National Portrait Gallery exhibition marks 50th anniversary of Watergate

All the president’s men — and a few people who definitely weren’t on Richard M. Nixon’s team — reconvene in the National Portrait Gallery show “Watergate: Portraiture and Intrigue.” This visual essay on the scandal that forced Nixon’s resignation anticipates the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, which occurred on June 17, 1972.

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Nixon’s presidency unraveled over the course of more than two years—during which he was easily reelected—and ended with his resignation on Aug. 9, 1974. The artworks in this exhibition are entirely from that period or a little after. Rather than view Watergate through a historical lens, the show reveals how Nixon and his associates were depicted at the time. The survey includes photographs, cartoons and an eerie sculpture. There’s also a wanted poster issued by the self-styled “Committee to De-elect the President” that portrays Nixon as the only person still at large among 19 Watergate players who had already been indicted.

Of course, some of the items have a different meaning today. Fashion photographer Richard Avedon’s 1976 portrait of FBI Associate Director Mark Felt is, we now know, a picture of “Deep Throat,” the long-anonymous source of inside information passed to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. (Felt didn’t reveal his role until 2005.)

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Woodward and Bernstein don’t appear in the show, which was curated by Kate Clarke Lemay, the museum’s acting senior historian, from its permanent holdings. But there is a 1972 Edward Sorel caricature in which Katharine Graham, then the publisher of The Washington Post, watches Attorney General John Mitchell with his legs caught in a wringer — a reference to Mitchell’s angry warning that a sensitive part of Graham’s anatomy would get wrung if The Post printed a piece of damaging information. She’s waving goodbye to Mitchell, who was later convicted on multiple charges and sent to prison.

The selection of artifacts relies heavily on the gallery’s collection of photos and artworks created for the cover of Time magazine, 12 of which are included, from among the more than 40 cover stories the magazine published. Among these are a caricature of Nixon and his closest aides, drawn by Jack Davis (better known for his work for Mad magazine), and that ominous sculpture: pop artist Marisol Escobar’s 1972 Mount Rushmore-like rendering of Nixon and Henry Kissinger, who was Nixon’s national security adviser and later secretary of state. A marble eye inset into Kissinger’s face is a particularly unsettling feature of the piece, made to illustrate the duo’s naming as Time’s 1972 “Men of the Year.”

Other Time covers featuring 3D artworks include George Giusti’s rendering of Mitchell, drawn on a bleach bottle, and Stanislaw Zagorski’s literally tweedy portrait of White House counsel John Dean. These days, such keys would probably be simulated on a computer.

The Portrait Gallery shares its building with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, so it’s apt that one of the Watergate show’s entries parodies the work of a noted American painter. Draper Hill’s 1973 editorial cartoon “The Credibility Gulf Stream” places Nixon in the position of the shark-threatened sailor in Winslow Homer’s 1889 painting “The Gulf Stream.” Hill replaced the coiled ropes in the original with tapes from the Oval Office recording system, whose existence had at the time just been revealed.

The show ends not with opinion but with fact: George Tames’s Aug. 9, 1974 photographs of Nixon’s helicopter departure from the White House and the new president, Gerald Ford. The latter pardoned his predecessor, ending any conversation about the possibility of indicting a former president of the United States. That’s a timely topic 50 years later, but one that “Watergate: Portraiture and Intrigue,” understandably, doesn’t address.

Watergate: Portraiture and Intrigue

National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets NW.

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