HBO's White House Plumbers opens with a disclaimer for where it stands on fact vs. fiction. The five-episode limited series about Watergate, described as "based on a true story" in its opening, doesn't change names to protect the innocent because, as the disclaimer states, "nearly everyone was found guilty."
That's the joke. The series, from Veep director David Mandel, is dealing with a moment in American history so ridiculous, it doesn't have to be fictionalized. Woody Harrelson and Justin Theroux play E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, respectively, the bumbling and braggadocious conspirators that led the break-in of the Watergate building to secure Richard Nixon a second term in 1972.
But at the end of the premiere episode, the series changes its story... a bit.
The closing credits include a second disclaimer — a disclaimer for the disclaimer, if you will — that says the series is a dramatization inspired by true events. "Some of the events, characters and dialogue have been fictionalized, modified or composited for dramatic purposes. But Richard Nixon definitely resigned from the Presidency in disgrace."
So what's the truth? What in White House Plumbers is real and what flourishes have been added to make the biggest political scandal of the 20th century even more ridiculous?
We've plucked a few of the premiere's finer points out to play a little fact and fiction of our own.
This is true, but it went down a little differently than the series depicts. The series' flash-forward cold open says it is the second attempt, and shows how it failed because one of the co-conspirators didn't have the right lock-picking tools to get inside (they would eventually tape over the locks in later attempts, which ultimately tipped off Frank Willis, the security guard who sounds the alarm).
In reality, CNN presidential historian Tim Naftali says the first attempt was the one without the right tools. The second failed because they didn't know where Democratic National Convention chairman Larry O'Brien's office was located in the building and bugged an empty conference. A full picture of the series' version of the attempts will play out in upcoming episodes.
This one is famously true. A character that perplexed many in Washington, Liddy was said to hold his hand over a candle to demonstrate that he could withstand pain upon meeting new people or confronting those he wanted to intimidate. He even poked fun at his own reputation for aggressive and destructive fearlessness when he appeared on Celebrity Fear Factor in 2006.
This is true and becomes a key component of the Hunts' story when the Watergate conspiracy is exposed. Dorothy began working with the CIA after World War II and was stationed in China, where she met Howard (something else the show correctly asserts). By the time Howard started working with Liddy in 1971, Dorothy was working for the Spanish Embassy in Washington, D.C. as a translator. The New York Times' reporting at the time described her as "a long-time employee." She was terminated from the post when the Watergate conspiracy news broke.
What's a little harder to confirm is Dorothy's own statement in the series that she worked, during the war, to recover art stolen by the Nazis. As most accounts of her CIA history suggest she joined after the war, this might be a creation of the show to deepen her government work — and set up the next claim.
In the same scene where Dorothy's CIA background is discussed, Liddy casually and curiously blares a vinyl record of Hitler's speeches, much to the chagrin of the Hunts who are over for a dinner party. He speaks excitedly about Hitler's views on art as propaganda, having clearly listened to the Fuhrer's words on more than one occasion.
In reality, Liddy was fascinated with and even idolized Hitler as a young man, a time when he often spoke of being bullied and feeling powerless. In an 1994 interview with The Independent, Liddy said Hitler's radio speeches "made me feel a strength inside I had never known before." Enough so that he breaks them out at dinner parties, it appears.
The series gets the circumstances right but changes the details a little. The plumbers did visit Los Angeles to do surveillance on the office of Dr. Lewis Fielding, and then they returned with approval from Nixon's people to break in to try and retrieve Ellsberg's file –– emphasis on the break.
In the premiere episode, Liddy and Hunt, along with their hired hands, can't get past the locked door they thought would be open. So they break a window, causing more of a scene than they intended.
Inside, they crack open a filing cabinet but don't find the file, which Hunt rules as a win because he says it confirms the file had been moved to conceal Ellsberg's guilt in the Pentagon Papers leak. They still trash the office and bafflingly litter the room with pills to make it look like an addict had tossed the place looking for more.
The show certainly leans into the Plumbers' more comedic antics, but this one might be a creation of the writers. The real Plumbers did find Ellsberg's file in Fielding's filing cabinet, according to Ellsberg himself, but apparently didn't think it enlightening so they left it on the doctor's desk. In his recollection of learning of the break in the following year, he did not mention the room being trashed or pills tossed everywhere, so that might be more fiction than fact.
Want to know how important this moment was in setting the stage for Watergate? That violated filing cabinet is now part of the Smithsonian.
White House Plumbers airs Monday nights at 9/8c on HBO and HBO Max.