It was May of 2017. Donald Trump had recently fired James Comey, the director of the F.B.I., because Comey had refused to swear unconditional loyalty to him or to defend his disgraced national-security adviser, Michael Flynn (who would plead guilty later that year to lying to the F.B.I. about his contacts with the former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak). The news had just broken that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, had met with Kislyak to establish a secret back channel with the Kremlin. (Kushner denied it, then later admitted it, but insisted he had “no improper contacts.”)
On MSNBC, a woman of a certain age appeared, blonde, direct, and quite good-looking, wearing a statement brooch and speaking in a pronounced Great Lakes accent that reflected her Chicago roots. “It is an accumulation of evidence that could end up being the smoking gun that the June 23 tape was in Watergate,” she said firmly. The chyron beneath her flashed: “Jill Wine-Banks, Former Assistant Watergate Special Prosecutor.” “That’s Jill Wine!,” I exclaimed. It was an exclamation I had heard once before more than 40 years earlier, during the Watergate crisis, when I was 6.
Jill Wine was the “miniskirted lawyer” who, in 1973, was appointed to the Watergate Special Prosecution Force, the team that investigated the involvement of Nixon and his top aides in the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee on June 17, 1972, and the ensuing cover-up. For a year, the young reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had tirelessly reported on the scandal for The Washington Post. Under the direction of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, whom Nixon would fire on October 20, 1973, a night known thereafter as the Saturday Night Massacre, Wine and her colleagues worked 16-hour days, seven days a week, in a room on K Street that they called the “Bat Cave,” all of them suffused with what Wine later described as “a sense of noble purpose.”
Between the summer of 1973 and the spring of 1974 they interviewed Nixon’s associates, rooting out lies, searching for patterns of illegal behavior, and creating a “road map to impeachment” (Wine coined that phrase) that the House Judiciary Committee would follow, leading to Nixon’s resignation on August 8. Famously, Wine had exposed the dishonesty of Nixon’s “petite but fierce” secretary Rose Mary Woods, who had lied in federal court that she had “accidentally” erased 18 ½ minutes of a subpoenaed Nixon secret tape by keeping her foot on the erase pedal of a tape recorder as she reached to take a phone call.
Wine famously exposed the dishonesty of Nixon’s “petite but fierce” secretary Rose Mary Woods.
In U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., on November 27, 1973, Wine asked Woods to demonstrate before Judge John Sirica how this could have happened. A phone and tape recorder had been set out for Woods in the courtroom. As soon as she leaned back, stylish in her “color-blocked turquoise, chartreuse, and orange sheath,” to pick up the phone, her foot came off the pedal. The crowd, Wine recalls, “gasped.” In The Watergate Girl, Wine (Wine-Banks since 1980) writes: “The tape stopped cold, and her lie was apparent to everyone in the courtroom.” Defiant in her dissembling, Woods agreed to repeat the exercise on camera at her White House office later that day, where, sitting at her desk, she contorted her torso and extended her arm like Plastic Man to reach for the phone. Captured by White House photographers, the move would be mocked forever after as the “Rose Mary Stretch.”
Returning to her town house on 20th Street NW that night, Wine discovered that the back door was ajar. Like Nancy Drew (one of her favorite childhood role models), she raced up to her attic to see if the stash of backup Watergate documents she had hidden in a cardboard box had been stolen. It hadn’t—all that Nixon’s goons had taken was a “new green velvet pantsuit,” which had been laid out on her bed, and “a few inexpensive baubles.” She soon learned that this was the second break-in and that her phone had been tapped. Like the nation, Wine had been a victim of Nixon’s dirty tricks.
“That’s Jill Wine!”
Later that week, I was sitting with my Watergate-obsessed parents around our breakfast table in Indiana, watching the Today show as the story emerged. My mother, seeing a blonde woman in a trench coat and miniskirt on the screen, shrieked, “That’s Jill Wine!” Like Wine, my mother had majored in journalism at the University of Illinois. Jill had been prominent on campus, and was the president of the Iota Alpha Pi sorority (around the corner from my mother’s, Gamma Phi Beta).
From that 1973 Indiana morning on, Jill Wine became a role model for me. And not only for me. The next summer, as Nixon’s defense lawyers, citing “executive privilege,” refused to hand over secret White House tapes that had been subpoenaed by the team, and as Wine (then called “Wine-Volner,” reflecting her first husband’s last name) and her team brought Nixon’s confederates, the Watergate Seven, to trial, Marvel Comics turned Wine-Volner and her trial partner, Richard Ben-Veniste, into a superhero duo, “June Volper” and “Ben Vincent,” in the Incredible Hulk series.
Wine became a role model for me. And not only for me.
In the comic book, the White House had been “overrun by humanoid monsters hell-bent on destroying democracy.” Two “crusading young lawyers,” drawn to resemble Wine and Ben-Veniste, had discovered this evil scheme, and were determined to vanquish the usurpers and restore what Superman might call “truth, justice, and the American way”—even if, as they scurried up a side staircase to the White House, June fretted aloud that they might pay for their daring with their lives. The month that this issue of The Incredible Hulk appeared, August 1974, there seemed to be little cause for June’s fears. The dynamic duo had saved the day, not only in the comics but in Congress. As Nixon lifted off the South Lawn in his helicopter, heading west, the mark of his V’d fingers melted from the air, and the rule of law in America regained its solidity.
