White House Plumbers: Is the HBO Show Based on Real People?

Image Credit: Phil Caruso/HBO

Created by Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck, ‘White House Plumbers’ is an HBO satirical series that follows E. Howard Hunt (Woody Harrelson) and G. Gordon Liddy (Justin Theroux) and the role they play in the Watergate Scandal. In 1971, the Nixon administration is rattled by the release of the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg, and hastily sets up the Special Intelligence Unit (SIU) to plug the disastrous leak. Howard, a former CIA operative, and Liddy, a former FBI agent, are initially recruited for this purpose. However, John Dean (Domhnall Gleeson), the White House Counsel, soon becomes their boss, replacing Egil “Bud” Krogh (Rich Sommer).

He hires them to work for the Committee for the Re-Election of the President. A fundraising organization on paper, the Committee for the Re-Election of the President or CRP, has also been established to perform espionage, sabotage, infiltration, disinformation, and electronic surveillance against Nixon’s opponents from the Democratic Party. Given that the political drama series revolves around one of the most notorious political scandals in American history, many of you must be wondering whether ‘White House Plumbers’ is inspired by true events.

From Book to Screen: The Story of Watergate Scandal Retold

‘White House Plumbers’ is based on a true story. Gregory and Huyck, long-time writers on the ‘Late Show with David Letterman’ as well as a few episodes of ‘Veep’ and ‘Fraiser,’ developed the series partly from the 2007 book ‘Integrity: Good People, Bad Choices, and Life Lessons from the White House’ by Krogh and his son Matthew. At the start of the series, the following message appears, “The following is based on a true story. No names have been changed to protect the innocent, because nearly everyone was found guilty.” Well, that effectively sets up the narrative and tells the audience what they can expect.

Image Credit: Phil Caruso/HBO

In an interview with The New York Times, the series creators and their main stars reflected on the value of a show on Watergate when over five decades have passed since Nixon’s re-election in 1972. Over the years, there have been quite a few films and TV shows about Watergate — from the classic 1976 film ‘All the President’s Men’ starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford to the 1995 film ‘Nixon’ starring Anthony Hopkins to the 1999 film ‘Dick’ starring Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst to the 2022 Starz series ‘Gaslit’ starring Sean Penn and Julia Roberts.

The series creators admitted that there are political scandals in the modern world that makes Watergate look insignificant. “That was an era in which people could still be shocked that this kind of behavior went on in politics,” Huyck stated. “People were shocked that people were breaking in and planting bugs, whereas nowadays that would seem like small potatoes.”

David Mandel, the director of the series, recognizes that not many among the viewers will know much about Watergate, he himself learned about the scandal from ‘All the President’s Men,’ both the book and film renditions. Who knows, ‘White House Plumbers’ just might turn out to be this generation’s ‘All the President’s Men.’ “First and foremost, it was a great story with larger-than-life characters and astonishing twists and turns,” Gregory reflected on why it was important to make the series. “If we’re hoping to achieve anything, it’s to get people interested in history in general by making it entertaining.”

He added, “Perhaps people would learn from history if it were served up as a cheeseburger instead of an undressed arugula salad.” Howard, Liddy, Dean, and almost every other character that appears in the show are based on real people. Most of the individuals who were involved in the scandal are largely vilified by history, though there are some exceptions. For instance, Dean, for his testimony in front of Congress during the Watergate hearing as a witness, is regarded somewhat favorably.

One of the most authentic aspects of ‘White House Plumbers’ is how it sheds light on certain lesser aspects of the scandal. One example of this is that there were four attempts to break into the Watergate Building by burglars. The series creators stick to comedy roots and depict Howard and Liddy almost like lovable losers while not flinching away from mentioning Howard’s disturbing tenure as a CIA operative and Liddy’s unusual fascination with Hitler.

Image Credit: Phil Caruso/HBO

Therefore, to sum it all up, ‘White House Plumbers’ is indeed based on a true story about the Watergate scandal, offering the perspectives of two men who were deeply involved in the incident and suffered consequences for it. Francesca Orsi, the head of drama series at HBO, said, “The heart and soul — the psyche of the show — is about these two men and the way their decisions and choices they made had wider ramifications for themselves and their families.”

Read More: Where is White House Plumbers Filmed?