It's been 40 years since the most reviled president of the 20th century resigned from office. What more fitting time than now to raise a glass to the man who did his job and did it so well he brought down a president of the United States?
Here's to Frank Wills, the 24-year-old watchman who got suspicious one night at the Watergate office complex, called the cops, and changed the course of American history.
On June 17, 1972, five men broke into the Watergate complex, bent on stealing documents from the offices of the Democratic National Committee. Wills was working the midnight shift that night. While on his rounds, he noticed a basement door's latch bolt had been clumsily taped over. Figuring a fellow worker had done it to make it easier to get in and out, he tore the tape off and strolled off, thinking nothing of it.
On his next round, 30 minutes later, Wills noticed the same door's lock had been taped over again. The second time was a charm for the United States of America. Those case-hardened and highly self-regarding CIA operatives hadn't figured on Frank Wills doing his job that night.
Wills called the cops, who locked the place down and launched a room-by-room search of the building. Here's how Wills later described to a Florida newspaper what happened on the sixth floor headquarters of the DNC that night:
"When we turned the lights on, one person, then two persons, then three persons came out, and on down the line."
It was two in the morning. The clock had just begun ticking on the presidency of Richard Nixon.
I've always felt a special kinship with Wills and the events of that fateful evening. Only a year before Watergate, I'd been one of five people who were busted inside a federal office building in my hometown of Buffalo, trying to steal and destroy Selective Service and Army Intelligence files. (We'd have made it, too, if not for an informer's presence in another group of co-conspirators. We may have been amateurs, but we were better burglars than those woeful "plumbers.")
Later, as the events of Watergate unfolded, after I'd been convicted of anti-war crimes and seen my sentence suspended, I got a job strolling empty hallways, checking locks and sweeping floors as a night watchman at the Buffalo Zoo. I swore then I'd never forget what Wills did that night; I used to call him the patron saint of night watchmen.
I knew my days as a night watchman would be temporary. I was intent on following a career path that echoed another pair of characters who picked up Wills's torch put them in the history books: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. It would be they, not Wills, whose path I follow to this day.
Frank Wills wasn't as lucky. He was black and without a college education or the connections that I, a white middle-class kid, took for granted. Here's how the New York Times described what happened to him following Watergate:
Mr. Wills quit his job soon after the burglary was discovered, believing that he did not get the raise he deserved. As the cover-up was unraveling in 1974, he made a little money talking about his historic moment, but his appearances cost him jobs because he was away from work. Most of the jobs paid not much more than minimum wage, although he did better than that when he played himself in the 1976 movie about Nixon's downfall, All the President's Men.
A few years later, Wills was convicted of shoplifting a $12 pair of sneakers and served a year in prison. Afterward, he worked various dead-end jobs. In 1990, he moved to North Augusta, S.C., to care for his mother. He died of a brain tumor, indigent and forgotten, in that city on Sept 27, 2000. He was 52-years-old.
It seemed everybody was able to make a career, a buck or a book out of Watergate, except the man whose sharp eye opened the floodgates of history. Bob Woodward characterized his contribution this way: "He's the only one in Watergate who did his job perfectly."
I like Woodward's description, but here's the one that gave me chills when I first read it in Wills's obituary in the New York Times. Democratic congressman James Mann of South Carolina, casting his vote for impeachment, said "If there is no accountability, another president will feel free to do as he chooses. But the next time there may be no watchman in the night."