ervin was one of them.

He became a folk hero as soon as the hearings started. He was on the cover of Time and even Rolling Stone. There was an official Sam Ervin fan club that sold T-shirts, posters, and buttons. In September 1973, when the hearings were almost over, Ervin recorded a spoken word album for CBS Records called Senator Sam At Home. The record consisted of Ervin telling stories and performing popular songs.


Ervin: Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay thee down.

At the hearings, Ervin peppered his questions with quotes from the Bible. He also carried a pocket edition of the Constitution at all times. Here’s committee staffer Gordon Freedman:

Freedman: Sam Ervin would take a small government printing office copy of the U.S. Constitution—a little blue Constitution—and he would shake it at those witnesses, almost like, you know, somebody shaking a cross at a vampire.

It became clear as the hearings went on that Ervin was disturbed and disgusted by much of the testimony. When he encountered witnesses he thought weren’t being straight with him, he skillfully pinned them down. As his biographer put it, Ervin cut “through oceans of sophistry like a great gull diving for prey.”


At one point, Ervin sparred with Maurice Stans, Nixon’s campaign finance chairman.
You might remember Stans from Episode 2—he was the guy whose hand Wright Patman’s investigator refused to shake.

During the Senate hearings, Ervin took Stans to task for destroying documents pertaining to campaign fundraising.

Stans: I will say to you that there was no connection between my destruction of the summary sheets given to me by Mr. Sloan and the Watergate affair.

Ervin: It’s rather a suspicious coincidence that the records which showed these matters were destroyed six days after the break-in at the Watergate.

Stans: The adjectives that you’re using—queer, coincidence, and suspicious …

Ervin: Well, don’t you think it’s rather suspicious?

Stans: No, I don’t, Senator. …


Now, there is one big issue with describing Ervin as simply a truth-telling hero: He was also an unrepentant segregationist. In 1956, he helped draft “The Southern Manifesto,” a document that railed against the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Forced integration, the manifesto said, “is destroying the amicable relations between the white and Negro races that have been created through 90 years of patient effort.”

Ervin’s segregationist ideas found their way into his Watergate work. At one point, he declared that Watergate was a bigger tragedy than the Civil War.

Ervin: I used to think that the Civil War was our country’s greatest tragedy, but I do remember that there were some redeeming features in the Civil War, in that there was some spirit of sacrifice and heroism displayed on both sides. I see no redeeming features in Watergate.


Some liberals took note of Ervin’s shameful opposition to civil rights. The D.C. Gazette, an alternative newspaper, compiled a list of the senator’s most backward beliefs, quoting from an essay Ervin had written called “The Case for Segregation.”

In the spring and summer of 1973, Sam Ervin became a figure of reverence for liberals who wanted to see Nixon taken down. Journalists described him as a man who knew right from wrong—whose grandfatherly demeanor concealed a penetrating legal mind.

The left-wing magazine the Nation praised him in an editorial, proclaiming that “As long as someone like Sam Ervin is around … it follows that common decency in politics, respect for … the Constitution and rights guaranteed to the individual citizen, have not all been thrown on the trash heap.” In the same editorial, the Nation excused Ervin’s support for segregation, arguing that “even in that wrong-headed attitude he was not inhumane.”


The two Sams, Ervin and Dash, had the idea to structure the hearings like a pyramid—starting with people at the bottom of the Nixon organization and working up to those closest to the president. The first witnesses included the likes of James McCord, the Watergate burglar who wrote the letter to Judge Sirica. There was also a guy named Tony Ulasewicz, a plainspoken former NYPD officer whose job with the Nixon campaign was basically doing dirty work.


McCord and Ulasewicz talked in jarring detail about the schemes they’d been asked to carry out by the Nixon reelection campaign. McCord used an actual phone to demonstrate how to plant a bug.

McCord: The cover would be taken off of the telephone, and two of the wires would be interconnected …


And here’s Ulasewicz describing a message he was asked to pass on to McCord once the cover-up was underway:

Ulasewicz: I don’t have the original notes. I wrote the phrases lightly after I agreed. And it was, “A year is a long time. No one knows how a judge will go. Your family will be provided for. Rehabilitation and job opportunities will be provided for.”

As the witnesses got bigger and bigger in stature, the Watergate hearings became a blockbuster. The three TV networks traded off broadcasting them live for up to six or seven hours a day, then they all played highlights and offered commentary on the biggest bombshells at night. PBS, meanwhile, rebroadcast the hearings in their entirety starting at 8 p.m., so that people who worked during the day didn’t have to miss a second.


