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Book Review

Smoke On The Potomac: The Untold Story

Behind The Watergate Hotel Fire


By Chris Oakley



More than three decades have passed since the Watergate luxury hotel and office complex was gutted by a massive fire that left many of its residents dead and cost the Democratic Party thousands of pages of important files which might otherwise have helped it take back the White House from Richard Nixon. Now a new book whose publication is being timed to coincide with the 35th anniversary of Vice-President Spiro Agnew’s resignation reveals never-before-published details about that horrific night in the fall of 1971 when the Watergate went up in flames and offers some interesting (if slightly implausible) theories on how American and world history might have been affected if the fire had never happened.

Bob Woodward’s Smoke On The Potomac: The Untold Story Behind The Watergate Hotel Fire (HarperCollins, $49.95), written by one of the two Washington Post reporters who broke the story of the fire, begins by recapping the familiar details of that night: the first urgent phone calls to the D.C. fire department, the steady spread of the fire from the basement where it is thought to have originated, security guard Frank Mills’ heroic sacrifice of his life to protect the survivors as they were evacuating the burning complex, President Nixon’s late-night unannounced visit to the ruins of the hotel in the fire’s aftermath. Then he segues into a wealth of additional facts only uncovered within  the last few years, as well as elements of the tragedy which had for the most part been forgotten until now.

For instance, Woodward deals at length with the still-unexplained  presence of White House staffer E. Howard Hunt at the Watergate on the night of the fire. There’s a wealth of conspiracy theories implicating Hunt as a major participant in-- or even the instigator of --various arson plots related to the fire, and Woodward describes in detail how Hunt’s movements and actions that night may have fed the conspiracy talk. Woodward also recapitulates the D.C. fire department’s official  report blaming the Watergate fire on an overloaded electrical circuit. But what truly makes Smoke On The Potomac a fascinating read is his revelation that Hunt was part of an aborted plan by several of Nixon’s most senior White House aides to break into the DNC offices inside the Watergate and use the files there to discredit Nixon’s political foes. He uses this information in two ways: 1)to explore the deep paranoia which drove the President’s political philosophy and 2)to explore an alternate history in which the fire didn’t occur and the White House’s unofficial covert intelligence squad, the "plumbers", went through with the break-in plot.

Unfortunately, fashioning a credible alternate timeline proves to be beyond Woodward’s abilities. For starters, his scenario about the break-in asks readers to accept the patently ridiculous notion of men trained in the art of stealth being so utterly inept as to let themselves get caught by an ordinary DC police patrol car; not only that, but it tenders the far-fetched idea Richard Nixon, one of the most power-hungry men to ever sit in the Oval Office, would resign the presidency in the face of mere threat of impeachment-- when in real life it took a long, bitter, and divisive trial by Congress to get him out of office(and even then he literally had to be dragged out of the White House kicking and screaming). Nor is Woodward fully able to sell readers(at least not this one) on the concept of Jimmy Carter gaining a second term as commander-in-chief; though he somehow managed to slip past Nixon’s bumbling second vice-president and successor Gerald R. Ford in 1976, Ronald Reagan proved to be too much for him to handle, particularly when Reagan started hammering Carter on the way he handled-- or in the eyes of his critics, mishandled -- the Iranian embassy takeover crisis.

But perhaps the least plausible element of his storyline about an America sans Watergate fire is his description of how the Vietnam War plays out after his hypothetical break-in at the hotel. As great a diplomat as Henry Kissinger may have been, even he couldn’t have concentrated on cease-fire talks with Hanoi in the face of all the distractions a scandal over a Watergate break-in would have caused; in fact, North Vietnam probably would have exploited those distractions to further undermine America’s position inside South Vietnam and eventually crush the Saigon government. And let’s not even get started on Woodward’s absurdly unrealistic depiction of a rooftop helicopter evacuation of refugees from the grounds of the US embassy in Saigon.

In the end, Smoke On The Potomac is more valuable for its factual content than its attempts to spin a ‘might have been’ story of a hypothetical Watergate break-in and its aftermath. A much better example of a "what if" narrative about Watergate is scheduled to be re-released next July in time for the 35th anniversary of President Nixon’s removal from office: the classic 1984 book All The President’s Men, written by Woodward’s former Washington Post colleague Carl Bernstein.


The End


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