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How South Africa nearly descended into civil war instead of a multi-racial democracy

Journalist Justice Malala explains how Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk kept the country on a path to peace after the 1993 assassination of Chris Hani. His book is The Plot to Save South Africa.


Other segments from the episode on May 1, 2023

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 1, 2023: Interview with Justice Malala; Review of White House Plumbers.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We live in a time in the United States when our political divisions are so deep, and our discourse so heated, it sometimes seems as if the country could come apart at the seams. Our guest today, South African-born journalist Justice Malala, has a book about a moment in the history of his country when the nation came perilously close to dissolving into civil war. It was in 1993 when the white-led government of F.W. de Klerk had freed Nelson Mandela from prison and legalized opposition parties and delicate negotiations were underway to turn the country from an apartheid state to a multiracial democracy.

Malala's book is carefully researched, but it's also informed by his own experience. He was a cub reporter at a South African newspaper, literally his first day on the job, when an act of political violence threatened to scuttle the negotiations toward majority rule and send the country into chaos. His book is a detailed account of the 10 days that followed, which he says offers important lessons about effective leadership in moments of crisis.

Justice Malala has been a reporter and political analyst in print and television for decades. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian and other publications. He currently writes regularly for The South African Times and Financial Mail, among others, and is the resident political analyst for eNews Channel Africa. He's the author of a previous book, "We Have Now Begun Our Descent." His new book is titled "The Plot To Save South Africa: The Week Mandela Averted Civil War And Forged A New Nation." Justice Malala, welcome to FRESH AIR.

JUSTICE MALALA: Thank you for having me, Dave.

DAVIES: You know, this story begins in 1993, and I want to talk just a bit about what was happening in the country. As I mentioned, it was when negotiations were underway from the previously apartheid government of de Klerk and opposition leaders led by Mandela. This had been going on for a couple of years. But, you know, I mentioned that in the United States that we are at a time of great political division, but in our country, we are fighting mostly with words, not weapons. In South Africa, things were different. Give us a sense of the political violence that was underway even in this time when steps were being taken towards a new direction.

MALALA: If you think about it, the popular conception of the South African transition, Dave, is that Nelson Mandela walked out of jail in February 1990, there were negotiations and then you had that breakthrough moment in 1994, April 27, when people like me for the first time went out and voted in those historic elections. But actually, as you rightly point out, between 1990 and 1994, thousands of people were being killed in political violence, much of it stoked by sinister government-sponsored forces. The way this played out was that one particular organization, the Inkatha Freedom Party, seemed pitted against the ANC of Nelson Mandela. So, 1990 happens. Nelson Mandela walks out of prison. The negotiations start, but they're in stops and starts. And as they happen, in the townships, in villages across South Africa, political violence begins to ramp up.

By 1992, there were massive massacres. The path to freedom wasn't straightforward. It was bloody. It was uncertain. And leaders across the board, like Nelson Mandela, were falling out with each other. Nelson Mandela had started off saying, de Klerk is a man of integrity. De Klerk had started off the negotiations saying, I could work with Nelson Mandela. But the massive political violence that was going on had led to both men being really on the verge of - I don't know about hating each other, but they were not as friendly. It was not a good time, and the negotiations were imperiled.

DAVIES: Right. Right. We'll talk more about their relationship. But yes, it's true. I mean, the African National Congress, the organization that Mandela led, you know, had a military wing for many years because they were banned, and they were armed. Other groups were armed. And there were these right-wing groups that were in cooperating with the government. So, many weapons, much conflict, and yet there was hope for negotiating a change. The event that started this horrific crisis that you write about was a political assassination of a man named Chris Hani. He was a part of the opposition that Mandela led. Tell us who Chris Hani was - why he was important.

MALALA: Chris Hani was the most popular Black leader, the most popular political leader in South Africa after Nelson Mandela. He'd made his reputation inside the ANC. He started off as a young man, very interested in law and politics, went to university. After he got his degree in the 1960s, he started organizing workers, came to the attention of the apartheid government police, who hunted him down, detained him for a while, and he left the country to join the ANC in exile. He rose through the ranks of the ANC, ended up being its chief of - the chief of staff of its military wing, as you pointed out earlier in your question, and became known as someone who could speak for, particularly, young people who were very suspicious of the negotiations process.