June and Ben vanished from the comics, but their colleagues in the “Justice League”—like Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and Aquaman—lived on in the Saturday television cartoon series The Super Friends, which aired from 1973 to 1985—persuading a generation of American children that superheroes rippling with democratic muscle still stood guard over the values of the nation, and the world, as the valiant voice-over proclaimed: “To fight injustice, to right that which is wrong, and to serve all mankind.”
Déjà Vu All over Again
Seeing Jill Wine-Banks reappear on national television these last three years, during another rogue presidency, came to me as a shock and a thrill. She was joined by other members of her generation, veterans of the Watergate battle, who had returned to fight for a democracy under attack, re-asserting their former superpowers.
There was John Dean, the Nixon counsel whose conscience compelled him to turn on his boss, and who told him, on March 21, 1973 (on a tape that was not erased), “There is a cancer on the presidency.” There was Elizabeth Holtzman—the A.O.C. of 1974—at the time the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, who served on the 1974 House Judiciary Committee on Nixon’s impeachment. (In 2018 she published the book The Case for Impeaching Trump.)
Other veterans of the Watergate battle returned to fight for a democracy under attack.
There was Nick Akerman, a former Watergate prosecutor, who wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times last year, after the Mueller report fell flat, that technology had undermined the Russia investigation: “Mr. Mueller and his team faced a much more difficult task than the one that confronted Watergate investigators,” he wrote. And there were also Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose reporting proved crucial to bringing Nixon down. In 2018, Bernstein told CNN, “I think it’s time to recognize that what we are watching in the Trump presidency is worse than Watergate.” It was worse, he explained, “because the system worked in Watergate.” In 2018, Bob Woodward came out with a book called Fear: Trump in the White House, which painted a portrait of a dangerously capricious, willfully uninformed president whose reckless behavior put the world at risk.
As a child of the 70s, seeing these heroes return to prominence in an age when, once again, “humanoid monsters hell-bent on destroying democracy” had overtaken the White House felt to me at first like the return of the Super Friends, who had come back when they were needed most to right the course of this democracy gone off the rails. For a long time, I was sure that they would prevail.
Woman’s Page to Watergate
In March of 2018, I tracked down Jill Wine-Banks’s phone number and called her to see if she would be willing to visit the class I teach at the New School, Facts/Alternative Facts. She was willing but not able; she lives in Chicago, so a visit to my classroom wasn’t in the cards. But we talked for half an hour after I explained the sense of connection I had felt with her since childhood, because of my mother’s admiration for her at U. of I. She told me that she had wanted to be a journalist after college but was frustrated because the only work she was offered were “woman’s page” jobs; she wanted to tackle more challenging subjects.
Then she read the 1964 Pulitzer Prize–winning book, Gideon’s Trumpet, by New York Times reporter Anthony Lewis, in which he wrote about a Supreme Court ruling that criminal defendants have the right to an attorney even if they cannot afford one. Noticing that Lewis had studied law, she decided that law might be a stepping-stone to journalism, and applied to Columbia Law School. Five years after graduating, she found herself prosecuting a president. It wasn’t until 50 years after U. of I. that her long-term journalistic ambitions gelled, as she became a regular contributor to MSNBC. Her fans, who spotted her fondness for brooches early on, began sending her statement pins by the hundreds (belatedly making up for the baubles Nixon’s crew stole), hoping she might wear one of them on her television appearances. “Every day is astounding,” she said.
Five years after graduating, Wine found herself prosecuting a president.
In her memoir, Wine-Banks not only brings to life the urgency of the Watergate years in vivid detail and color (including the clothes), and with a blow-by-blow delivery that makes the chronology easy to follow; she reveals her own personal and professional struggle with sexism, both at home and in the workplace. Through her own example, she reminds the reader of the obstacles that women of her era had to overcome to make progress for themselves and for the next generation—progress which, like an honorable White House, cannot be taken for granted, and can be lost if not staunchly defended.
Before joining the Watergate Special Prosecution Force, Wine-Banks had worked for the Justice Department in the organized-crime section. At first, her boss had refused to let her try Mob cases because, “well, you’re a girl,” he had explained. “Didn’t you notice I was a woman when you hired me as a trial attorney?” she retorted. She writes, “I had learned that I needed to stand up for myself.” Among her colleagues in the Bat Cave, she found respect and true friendship, but even there she had to assert herself. Once, when her trusted teammate Ben-Veniste was hogging witnesses for cross-examination, she interceded: “I’m taking the next witness, and from now on, we’ll share equally,” she told him. “Fine,” he shrugged, unperturbed. Being proactive was not a reflex for her; it was a skill she had to develop, a skill that countless other American men and women were flexing alongside her in those eventful days, joining forces to act on the dictates of their conscience.
“Today, we are up against a deeper existential threat to democracy than we faced during Watergate, a peril exacerbated by a more complicated political, social, and cultural landscape than existed in the 1970s,” Wine-Banks writes. “During Watergate, three TV networks dominated the national news, and all reported the same facts. The public debated the meaning of those facts but didn’t challenge their very existence.” Donald Trump “is more dangerous than Richard Nixon,” she warns. “He has obliterated civil discourse and unleashed racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and disrespect for the rule of law and the separation of powers. He puts in peril the fundamental principles on which our nation was founded.”
It sounds like this is a job for The Incredible Hulk; in his absence, Watergate Girl continues to storm the barricades, upholding the standards of the Justice League for all to hear, and see.
Liesl Schillinger is a literary critic and translator. She teaches at the New School in New York