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Watergate book by Santa Rosa native finds new resonance, 50 years after infamous break-in

The best-known bungled burglary in the annals of American politics turns 50 this year.

The 1972 arrest of five men inside the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C. led to the resignation, two years later, of then-President Richard Nixon.

Watergate — the building, not the break-in — became something of an obsession to a Santa Rosa native with a familiar name. Following his successful career as a political consultant in Washington D.C. and Sacramento, Joseph Rodota — son of the late Sonoma County parks director, whose name he shares — has evolved into a playwright, author and podcaster.

Rodota’s roles, during his 30-plus years in politics, included stints as a communications manager in the Reagan White House, and as a top aide to California Governors Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Drawing on his experience as a pioneer in the dark art of opposition research, Rodota Jr. has hosted 14 episodes of the podcast, “Oppo File.”

But it is Rodota’s book that’s finding special resonance in this, the golden jubilee of the Watergate break-in. In 2018, publishing house William Morrow released Rodota’s “The Watergate: Inside America’s Most Infamous Address.”

It was not an account of the crime and cover-up, but rather “a biography of a building,” said Rodota. As a writer drawn to “overlooked stories in American political history,” he’d long been fascinated by the architecturally avante-garde Watergate complex, once described by the Washington Post as a “glittering Potomac Titanic.”

Rodota’s expertise snagged the attention of the 92nd Street Y, a prestigious cultural and community center on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Starting February 10, he’ll be teaching a three-week online class at 92Y, as it’s known, on the history of the Watergate complex, and how the Nixon break-in transformed its reputation, while spawning “generations of ‘-gate scandals, from Koreagate to Deflategate.’”

One rare upside of the coronavirus pandemic: the 92nd Street Y’s continuing education classes, always highly popular in Manhattan, have found a vast, new audience all over the globe, since the programs moved online.

In a typical, pre-pandemic year, CEO Seth Pinsky recently told New York radio station WCBS, around 300,000 students might walk through the building’s doors.

Last year 92Y’s online programs drew 5 million viewers, from all 50 states and 200 countries.

That’s sure to drive up the number of people who register for Rodota’s course, which according to its description will offer students “a new perspective into the building, the people, and the scandals of the Watergate.”

The first scandal was the project’s blueprints. Conceived by prominent Italian architect Luigi Moretti, the Watergate’s wavy, modernist design — there’s not a right angle in the place, notes Rodota — sparked massive criticism, long before ground was broken.

“In Italy, you saw buildings like this all over the place,” said Rodota. “But you didn’t see them in America in 1964. It was the NIMBY fight of the decade.”

Moretti considered the Watergate his masterpiece, and was “very dejected that it became associated with scandal,” said Rodota. “He was mortified that this spectacular commission had been attached to something so dark.”

Students will learn about the “intriguing cast of politicians, journalists, socialites and spies” to call the Watergate home. At the time of the break-in, residents of that luxurious enclave included Attorney General John Mitchell, pugilistic Nixon speechwriter and future presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, and Nixon’s “confidential secretary” Rose Mary Woods.

More recently, recalled Rodota, “you had Bob Dole living nextdoor to Monica Lewinsky, and down the hall from Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”

Another Watergate resident was John Warner, the Republican Senator from Virginia who had the distinction, in 1976, of becoming the 7th husband of Elizabeth Taylor. Warner wanted to move to the Watergate “to be closer to his buddy, Bob Dole,” recalled Rodota. But for Taylor to join him, she would have to spend far less time with her pets.

“She had quite a menagerie,” said Rodota. In the end, Taylor “chose the dogs.” She and Warner divorced in 1982.

Asked if four, norm-busting years of the Trump presidency ever reminded him of Nixon, Rodota makes an interesting distinction.

Even as Watergate dragged on, and the 37th president’s abuses of power and obstruction of justice were laid bare, “through it all, Nixon had a reverence for the office. I don’t think he wanted to break the presidency itself.”

Implicit in that reply: the 45th president lacked such reverence.

Despite the current, coarsened state of America’s political discourse, the dysfunction and gridlock of government, Rodota remains mostly upbeat. “In general, I’m an optimist.”

While Trump “stressed our Democracy in so many ways,” he said, “we were stronger than the pressure he put on it. The system survived.”

As it did a half century ago.

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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