But as someone who'd been in the ANC military, who was always with Nelson Mandela, stayed very close to him, he was trusted. He was a very charismatic political leader. Nelson Mandela made it a point that wherever he went, addressing big rallies everywhere, that he'd have Chris Hani next to him. He was seen as uncompromising. Young people believed that the revolution, as it were, would not be betrayed with people like Chris Hani there. So hugely popular, very much seen as the man who would take over from Nelson Mandela by many.

DAVIES: Right. So his assassination on the Saturday before Easter shocked the country and was bound to create enormous outrage, which it did. Let's talk a little bit about the assassination. He lived in a neighborhood which Blacks were barred from before this beginning transition, which is interesting. He was shot at his home by a man who, as you write in the book, you know, was a white supremacist, right wing, did it in connection with a well-known right-wing leader. And you tell us that there was really, in a way, a specific purpose to this assassination from the point of the right-wing, pro-apartheid forces. What were they hoping would happen with his assassination?

MALALA: They were very clear. They knew that Chris Hani was so popular that an assassination of this nature would spark riots among Black South Africans who would have seen this act as an assault on their dreams of a new South Africa and so forth. So they wanted the riots to happen. They wanted an uprising to take place. But the next step for that would be that as things became heated in the country, the army would take over. And they believed that if the army got rid not just of the ANC but got rid of F.W. de Klerk, who they regarded as a sellout, as someone who was on the wrong path for South Africa by reaching out to the ANC and the Black majority - they believed that by getting rid of F.W. de Klerk, getting rid of the ANC, there would be a reset. And that reset would be to South Africa of 1985, South Africa of 1975, in which apartheid laws pertained, in which, essentially, South Africa was a bit like what Jim Crow used to look like in the United States.

DAVIES: Right. So the hope was to spark a civil war that would put an end to these - this move towards majority rule. You know, there's one other thing about the assassination I want to spend a moment on. An arrest was made very quickly by the police because there was, as it turns out, a witness to the killing, again, in this neighborhood where Chris Hani lived. And this fact kind of loomed large as things unfolded. Tell us about the witness and what she saw.

MALALA: The witness was a neighbor of Chris Hani's. As you said earlier in the conversation, Chris Hani had moved into this neighborhood, which had been a whites-only neighborhood just three years before 1990. People were suspicious. Who is this man? Why is he moving into this? And he had a reputation as being the head of the ANC's military wing and so much hated by the particular - the pro-government sort of pro-apartheid press. But he'd moved in. He started jogging. He'd tell people - he'd walk around telling people, oh, I'm getting ready. I'm losing a bit of weight, preparing for freedom. And so she knew him. Her husband knew him. And they'd see him jogging past their house every so often.

That morning, this white woman, Retha Harmse, was driving to go shopping. But as she drove past, she saw the killer. She saw him lean in and shoot Chris Hani four times. She saw Chris Hani's daughter, 13 years old at the time, watching this and screaming. And she stopped her car, saw the killer walk into his car, and she took down the registration plate of that car and immediately rushed home - this was the days before the cellphone - rushed home, called the equivalent of 911, got through to the police and gave them that registration number. And within half an hour of that phone call, the police had managed to arrest the assassin and bring him into police custody.

DAVIES: Right. And the fact that a white woman was critical would become important later. We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Justice Malala. He is a veteran journalist from South Africa. His new book is "The Plot To Save South Africa: The Week Mandela Averted Civil War And Forged A New Nation." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and our guest is veteran journalist from South Africa Justice Malala. He has a new book about a critical period in 1993 when political violence threatened to destroy the effort to create a multiracial democracy. The book is called "The Plot To Save South Africa: The Week Mandela Averted Civil War And Forged A New Nation."

At the time of this assassination in 1993, these negotiations between Mandela and de Klerk to try and get a majority-rule government had broken off, in part because of a horrific event of political violence, the Boipatong massacre, when many were killed. De Klerk tried to, at that time, make a gesture of conciliation and comfort to the families, which went very badly. I mean, he was nearly attacked when he showed up there. He learned something then that he - a lesson that he applied to this moment. What was it?

