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'A tragedy that makes you laugh': HBO's 'White House Plumbers' revisits Watergate

The actors Justin Theroux (left) and Woody Harrelson play G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt in the new HBO miniseries <em>White House Plumbers.</em> The show premieres on May 1.
The actors Justin Theroux (left) and Woody Harrelson play G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt in the new HBO miniseries White House Plumbers. The show premieres on May 1.

HBO's new five-part miniseries, White House Plumbers, revisits the infamous Watergate burglary that brought down President Richard Nixon from the perspective of the men who orchestrated it: G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt, played by Justin Theroux and Woody Harrelson.

"I certainly never thought of it as a comedy because to me, it's such a horrific period in American history," director David Mandel told NPR's Leila Fadel. "I keep calling it a tragedy that makes you laugh."

The story is familiar, yes. The point of view, less so.

The "plumbers" — Liddy, ex-FBI, and Hunt, ex-CIA — were charged with the task of stopping leaks like the Pentagon Papers. Their goal: To get Nixon reelected.

In 1972, they attempted to break into the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate. They were caught, and the scandal ultimately led to Nixon's resignation two years later, after his administration repeatedly tried to cover up their involvement.

Theroux and Mandel spoke to Morning Edition about what drew them to the series and how characters like Liddy paved the way for today's right-wing extremism.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

On how much was fictionalized for the series

Justin Theroux

Liddy wrote a book called Will, which was his sort of autobiography, which sometimes reads like a tall tale, Paul Bunyan type. When he talks about his childhood, he depicts himself as this sort of scrawny Irish guy from Hoboken, a kid who got bullied a lot. And he would do these insane things to get over his fears. So he trapped a rat, killed it and then ate it. He was afraid of thunderstorms. So he would strap himself to a tree during a thunder and lightning storm. And I had sympathy for him as this bullied kid. Like some people who get bullied, they look for sources of strength in odd places.

A still from the HBO miniseries <em>White House Plumbers, </em>in which G. Gordon Liddy orchestrates the failed Watergate break-in.
A still from the HBO miniseries White House Plumbers, in which G. Gordon Liddy orchestrates the failed Watergate break-in.

On G. Gordon Liddy's character

David Mandel

If Gordon Liddy existed nowadays, he'd be in a chat room somewhere. He's actually oddly a very modern character who was mostly obsessed with getting famous, and he really didn't care how it happened. He would have been happy to have had some sort of a scandal. He talked a big game, but didn't actually serve in the war and never quite actually killed anyone and had these delusions. There's a desperation to him that's part of why he's so dangerous.

He was happy to take a bullet for Nixon, literally. I think he did, unfortunately, create a playbook for being unapologetic about criminal activity and using it to get famous, frankly.

On drawing on the experience of Veep

David Mandel

Obviously, Veep is a pure comedy with very written jokes. You know, this show will make you laugh, but they're not jokes. It's character and real world things that you just find so shocking and horrible. This mix of, "oh my God, they were breaking in to try and basically undermine the will of the American people." These are guys that just are so desperate to be one step closer to power. And I think that's something that unfortunately infects just D.C. as a whole.

The actors Justin Theroux (left) and Woody Harrelson star in the HBO miniseries <em>White House Plumbers.</em>
The actors Justin Theroux (left) and Woody Harrelson star in the HBO miniseries White House Plumbers.

On the ways Watergate speaks to today's political moment

David Mandel

I think, unfortunately, this "true believer-ism" has been infecting politics really since Nixon. I like to say: We have very short memories. And so Watergate happens and then we think to ourselves, well, at least that's over with. That can never happen again. And then it happens again and again and again.

On parallels with today's politics

David Mandel

We certainly didn't lean into it, but we wanted it there. Every time you hear them talking about the press being evil, you would go, "Hey, that does sound familiar." And in a way, maybe that gives you a chance to look at what's going on today and start to realize, "Wow, this has been going on much longer than I realized." None of this is new. That kind of gives you a little bit of perspective, you get the modern-day perspective on Watergate and you kind of get this 50-year perspective on what's going on right now in our government.

Justin Theroux

There are times, in reading this, playing it and watching it, where there's almost something kind of adorable or corny. I mean, it's obviously horrific. But by comparison... Nixon could be shamed enough to actually resign. Whereas now there's been so many impeachments of both Republican and Democratic presidents. Where is this procedural process that's going to happen? Nothing happens.

David Mandel

The other day, the reporter Jonathan Allen said that it's important to watch this show because it reminds you what shame is. You know, we've all forgotten what shame is in politics.

Olivia Hampton and Miranda Kennedy contributed editing. contributed to this story

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Julie Depenbrock
Julie Depenbrock (she/her) is an assistant producer on Morning Edition. Previously, she worked at The Washington Post and on WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi Show. Depenbrock holds a master's in journalism with a focus in investigative reporting from the University of Maryland. Before she became a journalist, she was a first grade teacher in Rosebud, South Dakota. Depenbrock double-majored in French and English at Lafayette College. She has a particular interest in covering education, LGBTQ issues and the environment. She loves dogs, hiking, yoga and reading books for work (and pleasure).