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‘20/20: Watergate — Truth & Lies’ review: Major players speak on a sober, 45th anniversary

President Richard Nixon, during the Watergate investigation, tells

President Richard Nixon, during the Watergate investigation, tells a White House news conference that he will not allow his legal counsel, John Dean, to testify on Capitol Hill. Credit: AP / CHARLES TASNADI

NEWS SPECIAL “20/20: Watergate — Truth & Lies”

WHEN | WHERE Friday at 9 p.m. on ABC/7


WHAT IT’S ABOUT On the 45th anniversary of the break-in at the Watergate, this two-hour special covers all the key events ultimately leading to the resignation of the 37th president. This includes interviews — many archival — with most of the major players. Fresh interviews include: Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, White House Counsel John Dean, presidential deputy assistant Alex Butterfield, Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP) treasurer Hugh Sloan, CREEP bookkeeper Judy Hoback Miller, Senate Watergate Committee member Rufus Edmisten, and Joan Felt, daughter of “Deep Throat” Mark Felt. Anchors, historians and commentators — including Dan Rather and Bill O’Reilly, who says Nixon was “making decisions based on rage other than what’s good for the country” — offer perspective.

Only the first hour was available for review.

MY SAY Forty-five years ago Friday night, a 1958 B-movie, “Attack of the Puppet People,” was airing in Washington, D.C. Plot details are unimportant. Who was watching, however, is.

A “shadow man” by the name of Alfred Baldwin was glued to the set in his hotel room, which was directly across from the Watergate office complex. Had he been paying attention to the Democratic National Committee offices instead of — let’s assume — the scene where a dog as big as a house was attacking three-inch high people on the TV, he would have noticed police entering the offices. He could have then warned the five burglars.

But the “Puppet People” prevailed. “Sometimes history needs a push,” Lenin once ominously said. Sometimes history needs a farce, too.

ABC’s cleanly told “Truth & Lies” is a sharp reminder of the farcical — and the unimaginable — that unfolded over a two-year stretch ending on Aug. 9, 1974, when Richard Nixon resigned. Watergate consumed our lives, our attention, and especially our TVs. It’s perhaps good — even salutary — to remember that a prodigiously bad movie had a comic part to play. There were other risible players: G. Gordon Liddy remains as colorful and quotable as ever. The peerless overseer of these Keystone Kops explains that his various black bag operations “had the names of precious jewels, and then after we ran out of those, we named them after semiprecious jewels, and by the time we were finished, we were down to ‘coal’ and ‘brick.’ ” Liddy — the interviews here are years old — is 86 now, and long retired. A real shame: He would have been perfect on one of the “Sharknados.” (He was — you’ll recall — on “Miami Vice” and lots of other shows.)

Of course, Watergate was far more tragic than comic, which “Truth & Lies” makes clear. As Nixon’s press secretary Ron Ziegler recalls, “If someone looked into the soul of Richard Nixon, he knew he was guilty. That was the tragedy of Watergate.”

Arriving on an off-anniversary — the 45th is hardly as momentous as the 50th — it’s reasonable to assume ABC wants to draw parallels with the current turmoil in Washington. But at least in the portion screened, an opposing theme emerges: Watergate continues to hold such a unique place in history that parallels are simply inconceivable.

At least none is offered here. In this flow of memories and reflections, only that incorrigible troublemaker and legendary White House reporter, Sam Donaldson, makes an oblique allusion to the current president. Speaking of the 1972 general election, he says “Nixon won the election very very bigly, if I may use the word.”

BOTTOM LINE Sober, cleanly told overview that’s uncluttered — at least in the hour screened — with any suggestion history may be repeating itself.

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