“It was all very surreal,” Kathy said.
A film crew was filming a scene from “The White House Plumbers,” an HBO miniseries about the Republican operatives who broke into the Democratic National Committee office in the Watergate building in June 1972. It was a summer that Kathy will never forget.
She was Kathy Postel at the time, 20, from Dallas, between her sophomore and junior year at the University of Texas. “I wanted to come here because that’s where things were happening with politics,” Kathy told me. “I wanted to get involved”
She told her parents she would find an internship in DC and live in a dorm at George Washington University while taking a course at GWU. Her mother said Kathy could go if she promised not to talk to strangers or wear halter tops and tight jeans that showed her navel. (She would quickly break those promises.)
Kathy arrived in DC on a Braniff International Airways flight on June 8. She lived in Thurston Hall with two roommates. One was on Weight Watchers. The “fridge is so full I have no room for my tablet,” Kathy wrote to a friend in Texas.
She did poorly on her civil service typing exam, but still managed to land a place in the Air Force Civilian Personnel Office in the Forrestal Building near the National Mall. Professional secretaries often sent her across the street for popcorn because she couldn’t be trusted with typing. After work, Kathy took an international politics course at GWU.
On June 18, the Washington Post published an article about the arrest of five men in Watergate. Their base of operations turned out to be in the Howard Johnson Hotel across the street.
“Remember how I wanted to be where the story is?” Kathy wrote to a friend. “At least twice a week I go to Howard Johnson to reward myself after another unbearable class. I always get the same thing – a double scoop of brickle buttercream ice cream. I wasn’t at Howard Johnson’s when the burglary happened. Damn.”
In another letter, she wrote, “Can you believe all that is being said now about Nixon’s connection to the Watergate robbery? I thought DC was going to be exciting, but I never thought like that. And it all happens just a few blocks from my house! I feel like I’m in a movie, with really bad actors. ‘Manchurian Candidate.’ ”
Then like now, DC was full of people like Kathy: young men and women interested in politics, in serving the country, in making the world a better place.
“I was both idealistic and cynical,” she told me. The scandal energized these two qualities.
“The excitement was thrilling,” she said, “like, ‘We can’t wait for the next chapter. What’s going to happen next?’
For Kathy, the next chapter meant returning to Texas, graduating from college, and then returning to Washington to work in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. Then more degrees and jobs in urban politics and in support of the First Amendment. She married a television journalist — Thedied in 2018 – and they had two sons.
Today, Kathy, 70, is a professor teaching public service at Georgetown University, where she directs the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership.
And not too long ago – stuck at home during the coronavirus pandemic – Kathy came across her notebook from that summer 50 years ago: the letters she received in 1972, copies of letters she sent, photos of her getting ready to go to Blackie’s House of Beef on a date…
Strangest of all for her, Kathy now lives in Watergate. Last fall, she walked out of the hall and into the past.