There’s enough Watergate addenda out in the general American consciousness to flood entire D.C. libraries, so there was an extra challenge for the creators of the Slate podcast “Slow Burn” to not only find underappreciated stories from the era, but enlist some previously overlooked participants in the proceedings. Often, that meant going a layer deeper than they expected.
When asked if there was a particular interview that best exemplified that approach, host Leon Neyfakh told IndieWire about discovering brand new angles to the saga that led to the end of Richard Nixon’s presidency.
“One example that was really exciting was when I called Curtis Prins for Episode 2, the Wright Patman episode. Prins worked for Patman and he was really, depending on how you define it, the first person to look into Watergate,” Neyfakh said. “He actually told me that he had never gotten a phone call about the work he did for Patman, so it was really exciting to hear him describe it and tell the story of him going in to interview Maurice Stans and then refusing to shake his hand because he had stonewalled him so much. That was a real thrill to feel like I was excavating something that might otherwise not have ever been excavated.”
It’s just one of a bevy of fresh insights into the Watergate tale that make up the cornerstone of “Slow Burn,” which wraps up its stellar first season on Tuesday. Over eight episodes, the show chronicles the major signposts of the saga (from break-in to cover-up to ouster), all through the eyes and ears and words of the unsung people who had a major part in shaping the outcome. As the first-time host of his own show — Neyfakh said he called it an “audio documentary” to the potential subjects who didn’t know what a podcast was — a big challenge was balancing his own narration with the first-hand testimony of his many interviews of significant Watergate players. Luckily, Neyfakh had a collaborator to help steer the ship.
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“Our producer Andrew Parsons was really great about sharing his insights about pacing and when a listener might want to hear a different voice. He’s worked in radio and podcasting for a long time and has real sharp instinct for what’s too much text, what’s too much narration to have in one go, how often do we need to break up my yammering with newsreels or other archival footage or material that we’ve gathered ourselves,” Neyfakh said. “There’s certain parts of the story that are just better heard in the first person. I think the story that Carl Feldbaum, one of the Assistant Special Prosecutors, tells about going to the White House to pick up tapes and then coming back to the office and listening to them, that was a story that was much better delivered by him than it would’ve paraphrased by me.”
There’s plenty of source material in volumes of Watergate biographies (Neyfakh points to “Nightmare” by J. Anthony Lukas and historian Stanley Kutler’s books as major ones) with plenty of subplot inspiration. But through “Slow Burn,” Neyfakh and Parsons found an unexpected secret storytelling tool in the reports from NBC Nightly News anchor John Chancellor, the velvet-throated voice of reason in a sometimes frenzied Nixon-era media landscape. Neyfakh likes one “Slow Burn” fan’s characterization of Chancellor as “a co-narrator” participating in the show in his own way, two decades after his passing. But in addition to being a literal voice of a bygone TV era, the anchor’s demeanor helped unspool Watergate in a way few other people would be able to.
“[He] has an amazing voice and one thing that we liked is that he is generally very even-keeled. He delivers the news very steady, classic objective newscaster voice. And then you hear his dispatches from October 20, 1973, and he sounds very different. People who had been hearing John Chancellor through the first six episodes got to hear him in Episode 7 sounding truly spooked and disturbed. I thought that was a cool thing to hear,” Neyfakh said.
The answers to “Why Watergate? Why now?” might seem obvious to some following the daily news cycle, but the parallels to the current intrigue within the Trump White House aren’t as interesting as the way that “Slow Burn” subtly punctures the idea that all of what’s happening now is unprecedented. That word “unprecedented” pops up a few times over the course of the show, including in the season finale, as the impeachment walls begin to close in on Nixon himself.
“We have tried not to hit people over the head with parallels, just because for the most part they are really self-evident and you don’t really need to emphasize them too much for people to hear the resonances. We haven’t run towards subplots or angles that would tee up those parallels. I can honestly say, we’ve sort of let them come to us instead of seeking them out deliberately,” Neyfakh said.
For every late night host that’s processing headlines along with their audiences today, “Slow Burn” has accounts from Dick Cavett who was doing similar work on his show. For every fantastical story about the family member of a central administration official that lands on Twitter, “Slow Burn” has the story of Martha Mitchell, which kicked off the series in such effective fashion. And for the way that conspiracies have flooded into political rhetoric, one especially interesting “Slow Burn” episode shows how those theories shaped the viewpoints of significant subsets of the American public.
“The feeling of not knowing what’s not too crazy to believe is very powerful right now. And I was struck by the fact that, apparently that was true then, too. And it’s certainly true reading the history books about Watergate now,” Neyfakh said. “When you had a few completely unbelievable things turn out to be 100 percent real, it sort of scrambles your ability to at least use your instincts to determine what’s true and what’s not.”
Still, it’s hard not to imagine a future generation sifting through the 2016 aftermath, looking for and discovering curiosities that we in the present day take for granted. In the opening “Slow Burn” episode, Neyfakh puts forward Anthony Scaramucci as a prime figure to get swept away by the winds of time. But Neyfakh also says that the nature of Trump’s stranglehold on the public awareness means that there might be plenty more figures who seem central now that the audio documentarians of 2063 might have to reacquaint their audiences with.
“It’s such a rich cast of characters that are all minor, relative to Trump. You know? He’s such a dominant figure in the story of the last two years, that I feel like everyone else is peripheral as a result, may be lost to history. I guess I would be surprised if like Steve Bannon wasn’t well-known in 20 years, but it’s also just seems totally possible that he won’t be, the same way that people don’t really know the names of Nixon’s advisors who were trying to help him get through this,” Neyfakh said. “The fun ones are the ones that we are obsessed with, and yet are going to just turn to sand or ash as soon as we stop thinking about them. I feel like Sean Spicer, who we had to look at every day when he was giving the daily press briefings and someone who occupied a disproportionate amount of our attention, or at least the attention of journalists, I think he will not be necessarily in the history books, either.”
Regardless of how audiences process those connections, there’s plenty of staggering Watergate curiosities in “Slow Burn” to hook those looking to stay firmly in the past, like the season finale nugget that there was so much paper in the House investigation’s offices that they had to reinforce the floors from giving way. For those who are in search of a way to process the current administration’s actions, Neyfakh looks to the infamous Saturday Night Massacre, but not for the reasons you’d expect.
“I think of the way in which the White House aides that were around Nixon and his Attorney General were trying to defuse the situation before it came to an end. When they floated the Stennis Compromise and tried to figure out a way to finesse their way out of the problem, I guess that I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that a lot of the crises that the Trump White House has to get through every week are handled in a similarly ad hoc way,” Neyfakh said. “Where it’s just a bunch of a people in a room trying to not necessarily to do the right thing, but trying to get through something.”
The first season of “Slow Burn” is available via Slate and all podcast players.