There was a delicious irony here: Richard Nixon had long been an enemy of public television, and in 1969 he had called for slashing PBS’s budget in half. Now the Public Broadcasting Service was fundraising off the administration’s downfall, bringing in $1.5 million in donations during the first three months of hearings. In an interview, one PBS executive thanked Nixon for giving the network its best programming ever.

At the end of the summer, a Gallup poll found that 90 percent of Americans had tuned into at least some of the hearings. Soap operas like The Young and the Restless and Days of Our Lives lost viewers as the hearings hit the top of the daytime Nielsen charts.


Reporter 1: Everyone today was talking about Watergate, and there was practically no other topic of conversation.

Reporter 2: When stories about the Watergate scandal first started appearing, most people didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Now, all that has changed. The name “Watergate” has become famous.

Unidentified: [Singing] Come, come, come and play spy with me down at the old Watergate. Come, come, come love and lie with me, down at the old Watergate…

Individual members of the Senate Watergate Committee staff would receive phone calls at work and at home from strangers wanting to talk to them about the hearings. Sam Ervin had to get an unlisted number and take his name off the directory in his building’s lobby. The committee received a million and a half letters over the course of just a few months.


One highly motivated viewer sent a complaint to the committee about the senators’ smoking habits. The anonymous letter-writer said the smokers on the committee were making “too much noise clanking their pipes against their shoes and their ashtrays, and it just didn’t look dignified.” Included with the letter was a box of pipe tampers.

One company began selling a device marketed as a long-distance lie detector—people ordered it by mail, so they could point it at their TVs to find out if the Watergate witnesses were telling the truth.

The hearing room itself was small, stiflingly hot, and crowded with spectators and reporters. Tourists stood in line outside to get their turn in the belly of the beast. Famous writers like Mary McCarthy and Norman Mailer came through, as did Barbra Streisand. Dick Cavett also filmed an episode of his talk show from inside the hearing room after the day’s testimony had come to a close.


Cavett: Hello, I’m Dick Cavett, and I can’t believe where I am at this moment—maybe you can’t either.

With a live studio audience in the room, Cavett wandered around in amazement, clearly having a surreal experience. At one point, he took a seat in the main witness chair, straightened his back, and said into the camera,

Cavett: No one has asked me, but I would like to make it clear right now that I had no knowledge whatever of the Watergate cover-up. In fact, I still don’t have as much knowledge as I’d like to.

Cavett then interviewed one of the Republican senators, telling him jokingly that when he’d sat down in that witness chair, he felt guilty. The senator responded, “You might be the first one.”


The most significant and dramatic witness at the hearings was John Dean. You’ve heard his name before, but to refresh your memory: Dean was a White House lawyer who helped plan and carry out the Watergate cover-up. But then he had decided to flip—to tell the committee everything he had heard and everything he had done.

Dean had served as Nixon’s White House counsel up until a few weeks before the hearings started. He was 34 years old, and he looked even younger. Sam Dash, the chief counsel, advised him to put on horn-rimmed glasses instead of his usual contacts so that he would look more serious.


Ervin: The committee will come to order. The counsel will call the first witness.

Unidentified counsel: Mr. John W. Dean III.

Ervin: Stand up and raise your right hand.


In the end, Dean probably didn’t need the glasses—his testimony was bracing enough. Over the course of five full days in June, Dean methodically described how the Nixon campaign had paid hush money to the burglars after the break-in. He also revealed that Nixon kept an “enemies list”—

Dean: … which was rather extensive and continually being updated.

Unidentified: I’m not going to ask who was on it—I’m afraid you might answer.

The list was later revealed to include Ted Kennedy, Noam Chomsky, John Lennon, Wright Patman, and hundreds of others.

Most importantly, Dean placed responsibility for the cover-up directly at the president’s feet: He recalled a conversation in which he had told the president how much it would cost to keep the burglars quiet.


Dean: I told the president about the fact that there was no money to pay these individuals to meet their demands. He asked me how much it would cost. I told him I could only make an estimate that it might be as high as a million dollars or more. He told me that that was no problem.

Time magazine described Dean as “owlish” and said he spoke in a “lifeless monotone.” But what stood out about Dean’s testimony was its precision: Indeed, Dean owed much of his credibility to his easy command of details and almost robotic recall. (In one private interview with the committee staff, Dean specified that, during some controversial meeting, he had been wearing mismatched plaids.)


