Stranger in the night – Frank McNally on the forgotten security guard who caught the Watergate burglars

Frank Wills: Watergate’s “watchman in the night”. Photograph: Courtesy of the Washington Post

Frank Wills: Watergate’s “watchman in the night”. Photograph: Courtesy of the Washington Post

 

Reading Alistair Cooke’s collected Letters From America on a plane to Washington last week, I came across one he’d written on the 25th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, and was intrigued by its mention of a man named “Frank Kelly”.

According to Cooke, Kelly was the security guard who, on the night of June 17th, 1972, noticed masking tape on the lock of a door at the Democratic National Committee’s office.

He then called the police, who found five burglars inside. The rest is history.

In Cooke’s opinion, that was one of two “fatal” moments for the conspirators, who in time would prove to have included President Nixon himself. The other, coincidentally, also involved tape.

That occurred a year later, during Senate hearings into the affair, when a minor White House official, Alexander Butterfield, revealed that Nixon had been in the habit of recording all conversations in the Oval Office, one of which eventually implicated him in the cover-up.

In the obscurity of his profession, Wills could at least console himself that he was in some very good company

From the saga’s huge cast of characters, Cooke highlighted the pivotal roles of those two bit-part players. As he put it: “Kelly and Butterfield will have their names permanently inscribed as footnotes to the historical record.” Well, yes and no.

I remembered Butterfield’s name all right. But despite having read All the President’s Men many years ago, and seeing the film several times, I had no recollection of the apparently-Irish-American guard, Kelly.

So I looked him up, curious to know more. And after finding nothing anywhere about a Frank Kelly and Watergate, I went back to the original reports.

That’s when I learned that the guard was in fact named Frank Wills, a black American from Georgia, with no known Kelly content.

Homer had nodded, as we all do sometimes. Cooke was into the sixth decade of his epic BBC letters series at the time the Watergate piece went out, and in calling the guard Frank Kelly (as he does on the archived broadcast too), he may have had another excuse. It was June 1997. Maybe he had been watching the new TV sitcom, Father Ted.

It’s not inapt that Wills, who was still alive then but died a few years later, aged 52, should have been misremembered within his lifetime by so great a journalist.

Even under his own name, his celebrity probably peaked when he played himself in the 1976 film: a very brief non-speaking role, in which he sees the tape and opens the door of the darkened room, after which the scene cuts to a police car being radioed.

And now, every day, the Post’s masthead is underwritten by the warning, in small print: 'Democracy Dies in Darkness'

Wills had already lost his original security job by the time the film was made, and struggled to find employment in Washington thereafter, before moving back south, where one of his subsequent appearances in the media was over a charge of shoplifting a pair of sneakers.

In the obscurity of his profession, he could at least console himself that he was in some very good company. What has been called the world’s fourth most famous painting (after Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, and the Sistine Chapel ceiling) is officially entitled “Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Bannick Cocq”. You and I know it as (Rembrandt’s) The Night Watch.

There was an echo of that in one of the best tributes paid to Wills back during the Watergate hearings, although the hero was anonymous there too. In the debate on Nixon’s impeachment, Democrat congressman James Mann warned that, without accountability, another president would be free to do the same: “But the next time there may be no watchman in the night.”

Meanwhile, even if Wills’s name has long disappeared from news pages, his memory has also been immortalised more recently by the paper that uncovered Watergate, the Washington Post.

Three years ago, after surviving nearly a century and a half without one, the Post decided it needed a slogan to run underneath the masthead on its front page and website.

A selection group considered more than 500 possible phrases, ranging from the pompously clunky “Dauntless Defenders of the Truth” to the pretentiously abstract “Yes. Know.”

In the end, it chose one believed to have been first used by a US Court of Appeals judge in a pre-Watergate case on wiretapping of citizens by government.

Although oblivious to the source, Watergate reporter Bob Woodward had long used a variation of it in connection with Nixon.

So that was the one they picked in the end. And now, every day, the Post’s masthead is underwritten by the warning, in small print: “Democracy Dies in Darkness”.

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