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Dick Cavett's role in exposing Watergate explored in WNET documentary

Dick Cavett in PBS' "Dick Cavett's Watergate."

Dick Cavett in PBS' "Dick Cavett's Watergate." Credit: Daphne Productions

THE DOCUMENTARY "Dick Cavett's Watergate"

WHEN | WHERE Friday night at 9, WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Dick Cavett, who hosted a late-night talk show for ABC from 1968 to 1974, had an ill-disguised obsession during the Watergate years -- for Watergate. He interviewed many central figures, including Watergate "plumber" G. Gordon Liddy and attorneys general Richard Kleindienst and John Mitchell. He also famously originated an edition from the Senate hearing room during the Watergate hearings. ("I felt guilty sitting there," in the seat where individuals testified, he told Sen. Howard Baker, who replied: "You might be the first one.") Cavett's obsession led to a national obsession -- and ultimately Nixon's own obsession with the host. Over tapes, Nixon is heard to say, "What the hell is Cavett? A Jew? Is there any way we can screw him?" Cavett recalls, "It gave me both a laugh and chill simultaneously," when he heard the tape years later.

MY SAY Dick Cavett is the greatest talk-show host most people younger than 35 have never heard of. The rest of us still vividly recall that his ABC late-night show and one for public TV ('77 to '82) were redoubts of intelligent conversation back when much of TV really was a vast wasteland. But tonight's program is a modest attempt to recall another part of the legacy: He had the instincts of a natural born newsman, too. Cavett was (and, at 77, remains) curious, skeptical, erudite, witty and urbane. He also used his show to shine a hard, bright light on a story much of the rest of television was ignoring after the Watergate story broke in 1972. That made him something of a groundbreaking journalist as well. Tonight's look at the program's string of Watergate editions covers the entire timeline, from the break-in (Cavett immediately devoted an edition to a lousy burglary few thought had any significance) to the resignation (40 years ago tomorrow). "It had the appeal to me of a John le Carré novel," he recalls. Before long, the rest of TV, including CBS News, began to focus on Watergate. And just when Cavett and his historic Watergate series were about to become a footnote in the crush of news coverage, he figured out another way to get himself back in the spotlight: A surreal episode from the Senate hearing room in which the host mixed comedy with pathos. There apparently was plenty of both to go around.

BOTTOM LINE Cavett finally gets his due for the role he played in Watergate. But there aren't nearly enough on-screen moments by the host in which he reflects on what Watergate meant or still means to him.




How it All Evolved

I spoke with Dick Cavett, who was at his home in Montauk, recently. Here's an edited version of our chat.

Why did you decide to do this broadcast?

Robert Bader, a friend of mine, put together the Cavett show for DVD some years ago, and knowing my tapes as nobody does, he'd point out that we'd done enough jazz people to do a jazz special and enough sports people to do a sports special and certainly enough Watergate to do Watergate.

Why so many editions devoted to Watergate?

I just couldn't avoid the subject. I didn't mean to turn the show over to it by any means, it was just so enthralling.

Were you surprised that major figures in the emerging scandal agreed to come on the show?

I was quite surprised, even more recently by the fact that he said, "What can we do to screw ?"

Did Nixon ever address your show directly?

No, in the tapes. I've heard I was referenced in 30 -- a lot of it complaining "why can't we get our ideas on TV?" The other odd fact is that his staff made for him 30 "Cavett" show tapes and they may still be at San Clemente. ... Clearly, he was obsessed with me. It was very, very odd.

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