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The Watergate Hotel and the Nostalgia for Impeachment

The Watergate Hotel and the Nostalgia for Impeachment

With history eerily repeating itself, a writer checks in for a surreal stay at scandal central.

A surreal sensation sets in upon arriving at the Watergate Hotel in the nation's capital. Timing is everything, as the old saw goes, and that couldn't be more apt, as I'm arriving when the Russia-Trump campaign scandal has gone into overdrive, and the news media are awash in Trump-Nixon comparisons.

I check in and head to the decadent lounge, and what should appear on the TV but the building itself -- the instantly recognizable design of architect Luigi Moretti. The Watergate Complex has haunted the American political psyche since 1972, when a botched break-in by Republican operatives led to several investigations, even more messy cover-ups, and the beginnings of the impeachment process for President Nixon, who would resign upon understanding the inevitable end of his time in office.

Part of the beauty of staying in such a fancy hotel is the sense of humor the management clearly has about its own landmark status: coasters in the bar and restaurant read "NO NEED TO BREAK IN" and "I AM NOT A CROOK," while complimentary pens read "I STOLE THIS FROM THE WATERGATE HOTEL" (I read that as an invitation, so I stole more than a few). These items are what I have come to refer to as Impeachment Kitsch. The Watergate has a retro postcard that's free to guests too, but alas, no Nixon ones (the staff should really get on that). The Kingbird restaurant serves up a Watergate Mahattan -- described as "ramazotti amaro rinsed American oak barrel, angel's envy bourbon carpano antica vermouth, cherry cocktail rested a minimum of 30 days."

"You won't forget it," the waiter promises. Unlike the ex-president, he isn't lying; it delivers.

Made up of equal parts political news junkie and film fanatic, I'm in sensory overload at the Watergate. The building's design details are unmistakable, and I've seen All the President's Men more times than I can count. If there is one thing that's striking about the entire complex, it's how absolutely massive it is. It's made up of five buildings over a 10-acre lot. There's the hotel (where the break-in artists -- known as "the plumbers" -- actually stayed), two office complexes, and several co-op apartments, which seem to be occupied primarily by ornery senior citizens. There's a mini-mall below, which features a convenience store and an art gallery/shop. Despite the fact that I don't have a car, I venture into the notorious parking lot -- just to say I've been there, and to see if I can find my own Deep Throat (but no such luck).

Figuring out what to venture to in Washington, D.C., is close to impossible, made daunting by the sheer number of fascinating monuments, museums, and points of interest that are within city limits. Fun fact: All of the tours and museums are free of charge, a tradition set up to ensure the public had access to the nation's capital -- a welcome surprise in a country so hooked on capitalism. I chose to take a tour of Congress, given that, as branches of government go, it's looking better than the White House (though that isn't saying much). I follow that up by a jaunt to the Lincoln Memorial. But I confess: The fact that I'm staying at the Watergate still feels like the biggest bragging right I'm getting out of this trip.

The hotel's swankier-than-swank decor and extras don't hurt. The hotel saw renewed investment in 2013, when Euro Capital Properties announced a $200 million refurbishing, one that would strive to celebrate the original vision of architect Moretti. The Next Whisky Bar features a wall of perfectly matching liquor bottles. And the Top of the Gate has just opened, a rooftop bar that features a 360-degree view of the entire city. This is how to experience D.C. LGBT tourists will also enjoy proximity to Nellie's Sports Bar and the lively bar-club Town.

I return to Watergate to dig in to dinner. Given the Kingbird's reviews, I'm eagerly anticipating a pretty amazing meal. I notice that the TVs seem only to be showing MSNBC or CNN, with nary a Fox News anchor in sight. It strikes me that America's stark political divisions will manifest themselves even in a visitor's choice of hotels in Washington: Republicans will almost certainly choose a hotel bearing the president's name; Democrats, I suspect, would want to bunk in the Watergate, soothed by the idea that impeachment and/or resignation is still a distinct possibility.

A middle-aged woman from L.A. directs me to her favorite items on the menu, insisting I order a soft-shell crab appetizer (good thing I listened to her). I ask her why she stays at the Watergate and if it feels strange staying at a flashback to one of the shakiest moments in the country's political history.

"I remember when my parents explained Nixon's resignation to me," she recalls. "It was such a shock -- like a trauma. Now I feel like we're all longing for the impeachment of Trump, like it would be an uplifting thing. It's like we're all caught up in a nostalgia for impeachment."

It was a telling moment -- and a strange one, seeing as I never expected to hear someone describe the crashing and burning of Nixon's presidency as something to take solace in. The Watergate is one of the most comfortable, cushy hotels I've ever stayed in, and here were Americans taking comfort in the nostalgic glow of a decades-old scandal, the fallout of which some argue we are destined to repeat.

MATTHEW HAYS is a Montreal-based journalist and author whose articles have appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, Vice, The Daily Beast, and, yes, The Washington Post. He teaches courses in film studies and journalism at Concordia University and Marianopolis College.

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