In the final episode of “Gaslit,” the Watergate hearings play in the background as socialite truth-teller Martha Mitchell languishes in the hospital, stricken with cancer and ridiculed as crazy by Republicans and members of the media. Five decades later, Wyoming legislator Liz Cheney is playing a similar straight shooter at the congressional hearings about the Trump White House’s role in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol. But the media is much more stratified than it was during Watergate, and the consequences for the former president and those political figures complicit with him that day are far from preordained.
Robbie Pickering, creator of the Starz series starring Julia Roberts as a boozy Mitchell, considers the Jan. 6 hearings “remarkably consequential” but questions the ultimate impact they will have. “The difference between this and Watergate is there’s no pretense to these crimes,” he says. “Everyone knows they occurred, especially Republicans.”
Pickering wasn’t alive during the Watergate era but has watched as partisans on both sides of the aisle have claimed subsequent scandals were just like it and fallout should be as well.
“People look at Watergate as kind of a wish-fulfillment fantasy at this point, where the powerful are actually held to account and the criminals at the very top are forced to resign,” he says. “But by Iran-Contra, Republicans had figured out how to shield themselves from that.”
“Gaslit” concluded June 12, five days before the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, which eventually led to the downfall of Mitchell’s by-then-estranged husband John, Nixon’s attorney general. In the last installment, Martha Mitchell is portrayed as baffled that Nixon – someone she describes “as a conglomerate of nothing – had such a hold over him that he was willing to commit wrongdoing on the then-president’s behalf.
“When you dig into this stuff, it can seem really bleak, but there’s something hopeful about Martha,” Pickering says. “The surprising thing about it is I came out of it hopeful for the future.”
While flawed humans will continue to succumb to the desire to curry favor with power, other figures, be they Martha Mitchell or Liz Cheney, will be determined to speak out about what really happened, he observes. “Within the best of us or within the smartest of us or the brightest of us, there’s this capacity to be complicit,” Pickering says. “But the flip side of that is within the most flawed among us there is this capacity to tell the truth.”