Watergate security guard Frank Wills. Photo by Charles Gorry/AP

Watchman In the Night

Fifty years ago, Frank Wills, a young, black, $2-an-hour security guard at D.C's Watergate office building, was working the midnight shift when he noticed a piece of tape on the lock of a door leading outside. He pulled it off, closed the door, and when it quickly reappeared called police. So began the political scandal that brought down a crooked president, a first. Hailed as "an American folk hero" but then dismissed, Wills struggled the rest of his life; the rich white men he'd exposed flourished in a country eager to forget, then as now, "America's democracy was almost stolen from us."

Fifty years ago, Frank Wills, a 24-year-old, $2-an-hour, black security guard at D.C's posh Watergate office building, was working the midnight shift when he noticed a piece of duct tape on the lock of a basement door leading outside. Assuming a careless worker had left it, he removed the tape, closed the door, and went back on his rounds. When he swung by 30 minutes later and the tape was back in place, he called police. So began America's biggest political scandal to date, a slow unveiling - and attempted cover-up - of from-the-top dirty tricks, wiretaps, perjury, burglary, slush funds and enemy lists that brought down a crooked president, a first. Hailed as "an American folk hero" but then quickly dismissed and cast off, Wills, a black man in America who never finished high school, struggled the rest of his life with brief celebrity, erratic employment and lingering resentment. Meanwhile, the rich white men whose crimes he'd exposed suffered few if any consequences - one, a lying, corrupt president, even got re-elected - and ultimately flourished in a country eager to forget, then as now, "America's democracy was almost stolen from us."

Frank Wills grew up poor in Savannah, Georgia with a single mother who worked as a maid for a white family. After he dropped out of high school in the 11th grade, he joined a Job Corps program in Michigan, was trained as a machinist, and got a job at a Ford assembly plant; when asthma forced him to quit, he worked a series of menial jobs before getting the Watergate gig. Late on the night of June 17, 1972, he was making his rounds when he noticed the tape on a door that led to a back parking lot; when he came back shortly after peeling it off and found it back on, he recorded in his log: "Found tape on door. Call police to make inspection." Later accounts painted a farcical picture of what became an historic crime: the look-out posted at Howard Johnson's across the street who didn't notice police arrive because he was watching "Attack of the Puppet People" on TV; the burglars waiting out a college-age intern happily spending two hours making free long-distance calls at the DNC office who at one point peed in a potted plant; the cops who arrived in scruffy plain clothes, started turning on lights in darkened offices and finally, in the Democrats' sixth-floor headquarters,`caught sight of an arm, yelled 'Come out with your hands up,' and saw ten hands shoot into the air.

The hands belonged to Bernard Barker, Virgilio Gonzales, Eugenio Martinez, James McCord Jr. and Frank Sturgis, who all worked for Richard Nixon's Committee to Re-elect the President. The police quickly realized this was "not your normal, typical burglary": The perps, dressed in suits and ties, had bugging devices, tear gas pens, locksmith tooks, rolls of film and thousands of dollars, all intended to help Nixon and his cronies illegally spy on his Democratic opponents as part of a widespread dirty-tricks campaign. While they were indicted for multiple crimes, President I-Am-Not-A-Crook Nixon so successfully orchestrated a massive whitewash, improbably arguing the lowly burglars were acting entirely on their own, that he was easily re-elected by voters that fall. It wasn't until the 1974 release of the notorious "Smoking Gun" audio tapes, wherein Nixon and Haldeman discussed how to stop the FBI from peskily doing their job, that the scandal broke. Facing impeachment and disgrace, Nixon resigned. Said Frank Wills that day in an interview, "We treat the president like a king, when he should be a man for all the people.''

The DNC gave Wills an award for his "unique role in the history of the nation." Several members of Congress offered to help him become a Capitol Police officer, but his lack of diploma stalled him. Passed over for a promotion and offered a raise of just $2.50 a week - rocketing his $80 income to $82.50 - he quit. The hoopla died down, "The nation moved on, and Frank couldn't," says Adam Henig, author of a book about Wills. "He was taken advantage of, and he made some poor decisions." He hired an agent, founded the Frank Wills Fan Club, barely made a living doing interviews - he was "the security guard" - and autograph sessions. He played himself in a cameo in the 1976 movie, "All the Presidents' Men," he worked for Dick Gregory, a plan for a memoir with Alex Haley fell through. He moved home to care for his mother after her stroke; in a region that voted for Nixon, "people shunned him" and he struggled to find work. In 1983, he was arrested for trying to steal a $16 pair of sneakers; the judge gave him a year in prison, but his fame helped find a good lawyer and he was out after three weeks. Before he died destitute in 2000, he said, "I have lost faith completely in our political system." Watergate "upended Frank's life," says Henig. "Not everyone is cut out to be a folk hero." The fact the only black person involved in the scandal was a $2-an-hour security guard, he adds, "speaks volumes about who holds political power - who gets all the breaks and who doesn't."

Also still speaking loudly today, notes John Nichols, is the fact the Watergate cover-up "succeeded when it mattered most." Despite mounting evidence of his malfeasance, Nixon was easily re-elected in part because "Democrats pulled their punches on accountability" with a plodding inquiry, narrow agenda and electoral fearfulness: "They did not want to push too hard on political corruption issues in an election year when the Democrats were deeply divided, and political and media elites assumed that the powerful and vindictive Nixon (sic) could not be beat," Nichols writes. "The narrative of the era went askew." Even as progressive forces managed to nominate the anti-war Sen. George McGovern, Nixon just kept repeating his lies - blaming, instead, the press, its leaks, its antipathy to him. And when Gerald Ford issued a preemptive pardon for any of Nixon's above-the-law crimes, he guaranteed Tricky Dick would never be held to account for "a scheme to sabotage not just Democrats, but democracy itself." "What I admire about Nixon was his resilience," said one of his 1972 operatives decades later. "It's attack, attack, attack." The operative, who sports a Nixon tattoo on his back, was Roger Stone.

Last week, as Jan. 6 hearings continued, one of the most compelling voices was that of revered conservative Judge Michael Luttig. In a searing statement, Luttig declared, "A stake was driven through the heart of American democracy on January 6, 2021, and our democracy today is on a knife's edge." Citing Trump's accountability for both the riot and attempted theft of an election, he warned, "The hour is late." During his testimony, Luttig spoke so slowly and laboriously some on social media wondered if he was okay. Later, Luttig joked about it - "For better or worse, I was as compos mentis as I have ever been" - and thanked one Joe Hagan for understanding why he spoke that way. "I like how this guy treats every line of his testimony like he's engraving it on a national monument," Hagan wrote, praising "his graveness, his hallowedness." "And frankly, he is...He's speaking to history, not TV." In a later interview, Luttig, still grave, reiterated his stance. "The former president and his party are today a clear and present danger for American democracy," he said. "I wanted to do this for America...It was my 'moment' in my life to stand up, step forward, and bear witness." From Luttig to Wills, the knife edge remains. In 1974, Dem Rep James Mann voted to impeach Nixon. "If there is no accountability, another president will feel free to do as he chooses," he said. "But the next time there may be no watchman in the night."

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