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The National Portrait Gallery marks 50 years since Watergate with new exhibit

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

The 50th anniversary of Watergate is approaching. In June of 1972, five men were arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate complex, the first step in one of the worst political scandals in the history of the United States. Looking ahead, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., is commemorating those watershed events with an exhibition. NPR's Miranda Mazariegos has more.

MIRANDA MAZARIEGOS, BYLINE: The word Watergate has long been used to refer to cover-ups, burglaries and abuse of office as the political scandal of the '70s that brought down President Nixon caught the attention of the news media, artists, Hollywood and the general public alike. In this new exhibition, acting senior historian at the National Portrait Gallery, Kate Clarke Lemay, wanted to address the well-known history through a different, more visual lens.

KATE CLARKE LEMAY: In my opinion, good art is timeless. So I wanted this show to focus on the close relationship between the media and the artists and start to interpret that impact onto these events.

MAZARIEGOS: The news media uncovered the abuse of power and helped the public dissect the crisis as it was happening. Time Magazine alone devoted more than 40 of their covers to the scandal, 12 of which are part of the gallery's exhibition. And the show has a little bit of everything. There are pictures of the most prominent figures - President Nixon and White House Counsel John Dean, for example - but also portraits of those whose stories unfolded in the periphery of the scandal, like Martha Mitchell, wife of then-Attorney General John Mitchell. Martha's portrait is a colorful, eye-catching painting by artist Jan de Ruth, originally published in Time Magazine in the November 1970 special, The Wives of Washington.

CLARKE LEMAY: So imagine being a socialite. You know, she's Arkansas born, and she's featured in Time Magazine. OK, great, except she's featured for being a wife. Women's potential was so limited in the mid-century.

MAZARIEGOS: So adding the portrait to the collection allowed Clarke Lemay to explore Martha's story as a woman who was an essential yet sidelined part of the scandal. Martha's close proximity to John allowed her to gain knowledge of a lot of the scandal's secrets, and she was known for indiscreet comments to journalists like Helen Thomas of UPI. But knowing too much had its consequences.

CLARKE LEMAY: She was kidnapped, sedated, drugged. They called her crazy. They used that age-old reference for women as hysterical. So that was something I really wanted to make sure was front and center in this show, to correct that story, to make sure that people know about her story, appreciate really what she was. She was a whistleblower.

MAZARIEGOS: Martha's husband, John Mitchell, was convicted on charges that he conspired to cover up the break-in. He's depicted in the exhibition by Italian-born artist George Giusti, who drew the face of the former attorney general on a bleach bottle.

CLARKE LEMAY: In the mid-century, you know, caricature artists were looking for any kind of materials that they could that would make a statement in and of themselves. And so the humor behind it is probably what Giusti was going for.

MAZARIEGOS: Lemay Clarke says humor makes for the perfect vehicle to understand history. so the collection has several cartoons and forms of political parody, such as a statue of President Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, made in the style of Mount Rushmore and a wanted poster with images of all the men involved in the scandal. When curating the collection, Lemay Clarke was thinking about the millions of diverse visitors the Portrait Gallery receives annually, mainly those who might not be familiar with those involved in Watergate.

CLARKE LEMAY: I think it's useful. The art helps us understand a little bit of that complexity but in a shortcut way.

MAZARIEGOS: "Watergate: Portraiture And Intrigue" is on view until September 5.

For NPR News, I'm Miranda Mazariegos. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.