Author explores the real Watergate, the hotel behind the scandal

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When people hear the word “Watergate,” they automatically think of one thing: the political scandal of the early 1970s that ultimately brought down President Richard Nixon’s administration.

The term is so iconic that it has become the model for naming a long string of subsequent scandals, from Koreagate in 1976, involving South Korean influence peddling in the U.S. Congress, to last year’s Envelopegate, when the wrong winner for best film was announced at the Academy Awards.

But of course, the Watergate also is a famous hotel, apartment and office complex on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., where a break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters touched off the Watergate scandal and subsequent attempts to cover it up.

Countless books and articles have been written about the scandal, but Sacramento author Joseph Rodota, a former Sonoma County resident, chose to write a different kind of Watergate story. In “The Watergate: Inside America’s Most Infamous Address,” published earlier this year by the HarperCollins imprint William Morrow, Rodota profiles the hotel itself.

“It was a very well-known hotel, prior to the break-in, for luxury and privacy,” Rodota said. “When the Kennedy Center opened in 1971, the Watergate became the dorm for the center, for all the stars for the first decade, so it might have been known as the place where Katharine Hepburn hung out, if there never had been a break-in.”

By the way, if the author’s name sounds awfully familiar, that’s because Sonoma County’s popular Joe Rodota Trail is named for his father, the county’s first parks director, who died in an auto accident in Windsor in 1997.

The county parks pioneer’s son, Joseph Rodota Jr., now 58, grew up in Sonoma County and graduated from Montgomery High School in 1978, later receiving a bachelor’s degree in history from Stanford University.

He went on to serve in the Ronald Reagan White House and as a top aide to California governors Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger. He now runs a political strategy research team dealing mostly with ballot initiatives. After his father’s death, the younger Rodota dropped the “Jr.” from his name.

His Watergate book is a name dropper’s delight, particularly for political history buffs. For example, the warring Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Antonin Scalia declared a truce as needed for New Year’s Eve celebrations at the Watergate.

One of the major figures in the hotel’s saga is Monica Lewinsky, the mid-’90s White House intern whose relationship with President Bill Clinton triggered a Congressional effort to impeach him.

Her mother’s apartment at the Watergate complex, where only the hotel lobby entrance and the shopping mall are open to the public from outside, became Lewinsky’s refuge during that scandal and the firestorm of publicity it sparked.

“The Monica thing was interesting, because I thought it illustrated one the original visions for the Watergate complex, which was to create a city within in a city, with all of the conveniences you need from day to day, all on the one campus,” Rodota said.

“So Monica could go about her daily life, even when she was under siege. She could go to the bookstore, do her grocery shopping, go to the gym, pick up a dessert and get her hair done, all on the Watergate campus, without being bothered or exposed to what was called ‘The Monica Watch.’ There was a media stakeout outside the entrance to the garage.”

The dozens of interviews Rodota conducted for the book included talks with a tight group of Lewinsky’s personal supporters at the Watergate.

“When I talked to people who worked there during the Monica years, I got the very clear impression that the community there was very protective of her, especially the older women, who thought of her as their daughter,” Rodota said. “Everybody cooperated to try to provide (her) with a calm, normal, supportive community.”

It took two and a half years, with help from three researchers, for Rodota to gather his material and write the book. In addition to the famous, and infamous, Rodota encountered some fascinating, lesser-known players in the Watergate’s history.

“I loved interviewing this guy named Bruce Givner, who is this unlikely little Watergate character. He was the last person to leave the Democratic National Committee office before the break-in. He was a summer intern from UCLA,” Rodota said.

“He had spent the late hours of Friday, June 16, 1972, hanging out in the office, making long-distance phone calls on the free telephone line, calling his friends and family in Ohio. He only took one break, to relieve himself on a potted plant on the terrace, and then went back,” Rodota said.“Of course, he didn’t know that whole time he was being observed by the burglars’ lookout from the Howard Johnson’s across the street.”

You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or On Twitter @danarts.

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