Dean’s lifeless monotone would prove to be a pivotal voice of the Watergate saga. It shifted the nation’s focus from the burglary to what Nixon knew and when he knew it.

You know that line, right? “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” It’s one of the most famous Watergate sound bites, along with “Follow the money” and “I am not a crook.”

The person who said “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” was Howard Baker, a senator from Tennessee and the top-ranking Republican on the committee. I always imagined that phrase being uttered as an angry demand that must have come at a pivotal moment—part of a dramatic cross-examination of an uncooperative witness.


It turns out that wasn’t quite the case. The truth is that Baker said “What did the president know, and when did he know it,” over and over and over again. It was his thing.

[clips of Baker saying the phrase over and over]

Baker: What did the president know, and when did he know it?

Baker: What did the president know, and when did he know it?

Baker: Let me reiterate: What did the president know, and when did he know it?

It reminds me of when you see your favorite band play two nights in a row, and on the second night you realize that all their “spontaneous” stage banter was totally rehearsed.

Of course, rehearsed isn’t necessarily a bad thing. John Dean’s testimony was meticulously rehearsed, and it’s hard to overstate how stunning it was—how specific it was, and how vivid.


Dean: I began by telling the president that there was a cancer growing on the presidency, and if the cancer was not removed, the president himself would be killed by it. I also told him that it was important that this cancer be removed immediately, because it was growing more deadly every day.

Dean’s testimony indicated that Nixon had known all along what was going on with the Watergate cover-up and that he had enthusiastically taken part in it. These were deeply troubling things to absorb about the president of the United States. They shook people up.

Mary DeOreo, the Senate Watergate Committee investigator, remembers talking to her father on the phone about the hearings. He was a Republican—and he had been watching at home, in Ohio.


DeOreo: He was still believing that there was going to be that moment that would show this president to be presidential.

Remember, Mary’s parents weren’t thrilled when their daughter went to work for the committee. But one night, after some of the most explosive testimony had been delivered, Mary was on the phone with her dad, and she could hear that something had changed.

DeOreo: And it was really clear that this was serious. And my dad, who was a man of very few words, said, “Well honey, I guess there are some bad actors there, and I’m sorry—I’m sorry that you and Marc are in this situation.” You know, he was a believer. I hung up the phone, and I started to cry. I said to Marc, “You know, it’s one thing to lie to the people and just to do what you’re doing, but to hurt my father? Nah, I’m never gonna forgive this guy for this.”


Not everyone was persuaded by John Dean’s testimony. Questions swirled about his honesty and about his motivations. What was this guy’s angle? Where had he come from, and what was he getting in exchange for his testimony?

Hamilton: I think Dean was very afraid, and with some good reason, of being made the scapegoat for Watergate by the Nixon White House.

That’s Jim Hamilton, who worked for the Watergate committee as an assistant chief counsel. Hamilton was part of a small group that met with Dean and prepped him for his appearance in front of the Senate committee. The purpose of the meetings was to organize Dean’s evidence, find out what he wanted to say, and then figure out how, and in what order, he would say it.


Hamilton: He obviously had interest in self-protection. I also think that he realized that what had gone on in the White House and what he had been involved in was just wrong and that it was time to get it out. So while he was protecting himself, I also think, in my view, he was performing a public service.

The Nixon administration and its surrogates worked hard to discredit Dean. They painted him as the mastermind of the cover-up—an opportunistic rat. Rick Perlstein, author of The Invisible Bridge, told me about one particularly insane talking point.

Perlstein: They leaked that the reason he was dropping the dime was he was afraid he was going to be raped in prison.

Neyfakh: What?

Perlstein: Yes! That he’s afraid of going to prison because he’s so conscious of his young good looks, or something like that.

That talking point made it into the papers courtesy of Joseph Alsop, a syndicated columnist who described Dean as “a smooth-faced young man who is reportedly obsessed by fear of going to jail.”

The problem for Dean was that there was no way to fact-check his testimony. No one else would corroborate his version of events. And unlike, say, former FBI Director James Comey, Dean hadn’t taken detailed contemporaneous notes of his conversations in the White House. Meanwhile, the president spent a year telling the American people that he had no advance knowledge of the burglary and no role in organizing the cover-up. It was John Dean’s word against Richard Nixon’s.


Unidentified: Why on earth should I believe anything that John Dean says?

Reporter 1: Dean said he will take a lie detector test in all matters where his testimony conflicts with that of others.

