White House Plumbers Marks the Arrival of Uniquely American Humor

“Humor is universal, jokes are not.”

Patrick Koske-McBride
5 min readMay 8, 2023

A distinctive aspect of most cultures are the jokes they produce. Fawlty Towers operates on the understanding that a seaside English town is a fundamentally goony concept that would attract deranged or desperate staff. Diner des Cons is only funny if you know that the French national past times are cheating on spouses and taxes. America has been slow to develop our own national brand of humor, because, traditionally, we elect our national jokes.

I wish I was joking, but that adage, “Comedy is tragedy plus time” is a national coping mechanism. And the funniest figure in modern American history is Richard Milhous Nixon. At this juncture, allow to say; if you are one of the last five Americans who genuinely believes Nixon was a decent, sane, non-genocidal maniac, HBO’s miniseries, White House Plumbers is not for you, nor is this piece. For those who don’t know; Nixon remains the only president ever to resign the office of President. He did this because of his fairly well-documented orchestration of federal felonies designed to get him reelected; most famously, the attempted burglary of the Democratic National Committee, headquartered at the Watergate Hotel. What’s an open secret, to most Americans, is Nixon’s debilitating alcoholism, his naked appeals to America’s darkest bigots (America’s failed war on drugs? We have several quotes from advisers, notably John Erlichman, admitting that Nixon enacted brutal drug enforcement policies specifically targeting substances preferred by black folks and peaceniks, both of whom Nixon regarded as political threats), and, of course, his well-documented hatred for Asian civilians. I’m assuming that last bit, based on how he bombed multiple Asian countries to rubble, under questionable legal and military rationale.

Nixon is, of course, at the center of a series of utterly twisted and horrifying events mostly designed to destroy American governmental and democratic institutions. That’s the well-known, somewhat boring, C-SPAN version of attempts. If you’re a citizen of the free world, who wonders why Americans put up with a rapist and Russian mole in office for four years (Our Lumpiest President, of course); you have to understand, it’s because we survived Nixon, who made Mussolini look chaste and generous, in comparison.

The point is; in the whole Nixon Shenanigans (I refuse to bequeath them the noun, “Administration”), due to his obvious psychosis, and later, on-air melt-down with David Frost (Google “David Frost Nixon Apology” for the textbook demonstration of a toxic apology from a political animal at the turn of public opinion). We don’t know as much about the actual men who carried out Nixon’s treacherous orders, and that is where White House Plumbers steps in and shines a light on the hilariously dark and weird world of men who, voluntarily, worked to illegally hamstring Nixon’s enemies.

For a second, to my fellow Americans, I would like us all to briefly remember the terrible day of the Capitol Siege. To get to the uniquely American heart of darkness in White House Plumbers, you have to understand that those weirdos are the cream of America’s fascist crop. Yeah; those morons who thought that shitting on Nancy Pelosi’s desk was a power move are indicative of the sort of boot-licker who comes to aid a dysfunctional president.

White House Plumbers is an exploration of those men who, when duty called, got on their good burgling gloves and poked themselves in the eye with the lock pick. To be fair; I don’t honestly know how historically accurate the series is, because all of our national attention (and criminal investigations) focused on Nixon, and less on the crazy sex lives of his underlings. It’s America’s Downton Abbey, if the butlers were all incompetent embezzlers.

The primary protagonist, one episode in, is E. Howard Hunt, who I vaguely recall mentioned in various indictments, but was hardly the criminal mastermind. Again; because I was not alive then, and the Nixon Shenanigans are covered in Law School, I suspect that the reason why the character is front and center is because Woody Harrelson portrays him. Harrelson, for better or worse, typecast himself in the Zombieland films as what I can only describe as a “feral moron” character. And, that works perfectly as a down-on-his-luck, ex-CIA agent who was shit-canned over the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Apparently, that did happen to Hunt, and, for the first uniquely American joke, there’s the obvious question, “How fucking incompetent does someone have to be before the 1960’s CIA decides to cut the cord?”

In Hunt’s case, the answer is less, “so incompetent that he believes free help is an indication of quality” (a joke in the series; again, it’s so personal to Hunt that I can’t get historic confirmation), and more, “So utterly insane that he will break into a psychiatrist’s office to steal files in an attempt to discredit a man suspected of stealing classified documents.” We can confirm that clueless dolts collecting checks did break into a shrink’s office in Los Angeles, but I can’t know the rationale for doing so. It’s akin to hearing that the QAnon Shaman, Jake Angeli, brushes his teeth with granite because toothbrushes aren’t manly enough. It may or may not be true, but it certainly fits with the known facts.

Similarly, I don’t genuinely know if G. Gordon Liddy played Hitler’s speeches to dinner guests with the apertif, but we know he was a casual Reich enthusiast. I do feel fairly safe in saying that America is probably the only country in the world in which one could go to dinner with work friends, only to discover they were Neo Nazis. The tail-end of that scene, in which Liddy chases after teenage vandals with a pistol is absolutely something that could only happen with America’s over-armed and under-regulated populace.

Similarly, America is probably the only developing country in the world in which a man with access to the world’s most-fearsome nuclear arsenal would be reduced to hiring the discarded leftovers of our spy agencies. And, it’s a uniquely American scenario in which human garbage like Liddy or Hunt could then be forced to dig through actual garbage in search of evidence to discredit potential political enemies.

The pilot episode primarily involves Hunt and Liddy being hired to find dirt on Daniel Ellsberg, the government analyst turned whistleblower, who infamously released The Pentagon Papers to the national press. Hunt decides that the best course of action is to find a tie between Ellsberg and the USSR, and, the best way to establish that is to find something in Ellsberg’s psychiatrists files. Again, if these guys were anything like clever, Nixon might have been reelected. After a botched burglary attempt, Nixon decides he likes the doltish duo’s ambitious nature and hires them to his reelection committee, setting the stage for future investigations.

Again, it’s something so weird and stupid that it could only happen in America. Or Florida. And that’s the real beauty of the series; every joke is a Voltaire-like admission of our uniquely disastrous political system, which is horrible, but very entertaining.



Patrick Koske-McBride

Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”