MALALA: That lesson was really that sometimes one, as a leader, has to step back, that moments are not for the CEO or the one leader to always step forward. Stepping back can be leadership, too. And I think this was one of the key reasons that disaster was averted after that assassination. What happened was that in South Africa, the equivalent, if you will - Easter is very much like Thanksgiving in the U.S., in which political leaders, business leaders, most people get out of town, get out of the cities, go spend the weekend with relatives, having battles about politics and so forth.

And so when F.W. de Klerk gets the call from his chief of staff saying Chris Hani has been murdered, he said, my first thought was that this could plunge us into civil war. And so he said, what do I do? And he said, I have to reach out to Nelson Mandela because this is Mandela's moment, not mine. This is a moment when whatever I say, no matter how well-intentioned, this could lead to even a bigger backlash than is currently underway. And so that's why on that day, he called Nelson Mandela, and they had a 30-minute conversation about how to respond to this crisis.

DAVIES: Right. And, of course, things were not entirely friendly between the two of them at the time. They had publicly feuded a lot. You know, you're right that people remember Mandela giving a televised speech which seemed to - seemed almost transformative because the country was experiencing a lot of anger and violence. And that speech didn't happen right away. There was one initial speech he gave on television, which was short and not so effective. But I guess it was Tuesday that he went in and taped a six-minute address, which was taped live. Tell us about what he said.

MALALA: Yes, absolutely. I have to tell you, Dave, that, in South Africa, you ask people like me - in many tellings of what happened that weekend, that we all go out and say Nelson Mandela gave an amazing speech. F.W. de Klerk, I think, has written in his biography that Mandela gave - you know, rose to the occasion - that's what he said - and gave this amazing speech. But actually, that speech that - on that first evening of the murder, Mandela was late for the news bulletins. It was supposed to go out at 8 p.m. He only got to it after 10 p.m. Most people didn't get it. And the speech was written for him by his speechwriters. It wasn't uplifting. It wasn't - it was very pro forma, very dry.

And so Mandela then, two days, three days later, says, I've got to have another go at this. And so then they write the speech for him. He changes the top three lines. And to the point you made earlier about the woman who saw this, Nelson Mandela was very aware that the aim of the assassination was to cause chaos and havoc in the country. And so - and that havoc could be caused because it set Black against white. It said a white man has killed Chris Hani, a hero among Black people and some white people, and that this would cause the eruption that the assassins wanted.

So he started his speech by saying, I'm reaching out to every South African, every citizen, not just Black people, not just white people. I'm reaching out to everyone. And he - then he did that juxtaposition that really made an impact. He said a white man full of hate came to our country and killed our beloved son, Chris Hani. Then he made the juxtaposition that a white woman saw the murderer and called the police. And within 30 minutes, within half an hour, that assassin was arrested and will be brought to the courts, and justice will be done. And by doing that, he took the sting, the attempt to set Black against white out of the entire thing. And that speech is still remembered today, is still spoken about today because it set the scene for South Africa's next steps. It said, remember that, as a country, there are people who want to pull us back, but we've got to move forward. And that was the triumph of Nelson Mandela with that address.

DAVIES: Right. It was an assault on us all, not just by...

MALALA: Absolutely.

DAVIES: ...One group against another.

MALALA: Absolutely.

DAVIES: As this was happening, there was a lot of spontaneous violence going on in the street. I mean, people were killed. Some horrible things occurred. And...


DAVIES: On the day after the assassination, the executive committee of the African National Congress, the ANC, the group which Mandela led, met to figure out what they were going to do, what they were going to tell their followers. And it was an organization that Mandela led but by no means could dictate to, right? There were many contentious views. Many people wanted to demonstrate, show anger, renew armed struggle. You write about this meeting. And there was, in the end, a consensus on what to tell their followers. What did they decide?

MALALA: They decided that there would be commemorations of Chris Hani. They decided that this is a hero of us. It's a hero of our people. So we must remember him. We must hold meetings. We must gather. And in a disciplined way, they said, we should remember this man and mourn him. They also said, yes, we are hurt. Yes, we are in pain. We are sorrowful. But we are not going to take up arms. We are not going to stop the negotiations process. We just have demands, and those demands must be met. And there were two key demands that the ANC began forming at that meeting, and it was that the government, led by F.W. de Klerk, needs to agree to a firm date for elections as soon as possible and, secondly, that the government cannot be a player and a referee in the process. It needs to come through and hand over power, if you will, over the broadcasting services, the army and so forth to an independent transitional body that would oversee the period before elections were held.

DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Justice Malala. He's a veteran journalist from South Africa. His new book is "The Plot To Save South Africa: The Week Mandela Averted Civil War And Forged A New Nation." He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with South African-born journalist Justice Malala. His new book is a detailed account of a 10-day period in 1993 when negotiations were underway between the apartheid government of the country and Black liberation forces, led by Nelson Mandela, to turn South Africa into a multiracial democracy. The assassination of a beloved leader in the opposition by a white supremacist threatened to send the country spiraling into civil war. Malala writes that the commitment of Mandela and President F.W. de Klerk to keep the negotiations towards majority rule alive amid growing political violence offers important lessons about the importance of leadership in a moment of crisis. Malala's book is "The Plot To Save South Africa: The Week Mandela Averted Civil War And Forged A New Nation."

So we were talking about how Mandela and the leadership of the African National Congress, the ANC, wanted to hit this balance of saying, look; we need to keep the negotiations alive. And in fact, we want them to move forward. We want a date for an election. We want a transitional council established which will control the media so that it can be fair in getting the elections going. But the violence was hard to control. Let's talk about the other side of this. President F.W. de Klerk, who was, in a way, Mandela's partner - (laughter) uneasy partnership, to be sure...


DAVIES: ...Towards negotiating this. He had his own view of the violence and what to do about it. Tell us his perspective.

MALALA: F.W. de Klerk knew right from the onset that there would be violence, that the murder of Chris Hani would cause untold anger and that it would have very bad consequences. And that's why he reached out to Nelson Mandela. And that's why Nelson Mandela went on television. And there was that sense that Mandela was leading the nation as he called for peace and cooler heads to prevail. But as things got heated, as the days went by and the violence became even more concentrated, de Klerk began to almost revert to his - to the old apartheid methods that Mandela needed to control his people. He used the language of Mandela is not controlling. Mandela is not in charge.

Essentially, he wanted to come down with the army and the police and clamp down on all forms of protest. And so you can see the two men at the beginning being together and then beginning to pull apart in the way they viewed what was going on - de Klerk beginning to say, no, I'm going to deploy more troops on the streets. I'm going to - let's bring down the hard fist of the army on the protesters, and de Klerk saying this is what was always going to happen when something like the murder of a popular leader like this happens.

DAVIES: In the end, they knew they needed one another and that the process was too important to abandon. There was a critical meeting on Wednesday that you write about. Now, the assassination was on Saturday - right? - and a lot of violence over the coming days. We had Mandela's very moving speech on television Tuesday. On Wednesday, de Klerk meets with a lot of senior security people to talk about to what extent there will be curfews and new mobilizations of security forces and hard, tough rules to stop violence. But in there, you say he took some steps that, in the end, were quite extraordinary. What happened in that meeting that was so important?

MALALA: What happened in that meeting was that despite the fact that it wasn't the full cabinet of the state - it was just, as you say, the 22 top security people. The intelligence agencies, the army, the police and the cleric himself, they sat in that cabinet room and they deliberated about how to react - do they deploy more troops and so forth. But at the end, they did the two things that Nelson Mandela and the ANC had demanded.

The first one was that - and the ANC had said this way back in the 1980s and it was its main demand that the apartheid government cannot oversee elections. There needs to be some cooperative body, some unitary, independent-type body that would oversee the elections. So at the end of that meeting, F.W. de Klerk says we need to tell the ANC that we're prepared to agree to this transitional executive council. That's the first one. The second one is they say, we can't decide on an election date, but we are prepared with other people to sit around the table - and very quickly agreed to that. And so that meeting was extraordinary for that, that these two key demands of the ANC that would lead - that would pave the path to a democratic election were decided in that meeting.

DAVIES: You know, what's interesting to me about it is that it doesn't appear that de Klerk and Mandela spoke much throughout this, you know, 10 days or so. And yet de Klerk, here in this moment when it was critical, went to his own people and said, we're going to make these critical concessions because the process is important, right?

MALALA: Absolutely, but - although they didn't speak directly. And in fact, de Klerk in that meeting said, I demand a meeting with Nelson Mandela to resolve some of these issues. And Mandela said, no. You know our demands. I don't want to meet. However, the two men had established an interesting back channel, if you will. Mandela had nominated his negotiator-in-chief, a man called Cyril Ramaphosa, who was at the time 40 years old, a lawyer. He'd nominated him to speak off the record, off the books, to Rolf Meyer, who was the chief negotiator for the government.

