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Jill Wine-Banks, author of “The Watergate Girl,” was featured as a Levy Lecture speaker on April 20 as she spoke via Zoom to a group of nearly 400 people, mostly seniors 55 and older in the Evanston environs. The candid conversation spanned nearly two hours, as she provided an overview of the Watergate scandal, her perspective on the recent and current political environment, and some observations about the trial of Derek Chauvin.
The discussion began with a review of seven slides showing an array of photographs representing people and places involved with the Watergate scandal. Ms. Wine-Banks supplied intriguing details and observations about the major players and what became of them post-Watergate.
The photos included the mug shots of the five men who broke into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters located within the Watergate complex on June 17, 1972. Had those men not been caught by the Watergate’s security guard on duty, it is very likely the crimes would never have come to light, Ms. Wine-Banks said.
One slide showed the infamous photo of Rose Mary Woods, secretary to then-President Richard Nixon, demonstrating how she “stretched” when she answered the phone while she was transcribing one of the subpoenaed tapes. This generated a lot of discussion about Ms. Woods’s role within the Nixon White House.
Ms. Woods stands out as a tragic figure. Although her title at the Nixon White House was personal secretary to the president, in actuality her role was similar to a chief of staff or advisor, or as Ms. Wine-Banks calls her in the book, “Secretary of Morale.” Richard Nixon and Rose Mary Woods worked together for more than 22 years. She was close to Mrs. Nixon and their daughters, Tricia and Julie, who called her “Aunt Rose.” She was unfailingly loyal to and protective of Richard Nixon.
Yet when an explanation was needed for the nearly 20-minute gap in the tape, President Nixon, White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig, and others supported the theory that only she could provide the reason. Her demonstration of the “stretch” bordered on the comical as well as being blatantly impossible. Through her loyalty to the president, she became the punch line to a joke, a national laughingstock. She always maintained that even if she had accidentally erased part of the critical tape, she could not have caused the entire gap. The White House even stopped providing her with legal counsel and paying for it.
Engineering experts at the time were not able to recover the erased section – something that, even with technological advances, still holds true today. They determined there were at least five, and possibly as many as nine, different erasures within the 18 ½-minute gap.
The prosecution team could not prove who caused the erasures or when they occurred, another lingering mystery.
After President Nixon resigned and returned to California with his family, Ms. Woods stayed in Washington, D.C., for a time, but she was no longer a government employee. She struggled financially. She was no longer invited to all the best social events in town. In Washington’s social hierarchy, she no longer had much value, because the formerly powerful people with whom she had worked were now disgraced or imprisoned, or both.
Ms. Wine-Banks said that, although she never spoke to Ms. Woods after the trial, she did reach out to friends and family of Ms. Woods when she was writing her book, in an attempt to provide a fuller, more comprehensive view of who she was beyond President Nixon’s “office wife.”
Those efforts fell flat; Rose Mary Woods’ friends viewed Ms. Wine-Banks as the enemy and refused to speak to her. Ms. Woods, who died in 2005 at the age of 87, had friends who were guarding her memory. Fortunately during one of her presentations promoting “The Watergate Girl,” one of Ms. Woods’s grand-nephews contacted Ms. Wine-Banks and said he would be happy to talk with her. The conversations that followed were very helpful in fleshing out the personal side of Ms. Woods, and Ms. Wine-Banks hopes to write something about this enhanced version in the near future.
After Watergate, where she was the only female attorney on the prosecutorial team, Ms. Wine-Banks’ career continued to break new ground for women. She was appointed by President Jimmy Carter as general counsel of the U.S. Army, the first woman to hold that position. Subsequent roles for which she was recruited include the Solicitor General and Deputy Attorney General for the State of Illinois, the Chief Operating Officer at the American Bar Association, and an international business executive for Maytag and Motorola.
Currently she is a legal analyst for MSNBC, an opinion writer, and co-host of two podcasts. The first, #SistersInLaw, is with three other attorneys (Joyce Vance, Barb McQuade, and Kimberly Atkins) who discuss legal issues affecting the country. The second, Intergenerational Politics with Victor Shi, discusses current political events from vastly different perspectives in age and experience. Mr. Shi, at 17, was the youngest Biden delegate in Illinois; currently he is a freshman at UCLA. She will soon be a producer for the movie version of “The Watergate Girl,” recently optioned by the actress Katie Holmes, who intends to produce and star in the film.
Ms. Wine-Banks is a wonderful storyteller and the Levy Lecture audience was enthralled even as the discussion ran over the typical 90-minute format. She concluded her presentation by talking about the damage to the rule of law and American democracy caused by Donald Trump, and why he is more dangerous than Richard Nixon. Those insights, included as an epilogue, were added at the last-minute to the book prior to publication.
The final topic was Ms. Wine-Banks’ thoughts about the Derek Chauvin trial. A quick check of a news alert announced a verdict had been reached and would be announced within the hour. The lecture wrapped up a few minutes later after a quick prediction about the outcome. Those interested in hearing Ms. Wine-Banks’ lecture can view it on the Levy Senior Center Foundation’s YouTube channel.