|By Chris Rodell
The San Francisco Chronicle
The name is so radioactive that even the hotel itself seeks to bury it behind three other words in the vain hopes that people will be too lazy to read all the way to the end of the bright red marquee out front.
Swissotel Washington, The -- (brace yourself) -- Watergate.
Watergate, the only scandal in the 225-year history of the Republic to force a president to resign in disgrace. Even today, the name is so synonymous with scandal that virtually every D.C. dustup is automatically stapled with the tarnished "-gate" suffix, a perpetual reminder of the shame that was Watergate.
June 17, 2002, marks the 30th anniversary of the night when a group of burglars working under the direction of Richard Nixon's White House broke into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters and were ultimately arrested and led away in handcuffs.
The Watergate was built in 1967 with the ambitious intention of becoming the most luxurious commercial and residential complex in the world. Its six winding towers (the hotel, three luxury residences, two office buildings) comprise a self-contained city where guests and residents can shop, take care of postal matters, dine, do their dry cleaning, and get their hair cut without ever having to venture beyond the property.
But the reasons the name Watergate still reverberates through history have vanished. Like an inexplicable 18-minute gap on an otherwise incriminating tape, the evidence of scandal has simply disappeared.
Today, the sixth floor office is home to Urenco, Inc., a British-based marketing firm that specializes in,
speaking of radioactivity, uranium enrichment for nuclear plants.
"They'd have more trouble breaking in today," said company spokesman Don Miller. "Security's a lot tighter these days."
A historical plaque stating the significance of the site was stolen long ago and never replaced.
No on-site ceremonial readings will be held to commemorate the historic date. No tourists will be on hand to snap pictures. Office visitors who aren't discouraged by the lobby security are invariably disappointed by the offices that are blandly indistinguishable from corporate offices around the country.
The floor's been subdivided so many times Miller says it's no longer possible for anyone to discern where exactly the burglars were nabbed. No one thought to put down a chalk outline on the spot and the information is now lost to history.
Bob Dole broke into the Watergate in 1972, as well. In fact, the name Watergate means more than scandal to the former Senate majority leader and the GOP's 1996 presidential nominee.
To Dole and wife Liddy, Watergate means home sweet home.
"We love it here," Dole says. "People around the world think of Watergate and they think of scandal, but I can't think of anywhere I'd rather live."
You think Watergate means burglars, skullduggery and political shenanigans? The name's also synonymous with fashionable shopping, luxury living and some of the finest dining in Washington. In fact, Jeffrey's at the Watergate is a great place to dine if you want the learn if President George Bush, at least when it comes to tipping, is compassionate or conservative.
"He's a generous tipper," assured our friendly waiter. "He and Laura have been here a number of times. Both are very pleasant and they take good care of us."
The Bushes have been fans of Jeffrey's since their Austin days when they were frequent diners at the Texas capital's original Jeffrey's Restaurant. Both feature fine contemporary Texas cuisine.
The Doles caused a friendly stir one recent night when they took a window seat overlooking the Potomac River. The 91-seat restaurant is intimate enough that if you're there when the Doles are -- they eat there two or three times a week when not traveling -- chances are good you'll get a warm hello from one of America's premier power couples, as we did. He still enters a room like he wants your vote, something Mrs. Liddy, in fact, does seek. She's campaigning in her native North Carolina for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Jesse Helms.
Dole was gracious enough to agree to a phone interview about what Watergate means to him.
"I was living here during the break-in and was the head of Republican National Committee, but I was in Chicago on the night of the break-in."
"Oh, yeah, the Democrats were hoping they'd gotten all the tools for the break-in right from my apartment."
He was cleared of any wrong-doing, and still recalls a slim silver lining to the scandal as it brought down the most powerful man in the world.
"I remember thinking, 'Boy, this'll be really good for the Watergate. People will drive by and see The Watergate Hotel and realize what a great location it is.'"
Official guests appreciate the building's proximity to the U.S. Department of State and the White House. Those in the entertainment world prize it because it's an easy walk to the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts.
Dole says the guests and residents match the splendid setting.
"The people are friendly," he says. "They have pool parties and have these little get-togethers about once a month. I always try to stop in and grab a donut."
Clearly, this is the Watergate you won't read about in the history books. Any inter-hotel bowling leagues?
"No bowling. They do have some social activities, but I'm too busy for that."
Dole says he's never felt the need to attend monthly tenant meetings to complain about leaky faucets, strange odors or loud neighbors, even when one of those next-door neighbors herself was branded with the dreaded "-gate."
"Monica Lewinsky lived right next door for a while when all that was going on," Dole says. "We'd say hello and that was about it. I always liked seeing the disappointment on the faces of the news reporters outside when I opened the doors and it was only me, not Monica."
It's indicative of how pernicious the name has become that when she moved in, normally stoic network news anchors announced the news with raised eyebrows and barely concealed sneers, while guys like Leno and Letterman got a week's worth of material from the real estate transaction. As if the hotel has a taint.
Hollywood, too, has embraced this sinister misconception. In the 1997 thriller, Absolute Power, the hero played by Clint Eastwood needs to deliver a secret package to the immoral president's conniving chief of staff, a woman portrayed by actress Judy Davis as the epitome of venal corruption. On what residential sign does the camera linger as Eastwood makes the drop to the lair of this manipulative villainess?
Swissotel Washington, The Watergate.
But the Watergate is more about taste than taint. The 250 rooms, 144 of which are suites, are spacious with great views of the Potomac River valley and nearby Georgetown. The rooms and suites feature the finicky finery that are hallmarks to the Swissotel chain. Plush sofas and arm chairs and convenient refreshment centers invite guests to recline and cocoon away from the hectic business of our nation's capital. The in-room personal safes are large enough to hold either a laptop computer or mounds of pilfered documents, should you be a bona fide Watergate burglar.
It's staffed by friendly, enthusiastic people are proud to be associated with the Watergate. But unless it can attract a cause-seeking benefactor, the shackles of history will forever link the name to scandal.
The Beatles song, "Helter Skelter," was once so closely associated with Charles Manson that Vincent Bugliosi named his book about the prosecution of the Manson murders after the song. On the opening cut of U2's 1988 live album, "Rattle and Hum," lead singer Bono introduces a joyfully raucous version of the song by saying, "This is a song Charles Manson stole from The Beatles. We're stealing it back."
The grand hotel could use a similar sort of symbolic theft, and it would be fitting if, for once, someone could steal something for the Watergate instead of from it.