Editor’s note: Forty years after Richard Nixon left public office, he remains in college journalism textbooks merely a stage prop used to set the scene for the heroics of the intrepid Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. But as our own Ben Stein noted in this 1974 review of All the President’s Men, a book-length treatment of the Watergate investigation, the duo’s greatest talent is perhaps not reporting but self-promotion. They have, after all, convinced a generation of moviegoers that they singlehandely—well, perhaps doublehandedly—felled a United States president.
At one point in the story of how two reporters for the Washington Post covered the Watergate story and broke much new ground in it, the following lines occur: “They had not broken the law…that much seemed certain. But they had sailed around it and exposed others to danger. They had chosen expediency over principle and, caught in their act, their role had been covered up. They had dodged, evaded, misrepresented, suggested, and intimidated, even if they had not lied outright.”
Those sentences do not refer to Richard Nixon or Ron Ziegler. Bernstein and Woodward are referring to themselves. And in those words, and in one additional word, is the secret of their phenomenal success—chutzpah is the additional word.
Chutzpah is defined as that quality which allows a person who has just killed his parents to throw himself on the mercy of the court and ask for leniency as an orphan.
Bernstein and Woodward had it in spades.
By one of those ironic twists of fate, when the Watergate story first broke on June 17, 1972, the Washington Post’s editors gave it to two of the most nervy reporters that have ever lived—Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. They combined almost limitless energy with limitless chutzpah, strained the result through an almost incomprehensible writing style, and brought out some of the most interesting facts about the Watergate case.
It was Bernstein and Woodward who first made public the Mexican connection through which money from the Committee to Re-elect the President had reached the Watergate burglars. They did not find this out by their own investigations, but by getting Federal and local investigators to spill their guts.
Bernstein and Woodward also first broke the story about Donald Segretti and his dirty tricksters. They got the leads on this too from their sources within the government.
It was the golden boys who also got the first stories out about Haldeman’s involvement with a secret fund used to pay the Watergate burglars. In this they were clearly wrong, at least in large part, and Haldeman himself denies the involvement to this day. But again, Bernstein and Woodward got what they wrote from sources, not from original research.
Nevertheless in their work, and in reading their book, there is a lesson for all students of government, reporting, communications, and human nature, which far transcends the reportage on Watergate.
The lesson is that in modern life, people who work in large organizations accumulate a lot of grievances. One of those grievances is that they are anonymous, faceless cogs in a machine. They can dispel some of the feelings of their own unimportance by telling secrets to the press. They can beat the system, in a word, by leaking.
They can “get back” at their bosses—the ones who do have known faces and personalities. They can become the center of attention—searched for both inside and outside their organizations.
Bernstein and Woodward found such people in the White House, in the Justice Department, in the FBI, in the CRP, and even in competing news-gathering organizations.
The people were rare and hard to find, but Bernstein and Woodward found that if they pushed against enough doors, eventually one would open.
The Bernstein and Woodward account of how they put their talents to work of the Watergate story is glowingly spelled out in All the President’s Men. But the authors’ title is as misleading as many of their newspaper stories, and indeed as misleading as large parts of the book. The title is supposed to imply that all of the President’s men were involved in Watergate. In fact, of course, only a relative handful of the top officials of the government, of the White House, or even of the CRP have even been accused of wrongdoing.
In fact, Dita Beard swore under oath that she did not write the memo attributed to her and that it was a forgery. The memo did not “show” anything. It implied a certain tenuous connection. The ITT pledge of money was to the San Diego Convention Bureau, not the Republicans, and the antitrust settlement was not favorable to ITT. Instead it was the most stringent antitrust settlement in history, and even Archibald Cox praised it. Finally, Special Prosecutor Jaworski found no wrongdoing in the transaction. But the impression Bernstein and Woodward leave is very different.
Another example is even more typical of the kind of false image the book tried to give to all the activities of the White House. Repeatedly throughout the book Woodward refers to a source so secret he did not even reveal it to Bernstein. The source was nicknamed “Deep Throat.” At one point, “Deep Throat” says that the Administration was bugging throughout its tenure, and that the bugging of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate was “only natural.” “The arrests in the Watergate sent everybody off the edge because the break-in could uncover the whole program.”
At many other times the authors say that such and such a source said Watergate and Segretti were just “the tip of the iceberg.”
In fact, no responsible authority has even hinted that the instigation of the activities of the “plumbers” was the same as that of the Watergate bugging.
Far more important, at least so far, no responsible person has suggested that there was an iceberg under that tip. There was no massive nationwide wiretapping operation, no wholesale campaign disruption, no emerging police state. There were just a few dirty tricks and the Watergate break-in and coverup. But Bernstein and Woodward repeatedly seek to leave the impression that had it not been for their intervention, Nixon would have been inaugurated in 1976 to the singing of the Horst Wessel Song.
But if Bernstein and Woodward are trying to indict the whole Administration on the basis of scattered facts and many half-truths, they make it clear where they got their inspiration. Benjamin Bradlee, millionaire editor of the Washington Post, and Katharine Graham, multi-millionaire owner of the Post, are pictured as having an almost psychopathic hatred for the Nixon Administration, and an image of the world as the oyster of the wealthy liberal.
Observe Bradlee, for example, when he learns of the resignations of Ehrlichman, Dean, and Haldeman: “For a split second Ben Bradlee’s mouth dropped open with an expression of sheer delight. Then he put one cheek on the desk, eyes closed and repeatedly banged the desk with his right fist….Bradlee couldn’t restrain himself. He strode into the Post’s vast fifth floor newsroom and shouted across rows of desks to Woodward…’Not bad, Bob. Not half bad!’ [Another editor] interjected a note of caution. ‘We can’t afford to gloat.’
If that does not seem to be an image of an impartial editor, another image of Bradlee at the helm raises questions about his recognition of the world around him. At one point he is considering the possibility that Mrs. Graham may be subpoenaed for notes, and that of course she would refuse the subpoena and then go to jail. Bradlee says, “And my God, the lady says she’ll go. Then the judge can have that on his conscience. Can’t you see the pictures of her limousine pulling up to the Women’s Detention Center, and out gets our gal, going to jail to uphold the First Amendment?…There might be a revolution.”
It is somehow a perfect encapsulation of the views of people like Bradlee to imagine a revolution over a rather stocky woman in a limousine going to jail. The masses will rise up to save the limousine for Katharine Graham!
The book ends before the most sensational disclosures, which of course were made by Richard Nixon himself. And of course, the book does not mention that the case was really broken, according to the Justice Department, by the President’s ordering his staff to testify without taking any claims of privilege before the Grand Jury.
The result is a book which exaggerates enormously the importance of the Bernstein-Woodward connection. The value of the book therefore lies not so much in what it says about Watergate, as in what it tells us about reportorial techniques and about the well-to-do liberal image of the world. As such, it is fluent and interesting reading.
Notice to Readers: The American Spectator and Spectator World are marks used by independent publishing companies that are not affiliated in any way. If you are looking for The Spectator World please click on the following link: https://thespectator.com/world.