News & Politics

Replumbing Watergate: Author Elizabeth Drew on “Washington Journal”

A look back at Nixon’s resignation, 40 years later.

In 1975, journalist Elizabeth Drew published Washington Journal, a collection of her New Yorker articles chronicling President Richard Nixon’s downfall. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation, and this month brings a reissue of Drew’s book, with her new introduction and afterword. I spoke with her by telephone from her DC home.

Is the anniversary the sole reason for revisiting this book?

When I wrote the book, my mentor, John Gardner, told me, “Write like it’s 40 years from now.” He actually said “40 years”! Now almost two generations are aware that the resignation happened but don’t understand how enormous it was or how Nixon became this jokey, evil cult figure.

How did you come to write it?

I hadn’t intended to write this account. But I was fortunate to write under New Yorker editor William Shawn. It was like dancing with Fred Astaire—he made us better than we thought we could be. When I told him what I was thinking of trying, his response was “Take a chance on anything, Mrs. Drew.”

Was Nixon truly a tragic figure?

How things played out did take on the aspect of a Greek tragedy. His core problem was mistaking opposition for enemies. Still, there was a lot of farce. It was funny and frightening. You never knew what you were going to hear next—there was a kind of nervous laughter, constantly.

How did it feel to reread the book?

It struck me forcefully that if we’d had cable and internet, we would have been wrecks. Part of this book was demonstrating how the news was communicated. Now it’s faster, but there’s more blather. That was our one and only serious impeachment process. It had to be bipartisan and fair and fairly arrived at. A lot was at stake, including our Constitution—that’s no exaggeration.

This article appears in the May 2014 issue of Washingtonian.