The Other Legacy of Watergate: Nicknames
HBO is about to launch a miniseries on The Plumbers—Richard Nixon’s dirty tricks squad caught in the midst of the Watergate burglary. Judging from the commercials and comments from cast members such as Woody Harrelson, it looks like the series will be played for laughs. White House Plumbers is timed for the 50th anniversary of when the American people learned about the existence of The Plumbers and their nickname, from a court memo in one of the Watergate burglary trials that emerged in April 1973.
Nicknames have a long and amusing history in politics, dating back at least as far as the Roman Empire. But nicknames took off in American presidential politics before Donald Trump came on the scene and started giving out demeaning handles to his political opponents. (And even before George W. Bush, who was famous for doling out more affectionate monikers.)
The Plumbers owed their nickname to the fact that they were first employed to plug leaks. Nixon was obsessed with stopping leaks and catching leakers, especially after the disclosure of what became known as the “Pentagon Papers.” Nixon instructed his team to make sure that there would be no leaks and ordered wiretapping operations, and, oddly, a firebombing and break-in to the headquarters of the Brookings Institution as part of these efforts. The Brookings break-in never happened, but obviously the Watergate one did.
The members of The Plumbers were former law enforcement types and “spooks” (former spies). It’s not clear that these bumblers were ready for prime time, although a prime-time comedy series seems fitting. One of them, Tony Ulasewicz, had to go to the library to look up what the Brookings Institution even was before planning out the Nixon-ordered assault that never came.
Watergate was such a sprawling and bizarre scandal that it spurred many other nicknames beyond just “The Plumbers.” The most famous of them all may have been Deep Throat, the name the Washington Post editorial team assigned to the secret source who was feeding information to journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein about the inner workings of the Nixon administration. Collectively, the two reporters had their own nickname: “Woodstein.”