Slow Burn: What It Was Like to Live Through Watergate

May 4, 2018

Note: You can find the full audio from Leon Neyfakh's on-stage interview in Milwaukee at the bottom of this post.

The news these days is filled with stories of high-level leaks, dirty tricks, and a President with a habit of saying things you wouldn't expect to hear from a Chief Executive.

But you'd be wrong to think this is a political climate without precedent.  "Slow Burn" was an eight-part podcast series, produced by the online magazine Slate.  It related the story of Watergate, in a way that sought to give listeners a sense for what it was like to live through that period of history 45 years ago.  It turns out it was a lot like living through the current period.

"Here was a period of time in American history when the country's political situation - the functioning of the government - felt very precarious," says Leon Neyfakh, reporter for Slate and host of "Slow Burn."

"It was a time when people were waking up in the morning and not knowing what was going to happen next, and they were reading about things in the newspaper that had never happened before."

Neyfakh, who grew up in suburban Chicago well after the Nixon era, says most of his prior knowledge of the era came through the book, and the screen adaptation of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.  That changed as he spent two months compiling interviews and backstory that filled the podcast.  "It didn't occur to me that there were as many sort of intriguing subplots and as many characters that I wasn't remotely aware of as there were," he says.

One of the sidebars to the project, he explains, was getting a better understanding of why some accounts become history and others are relegated to dusty shelves in the library.

"It's a totally fascinating question," Neyfakh says.  "I don't really have a great answer - with 'All The President's Men,' it helps that it was a great film that Robert Redford was in.  But there's a lot more to the story than [Woodward and Bernstein's] journalism."