And so those two men were in constant contact even when the two principals - the two main negotiators were not speaking to each other. The two - the back channel was always going on, trying to find ways. And so one of the key things about that meeting between F.W. de Klerk and his security chiefs was that his instruction goes to his chief negotiator, who speaks to the person on the other side, who was the ANC's Cyril Ramaphosa, who is, by the way, today the president of South Africa.

DAVIES: Right, right. Yeah. I thought this is just fascinating. And you can - it seems that at many times over this two- or three-year period, at a point when de Klerk and Mandela would be criticizing each other publicly, they both knew that they had their representatives meeting quietly, saying, we will find a way to preserve the process. You also write that there was this - a meeting among some African National Congress people and the police, particularly in areas around Pretoria, where the police agreed to use a softer touch. ANC marshals were actually appointed, many of them, to grant powers of arrest. There was, in effect, a cooperative effort to keep a lid on the anger and the violence, right?

MALALA: Yes. This was as the day of the funeral approached. And, essentially, you know, even as de Klerk and his security chiefs were saying, you know, clamp down hard; come down hard on the protesters and on any kind of violence, on the ground, ANC leaders, peacekeepers, key police personnel, particularly around, as you say, Johannesburg and Pretoria - they all sat down and said, look. As the police - a lot of times the police move in, and the violence escalates because the relations are just too - it's just too much between the communities and police.

And so that's when they agree and sign this agreement just before the funeral starts on the Saturday. They agree that ANC marshals, unofficial people, essentially, would be - would lead in intervening in any kind of trouble, that they would have the power to even arrest people who did not listen to instructions and that the police, as you say, would step back and use a softer touch and only intervene in great crisis. And it's one of the almost slight shifts of power that you see in that week and also a time for cooperation because, in general terms, that funeral could have been far, far more violent than it was. There was some. There were clashes all over, but, actually, it went off pretty peacefully for what South Africa was at that time.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take another break here. We are speaking with Justice Malala. He's a veteran journalist from South Africa. His new book is "The Plot To Save South Africa: The Week Mandela Averted Civil War And Forged A New Nation." We'll be back to talk more after this break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with South African journalist Justice Malala. His new book is a detailed account of a 10-day period in 1993 when negotiations were underway to establish a multiracial democracy in South Africa and a political assassination threatened to derail the effort and spark civil war. The book is called "The Plot To Save South Africa: The Week Mandela Averted Civil War And Forged A New Nation."

Well, the efforts to reinforce the center in South Africa held, and the funeral for Chris Hani came and went with some violence, but in the - on the whole, not as bad as it could have been. Civil war was averted. The transitional council was established to take the nation towards election, and that all worked. And in December of '93, a few months after all of the assassination, in fact, Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. And this is interesting. You know, they were not, you know, the most affectionate of friends, but they both attended the ceremony and gave speeches. But at a dinner afterward hosted by the prime minister of Norway, the tension spilled into the open between them, when Mandela spoke. Tell us about that.

MALALA: Mandela had always regarded F.W. de Klerk as a partner. But Mandela felt - two things that Mandela always felt that de Klerk fell short on - and the first one was that he felt that de Klerk never really apologized for apartheid to Black South Africans. And he felt that the granting of the Nobel Prize to de Klerk without that key admission and apology to Black South Africans was a mistake. The second thing was that Mandela felt that de Klerk, as the president of the country, did not do enough to stop the political violence that we've spoken about that had increased phenomenally between 1990 and 1993 December, when they got honored with the Nobel Prize.

So at - in this speech, Mandela was probably - it was probably the most bitter speech Mandela has given of the speeches I've seen. Mandela, you know, came out of 27 years in prison and avoided bitterness. As he used to say, you know, being bitter and hating your enemy is like drinking poison yourself to spite your enemy. And he avoided that. But in this speech, he was angry, and he lashed out at de Klerk and essentially said de Klerk had not treated South Africans - Black South Africans with humanity or did not consider them to be fully human.

