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Slow Burn is an engrossing podcast that brings the Watergate scandal to life

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How a president was brought down

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

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Since President Donald Trump entered the White House, he and his administration have often been compared to Richard Nixon, particularly by the wide range of pundits, activists and Twitter users who have called for him to resign or who made the case for his impeachment.

Nixon famously resigned as president in 1974 — the only president to do so in American history — after being connected to a break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, DC. While most people know how the story ends, fewer are familiar with the twists and turns of the four-year journey from the break-in to Nixon stepping down.

That’s the topic of Slow Burn, a podcast from Slate that takes a deep dive into what caused Nixon’s unprecedented resignation from the Oval Office. Over the course of eight episodes (as well as a series of subscriber-only bonus episodes), Slate staff writer Leon Neyfakh takes a closer look at the state of the country as the crisis unfolded. He also spotlights the role of both central figures, like the journalists who covered the scandal, and lesser known characters like Martha Mitchell, the wife of John N. Mitchell, the former US attorney general and chair of Nixon’s reelection committee.

While Nixon’s resignation now feels as though it was the logical, natural outcome, Neyfakh paints a far different picture of the four years that followed the Watergate break-in. The efforts to investigate and impeach the president faced almost insurmountable obstacles —including Nixon trying to shut down the investigation while firing people — which have taken on a new resonance in 2018.

Listen on the show’s website, Apple Podcasts, PlayerFM, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Image: Slate

Neyfakh told The Verge that he had been covering the Department of Justice from the beginning of the Trump Administration, explained that he had been wanting to work on some sort of podcast for a little while, and when his editors decided to take a deeper look into Watergate, they decided that a long-form, narrative podcast would be the right medium for the story.

While the events of Watergate took place nearly 45 years ago, Neyfakh says that the events that made up the scandal and the tone of the country felt as though there was a resonance with special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, as well as the non-stop news cycle that has placed the administration under a microscope. Neyfakh noted that initially, he wasn’t overly familiar with the scandal, pointing to works like All the President’s Men as the touchstones that broadly shaped the public’s perception of it. “We thought that telling the story that would feel new to me as a listener was a good proxy for the people we were trying to reach,” he explained. But while the show draws some parallels between the ongoing political climate then and the one today, they didn’t develop the show guided by today’s events. “There are parallels that one can draw between them, but that said, we weren’t really looking for them — we were aware of [the parallels] — but we didn’t chase them and didn’t bend the narrative towards them out of a desire to wink at the audience.”

Neyfakh explained that the podcast format appealed to him because audio would help conjure a new flavor for listeners through the form of an audio documentary. “Hearing people talk, listening to snippets of news broadcasts and clips from the Watergate hearings brought the story to life in a way that reading about it didn’t do,” he notes, “there’s something about the intimacy of hearing someone in your ear that made people maybe connect to the events and individuals in a new way.”

To that end, Neyfakh says that while they set out to tell a largely comprehensive overview of the Watergate scandal, they also wanted “to make room for the less canonical subplots and less famous characters” that were part of the story. Case in point is the show’s debut episode, which focused entirely on Martha Mitchell, the wife of Nixon’s former US Attorney General. She had a reputation for chatting with the press, and following the break-in, her husband hired a former FBI agent to prevent her from talking to reporters after she learned that one of the men arrested was her daughter’s bodyguard and driver. In another episode, he talks to Marc Lackritz and Mary Diorio, two members of the Senate Watergate Committee’s investigative staff, who helped dig into the allegations against Nixon. By focusing on these characters, the show brings a new depth to what listeners know about the scandal, providing tangible examples of the people who worked to push the investigation forward.

Neyfakh says that Slow Burn isn’t over with the impeachment of Richard Nixon. The next season of the show will focus on another presidential scandal later this year: the impeachment of Bill Clinton.