Even when considered only at surface value, Slate’s Slow Burn podcast is a great idea. Hosted and masterminded by reporter Leon Neyfakh, it’s a miniseries that dives deep into Watergate, using audio clips from the era and new interviews with relevant parties to pick apart the scandal and the way it unfolded in the public eye. The value of revisiting this story in today’s political climate is obvious, but it’s the show’s focus on the experience of living through something as unimaginable as the collapse of a corrupt presidency that takes its relevance and potency to a whole other level. The thing that’s struck me hardest is its ability to show just how deeply the links run between the Nixon and Trump administrations. Yes, both men were paranoiacs obsessed with loyalty and revenge, and both allegedly obstructed justice to cover up illegal and/or underhanded campaign tactics. But Slow Burn illuminates fascinating layers of the Watergate story that are less talked about and even more alarming in the face of the Trump scandals.
For one, Neyfakh emphasizes just how little the public cared about Watergate in the early stages of the story’s unraveling. After all, the pieces started falling into place during the run-up to the 1972 election, but Nixon was unharmed and ended up trouncing George McGovern, the candidate his campaign wanted to face and used all manner of underhanded tactics to help promote. Neyfakh chalks the public apathy up to, at least in part, the media downplaying Watergate as a scandal, and instead using it as part of a narrative showing Nixon’s growth into a savvy, ruthless political animal. That’s an extremely troubling parallel to the media’s treatment of candidate Trump, particularly the way commentators were tripping over themselves to declare him “presidential” after he made the switch from energetically improvising deplorable bullshit to soullessly reading deplorable bullshit off a teleprompter. There’s been plenty of brilliant investigative journalism going on during the last year and a half, but a connection that clear is a powerful warning against the kind of easy narratives that even the most seasoned of reporters can find themselves falling into.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The free version of the show spans eight episodes—plus, bonus editions available only to paid Slate subscribers—and it sprawls into tons of interesting, relevant directions: How the Nixon administration spun and possibly blackmailed Congress into sweeping early investigations under the rug; how Nixon supporters deluded themselves into sticking by him even after it was obvious his hands were dirty; and most importantly and consistently, how we need to learn from the past to understand (and improve) the present.