And he's - one of his best friends and lawyers, George Bizos, was there and spoke about - and he said, and he's written this, that I'd never seen Nelson Mandela so angry and so bitter about it. And it was probably one of the lowest points of the two men's relationship, which, I have to say, changed dramatically later on. Mandela always said, I felt sorry for de Klerk on the other side because he faced his own challenges, his own demons, people calling him all sorts of names. And he also said, I realized that I needed him if we were to complete this journey, whatever I might think about his failings, whatever they may be.

DAVIES: You know, history, when we look back on it, has a sense of inevitability - right? - like, of, you know, it happened. I mean, you know, majority rule was going to come to South Africa. And it happened. And there was an elected government. But I guess the point you're making in the book is that it's not inevitable and that in the hands of two different leaders, the country might have had a very different future.

MALALA: No, absolutely. I mean, I look today, I - you know, I read in the news about what's happening in the Sudan. I hear political leaders here in the U.S. talking about let's split into red states, blue states. And you always wonder, when two sides are so far apart, how do you bridge that gap? And I think in South Africa, if there's anything for me that's a lesson in the events of that week, it was it took leadership. It took Nelson Mandela saying I need to collaborate with F.W. de Klerk on this key event to get us through to the other side. It takes an F.W. de Klerk who says this moment doesn't need me - it needs another leader. And that leader is Nelson Mandela, despite what I might think about him. So collaboration, the ability to realize that there is another way and that way is not just to name-call or to pick up arms and say it's time to fight, I think it's key.

Nelson Mandela faced from his own comrades - and I write about them in the book - who said, why are we negotiating? Let's stop the negotiations. Let's think about this again. And if you consider it, thinking about - rethinking that process meant let's go back to the armed struggle. Mandela had to deal with those. On the other side, F.W. de Klerk faced his own people who were saying, well, this is not working. Look at the violence that's erupted. Let's just come down hard with the iron fist. And he had to push back against that. And I think that's an object lesson for many, many leaders across the world today in a divided world, the kind of divided world that we live in, to remember what those two achieved and perhaps get some - take some lessons from what they did.

DAVIES: Well, Justice Malala, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MALALA: Thank you so much, Dave. I really enjoyed that. Thank you.

DAVIES: Justice Malala is a veteran journalist from South Africa. His new book is "The Plot To Save South Africa: The Week Mandela Averted Civil War And Forged A New Nation." Coming up, David Bianculli reviews the new HBO series "White House Plumbers" about the Watergate scandal. He says it's worth seeing and savoring. This is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. Today HBO presents a new comedy-drama series about a subject that's been dramatized many, many times already, the scandal known as Watergate. This new treatment is called "White House Plumbers." And its biggest star is Woody Harrelson as Watergate co-conspirator E. Howard Hunt. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The new five-part HBO series "White House Plumbers," about the men behind the Watergate break-in, begins just like the movie "All The President's Men." The time is the early 1970s. The place, the Watergate Hotel and office complex in Washington, D.C., where some mysterious men are trying to gain illegal entry to the Democratic election headquarters there. But all of a sudden, as if in some alternate dimensional timeline, the familiar details stop being familiar. The would-be burglars can't even pick the door lock. And a superimposed message explains the confusing difference to viewers. It reads, there were four Watergate break-in attempts. This was attempt No. 2.

Right away, you know this new "White House Plumbers" series is in great hands. Specifically, it's in the hands of writers and creators Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck. The director of multiple episodes is another "Veep" veteran, David Mandel, who also directed episodes of "Curb Your Enthusiasm." And the many executive producers include Frank Rich, who's also an executive producer on "Succession," so this group knows how to tell a story in unexpected ways and to find humor even in the more serious situations. After starting with that less-familiar Watergate break-in, "White House Plumbers" flashes back even further, to the moment when the plumbers were formed, then takes it forward from there through the various break-ins into the Watergate hearings and a bit beyond.

The principals in this particular telling are E. Howard Hunt, played by Woody Harrelson, and G. Gordon Liddy, played by Justin Thoreau. These two larger-than-life schemers were at the heart of the plumbers, a clandestine group created by the White House to investigate such press leaks as the Pentagon Papers, government documents that had been slipped to the New York Times and other newspapers by military analyst Daniel Ellsberg. They called themselves the plumbers because, well, plumbers locate and stop leaks. But that wasn't the group's original name, as we learn when Hunt, played by Harrelson, is called into the Executive Office Building by Bud Krogh, played by Rich Sommer, who's out to recruit Hunt for some risky business.