Reporter 2: He is the only man who discussed Watergate repeatedly with the president who is no longer loyal to the president. Although it will be debated whether that makes his testimony more trustworthy, or less.

A poll taken about a month after Dean testified asked respondents who they thought was telling the truth. Exactly half said they believed Dean. 25 percent said they weren’t sure who to believe.

But even those people who were inclined to think Dean was telling the truth were left with the nagging feeling that they would never really know. It seemed like Watergate was doomed to forever remain a case of he-said, he-said.

Dean: I realize it’s almost an impossible task if it’s one man against the other that I’m up against, and it’s not a very pleasant situation, but I can only speak what I knew to be the facts, and that’s what I’m providing this committee.

And then, one day in July 1973, the Senate Watergate Committee found the definitive proof that the country had been looking for.

It was Friday night, July 13, when Marc Lackritz found out that Richard Nixon had been taping all of his conversations in the Oval Office.

Lackritz was working in his cubicle when one of the other staffers ran in to tell him the news. That staffer had just finished interviewing one of Nixon’s aides.

Lackritz: And he’s exercised, and his eyes are wide open—he comes into my cubicle: “We got him! The White House was bugged.”


Lackritz couldn’t believe it. Nixon had an automatic taping system in the White House.
All those conversations that John Dean had testified about—there were recordings of all of them!

The scoop came that Friday night from a Nixon aide named Alexander Butterfield. And Butterfield would be testifying about the taping system at the committee’s next hearing, the following Monday. That meant that Lackritz and the handful of other staffers who knew about Nixon’s taping system had to keep the secret for more than 48 hours.

There was one person on the committee staff whom Marc was especially desperate to tell.

DeOreo: Sunday night—

Lackritz: Early Monday morning—

DeOreo: I have this crazy man jumping around, and I’m finally saying, “Marc, what is it? My God, we gotta get some sleep here.”

Neyfakh: You mean he was tossing and turning?

Mary: He’s tossing and turning, and he says—now this is 3 in the morning—he says, “Can I tell you something?” And I said, “Yeah what, what?” He said, “But wait, wait. Mary, you’ve got to promise me you’re not going to tell a soul.” And I said, “Marc, it’s 3 o’clock in the morning. What do you think I’m going to do?”


Finally, he told her: about the secret interview, about the taping system, about the Nixon aide who was set to reveal the existence of the tapes the very next day.

DeOreo: [imitating Marc] “He’s going to be the surprise witness. And this is what he’s going to say.” Well, now we’re both wide awake.

The next day, the rest of the country was, too.

Reporter: Good evening. There was a surprise witness at the Watergate hearings today, and he made a dramatic disclosure. Alexander Butterfield, former aide to H. R. Haldeman, said that President Nixon ordered secret electronic listening devices …

This podcast is a production of Slate Plus, Slate’s membership program. Slate Plus members get a complete bonus episode of Slow Burn every week, going deeper into the wild world of Watergate. I’m sharing some of the amazing stuff I’ve found in researching the series and playing extended versions of my interviews with people who watched it all go down.

This week, we’ve got a twofer. First, an interview with Rob Caughlan, founder of the Sam Ervin Fan Club. Then I’ll be joined by two of my Slate colleagues, Katy Waldman and Henry Grabar, for a Watergate book club. We’ll be discussing The Mask of State by Mary McCarthy, an account of the Senate Watergate hearings that was published just before Nixon resigned.

Slate Plus members help support this show and the rest of our work. You can find out more, and sign up for Slate Plus, at

Slow Burn is produced by me and Andrew Parsons. Our script editor is Josh Levin. Gabriel Roth is the editorial director of Slate Plus. The artwork for Slow Burn is by Teddy Blanks from Chips. Thanks to NBC Archives and the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum for the audio you heard in this episode.

Thanks to Slate’s Chau Tu, June Thomas, and Steve Lickteig. Special thanks to Kate Scott, from the U.S. Senate Historical Office, and to Gordon Freedman, proprietor of, for helping me with this week’s episode. You can find a full list of books, articles, and documentaries used to research this episode on our show page.

When we come back, we’ll meet Richard Nixon’s apologists. How did the president’s loyal allies manage to defend him, even as it became more and more obvious that he was hiding something terrible?

Gail Sheehy: Working-class white men who were Democrats, who had voted for Democrats all their lives, they talked about, “The liberals can’t understand why we don’t see any harm in what Richard Nixon is doing. And you know what the answer is? We don’t care!”

I’m Leon Neyfakh. Tune in next time.