These days you’re most likely to recognize Jill Wine-Banks from her blunt MSNBC analysis of President Trump’s manifold legal challenges. Sporting eye-catching necklaces and brooches, Wine-Banks provides a distinctive lens on Washington scandals: her experience as an assistant Watergate special prosecutor.
Capitalizing on that experience and her MSNBC platform, Wine-Banks has penned what may well be the last Watergate memoir. Numerous other players — from Nixon’s convicted aides, to journalists who covered the scandal, and even Wine-Banks’s co-counsel, Richard Ben-Veniste — published their takes decades ago. “The Watergate Girl” contributes a new perspective and details to an already massive literature, but no earth-shattering revelations.
The time lag does afford some advantages. Riding the crest of the #MeToo movement, Wine-Banks describes the mostly workaday sexism she encountered on the job. Reflecting the contemporary penchant for soul-baring, she depicts her sexually unsatisfying and psychologically abusive marriage, a clandestine love affair, and a happy second marriage to her high school beau.
Seesawing between candor and discretion, “The Watergate Girl” raises questions, particularly about her disastrous first marriage, which it never fully answers. But the book’s fast-moving narrative and crisp prose should hook readers. (Wine-Banks credits the writer Gioia Diliberto as “my indispensable partner in this project.”)
After the University of Illinois, Wine-Banks hoped to become a journalist. As a (dubious) first step, she enrolled in Columbia Law School, where she won a national moot court competition for best brief. From law school she became an organized crime prosecutor at the Department of Justice, a path-breaking role for a woman. Her ace performance led to the post of assistant Watergate special prosecutor.
Then known as Jill Wine Volner, she bonded with Ben-Veniste, another assistant special prosecutor, and the rest of the team. “A sense of noble purpose charged our days,” she writes. She revered special prosecutor Archibald Cox, an earnest Harvard law professor known for his bow ties and constitutional expertise.
After the infamous October 1973 Saturday Night Massacre, which culminated in Cox’s firing over his pursuit of the Watergate tapes, Wine-Banks and her colleagues pondered, but rejected, a mass resignation. Under pressure, Nixon named Leon Jaworski, a renowned Texas trial attorney, as Cox’s replacement.
The office greeted Jaworski with suspicion. “He deserved more respect than we gave him,” Wine-Banks writes. He treated her well, apart from calling her a “lady lawyer,” her protestations notwithstanding. She later relates “a ferocious battle of wills” between most of the staff and Jaworski over whether to seek an indictment of Nixon from the grand jury. Jaworski’s refusal set a precedent that she often discusses on the air.
Of the Nixon aides she encountered directly, Wine-Banks is most dismissive of Jeb Stuart Magruder, “a slippery confabulator” whom she thought embodied “utter amorality.” She has more sympathy for Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s longtime secretary and confidante, whom she aggressively cross-examined about the mysterious, 18½-minute gap on a crucial Watergate tape. “I saw something of myself in the president’s trim, copper-haired secretary, in the way we’d both had to survive in a world of men who’d often bullied and belittled us,” she writes.
Wine-Banks is admiring of John W. Dean, the White House counsel who repented his role in the coverup and became the prosecution’s star witness. She repeatedly cites his “astonishing memory” and says that she and Dean, now a commentator for CNN, have become friends.
During the Watergate investigation, Wine-Banks says her house was broken into twice and her phone tapped. Meanwhile, as she logged 16-hour workdays, her personal life was in disarray.
Her marriage to another Columbia Law grad, Ian Volner, had begun badly and never improved. Their first sexual encounter, on their honeymoon, was “awkward, quick, and not at all satisfying.” Their sex life remained negligible, and Volner, she writes, treated her with indifference and contempt, for reasons that remain obscure. Was he perhaps an unhappily closeted gay man — or just a misogynistic jerk with a low libido?
With divorce “unthinkable,” Wine-Banks pursued a love affair with a government lawyer, Kurt Muellenberg. That affair hit a roadblock when she discovered that Muellenberg had allowed another woman he was dating to move in with him, “a cruel betrayal.” (She later forgave him sufficiently to fix him up with his future wife.) Therapy gave her the courage to divorce her husband — and, eventually, to reconnect with her old high school boyfriend, Michael Banks.
After Watergate, Wine-Banks held a series of high-profile jobs, in corporate law, international business, government, and the nonprofit sector. She became the first woman to serve as general counsel for the US Army. At the Chicago law firm of Jenner & Block, she writes, a senior partner made an “unwanted sexual overture” and retaliated against her when she said no. In business, she says she faced “gender bias at every turn.”
Nothing, it seems, would match the intensity of Watergate, an experience that has continued to define her. But with her current MSNBC gig, she writes, “I’ve come full circle,” fulfilling at last her journalistic aspirations.
THE WATERGATE GIRL: MY FIGHT FOR TRUTH AND JUSTICE AGAINST A CRIMINAL PRESIDENT
By Jill Wine-Banks
Henry Holt and Company, 272 pp., $27.99
Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, has been a two-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.