Traditionally, where scientists say “keep it simple,” historians say “keep it sensible.” Early studies of historical method laid down procedures for source criticism – the process of evaluating primary accounts and other evidence – that have been constantly revisited and revised by generations of historiographers. But what should a historian do when several sources contradict one another and most means of evaluating their credibility have been exhausted? Sometimes, they say, you just have to go with common sense.
This is the dilemma that surrounds a relatively obscure, yet unexpectedly significant aspect of one of the most infamous events of the late twentieth century: the Watergate scandal. President Nixon’s public downfall shaped modern attitudes towards political culture and placed a haze of mystique over five buildings in southwest Washington, D.C. The word “Watergate” conjures up so many connotations that it begs the question: How did the Watergate complex get its name? A study of Watergate’s disputed namesakes illuminates how physical and historical context can harmonize a city’s disparate values.
At the moment, everyone is familiar with “Deflate-gate,” the scandal which haunted pre-Super Bowl sports coverage and has given rise to frustration over the practice using “gate” in the media to describe public outrages. It is not difficult to explain the popularity of the “gate” phenomenon. In etymology, the –gate suffix is called a “back-formation.” Back-formations are attractive when the grammatical unit (or morpheme) is a recognizable word in its own right. Other examples include –wood (Hollywood) and –stock (Woodstock), which are also commonly affixed to other words to create meaningful associations. Thus, the morpheme –gate has become easier and easier to apply to both real and perceived scandals, such as Troopergate, Weinergate, and Nipplegate. The first post-Watergate use of the morpheme was in 1973, when National Lampoon dubbed a fictional scandal “Volgagate.”
For all of its uses (and misuses), “gate” assumes almost a poetic quality when it is remembered that the word itself, like many place names, has a practical origin. The Watergate complex, which began construction in 1963, is a group of five high-end apartment and office buildings nestled along the Potomac River in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, DC. Following the river’s shoreline, the Lincoln Memorial and Tidal Basin are located about a half mile to its south, while Georgetown and the entrance to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal are a couple hundred yards to its north.
The Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal, opened in 1831, spans 184.5 miles from Georgetown to Cumberland, Maryland. A combination of disastrous floods, funding shortages, and competition from the railroads eventually caused it to shut down in 1924. The site might have fallen into ruin were it not for its redevelopment as a National Monument, then full Historic Park, between 1961 and 1971. Many of the canal’s original locks, gates, and culverts are in good condition. At milepost zero, the remnants of a stone tidewater lock and a dam show where barge boats once entered the canal from the Potomac. A set of decaying wood beams that was once part of these structures also still remains. The Watergate complex is easily visible in the distance to the south.
Thus, in the most literal sense, the canal’s tidewater lock served as a “water gate” into the region’s industrial heartland. Several writers have made the case that this water gate directly inspired the naming of the very proximate Watergate complex, and for good reason. According to a 1973 article in the Kingsport Post, before the Watergate complex was built, “its site was one of the most dismal in Washington, a collection of rundown light industrial buildings and declining low-income houses.” The redevelopment agreement allowed for these buildings to be demolished, returning the area to a more “natural” environment. President Washington’s Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) repeatedly asked Watergate’s Italian architect, Luigi Moretti, to tone down the scale of his design so as to emphasize the site’s “park-like” setting. It may be no coincidence that President Eisenhower proclaimed the C&O Canal a National Monument, under the Antiquities Act, in 1961, the same year the Watergate project first came before the CFA.
But the question is not resolved here. In a Greater GreaterWashington article called “Do you know the other Watergate?” writer Tom Cochran argues that Watergate was named not for the tidewater lock, but for the grandiose steps that descend from the Lincoln Memorial into the Potomac River. The steps were first conceived in as part of the Lincoln Memorial design in 1901, when the Senate Park Commission was appointed “to design a scheme for the beautification of Washington.” The Commission’s architects originally intended for dignitaries and heads of state to sail up the river to these “watergate steps” and be greeted by the new presidential monument. While traffic concerns quickly killed the idea (it was necessary to let Rock Creek Parkway cut through the steps), the area was still used for lavish concert performances between the 1930s and 1960s.
The function of the steps as a true “water gate” was vestigial long before construction on the Watergate complex ever began. However, it is certainly plausible that Watergate’s developers wished to associate the buildings with old fables of welcoming political VIP’s into the arms of the city. With the demolition of the old industrial structures in Foggy Bottom, the land had instantly become “the most highly valued parcel of private property in the area.” Watergate was the perfect spot to host people of “status,” with its luxury accommodations and accessibility to federal government buildings.
To complicate matters more, there are several other minor theories concerning Watergate’s name. A Pennsylvania Dutch restaurant favored by Eleanor Roosevelt and called the “Water Gate Inn” operated in the area from 1942 to 1966, which may have had some influence on the naming decision. Mike High, author of The C&O Canal Companion: A Journey through Potomac History, posits a sort of domino effect: Watergate took its name from the Water Gate Inn and the Lincoln Memorial’s “Watergate steps,” which in turn took their names from “a non-vanished water-control structure that was installed at the end of Tiber Creek when it was being built over in the late nineteenth century.” The Tiber Creek water-control structure High refers to marked the entrance to a separate branch canal that once traversed modern-day Constitution Avenue. High does not consider the C&O Canal tidewater lock entrance as being a contributing factor.
Two different “sides” of Washington D.C. – its memorial landscape and its political landscape – are brought in focus by the multiple water gates. While the C&O Canal’s entrance represented the values of preservation and renewal, the Lincoln steps represented a certain respect for power and influence. It is not unthinkable that both the CFA and Watergate’ developers recognized this opportunity to honor all of these factors. After all, physical proximity and historical significance show how each water gate’s “claim” makes sense. If we accept that the Watergate name could have been inspired by a convergence of possibilities, we reveal another way in which historians can conquer contradictions.
Mike High, The C&O Canal Companion: A Journey through Potomac History, 2nd edition (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015)
Sue A. Kohler, The Commission of Fine Arts: A Brief History 1910-1995 (Washington, D.C.: The Commission of Fine Arts, 1995)