RICH SOMMER: (As Bud Krogh) President feels there's been too much heel-dragging on these leaks - heel-dragging and pussyfooting.

WOODY HARRELSON: (As E. Howard Hunt) If there's one thing I detest more than heel-dragging, it's pussy-footing. Son of a bitch steals 7,000 pages of top-secret documents, gives it to the damn press - high treason. I told Colson I think Ellsberg should be tarred and feathered and hanged.

SOMMER: (As Bud Krogh) Well, then you and the president are of the same mind, hence SIU - Special Intelligence Unit.

HARRELSON: (As E. Howard Hunt) Oh, look. Right. But I don't mean to step on any toes here, but special intelligence makes it sound like we're mentally handicapped.

SOMMER: (As Bud Krogh) That had not occurred to me.

BIANCULLI: Hunt gets the job and the budget and Liddy as a partner. And they set out to, among other things, bug the Democratic National Committee headquarters. It's not quite a mission impossible, but in the hands of this crew, it takes several tries. And even then, after the listening devices are planted, there are problems. In this scene, White House Counsel John Dean, played by Domhnall Gleason, ushers Hunt, Liddy and their colleagues into his office for a briefing.


DOMHNALL GLEASON: (As John Dean) We have here the fruits of your magnificent labors.

HARRELSON: (As E. Howard Hunt) Those are the transcripts.

GLEASON: (As John Dean) Indeed they are. Shall we dive in? Page one, phone conversation - Tuesday, June 6, 2:13 p.m. Secretary - I told him I wanted it curly but long like Maria Schneider. Voice - I told you to go to my guy. Secretary - instead, he chops it all off, and now I look like Shelley Winters. Voice - Shelley Winters. Secretary - Shelley Winters.

HARRELSON: (As E. Howard Hunt) I'm sorry to interrupt, John. Is that the bug from O'Brien's secretary?

GLEASON: (As John Dean) Correct.

JUSTIN THEROUX: (As G. Gordon Liddy) Why don't we jump ahead to the bug on O'Brien's phone, you know, get to the meat and potatoes?

GLEASON: (As John Dean) Yeah. We'll skip this. Yes. Oh, this one is inoperative.

THEROUX: (As G. Gordon Liddy) No.

HARRELSON: (As E. Howard Hunt) What about the bug in the smoke detector in O'Brien's office?

GLEASON: (As John Dean) Excellent question.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yeah, this one is actually my favorite one.

HARRELSON: (As E. Howard Hunt) OK.

GLEASON: (As John Dean) Where is it? Oh, yes. Here we go - also inoperative.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Oh.

HARRELSON: (As E. Howard Hunt) What?

THEROUX: (As G. Gordon Liddy) Sorry - inoperative.

GLEASON: (As John Dean) Inoperative.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) The opposite of operative.

GLEASON: (As John Dean) It did not operate. The only working microphone that you and your team planted is the one on the phone of the secretary who now looks like Shelley Winters.

BIANCULLI: The dialogue is this rich throughout "White House Plumbers," and so are the performances and characters. Harrelson is wonderful, exploding like Ralph Kramden one minute, simmering like Macbeth the next. And the supporting cast is a very deep bench, serving up unexpected treasures every episode. There's Kathleen Turner as lobbyist Dita Beard and Lena Headey from "Game Of Thrones" as Hunt's wife Dorothy and Gary Cole as FBI executive Mark Felt, who, though he's not identified as such here, in real life was the infamous Deep Throat of "All The President's Men," and lots, lots more. Parts of "White House Plumbers" are laugh-out-loud outrageous. But other parts do make you feel for some of these people and, of course, compare that scandal to more contemporary ones. It's definitely worth seeing and savoring. "All The President's Men" is one of my favorite movies of all time, and "White House Plumbers" is good enough to be shown as a very long, all-Watergate double feature.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University. He reviewed the new series "White House Plumbers," now on HBO. On tomorrow's show, actor James Marsden. He plays a self-absorbed, satirical version of himself in the new show "Jury Duty." Marsden is also in the TV series "Westworld" and "Dead To Me" and in the movies "Enchanted," "27 Dresses" and "The Notebook." I hope you can join us. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Adam Staniszewski. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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