W. Joseph Campbell

What was decisive in Watergate’s outcome?

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 25, 2010 at 1:34 pm

“Without the Watergate hearings, surely Nixon would have escaped judgment.”

So wrote Jeff Stein the other day, at his “Spy Talk” blog, for which the Washington Post is host.

While Stein didn’t focus his commentary on Watergate and the factors accounting for Richard Nixon’s fall, his observation invites reflection about what ultimately ended Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Were the Watergate hearings–those of the Senate Select Committee on Watergate–indeed pivotal, as Stein suggests? What were the other factors?

I note in Getting It Wrong, my new book about prominent media-driven myths, that the dominant popular narrative of Watergate has long been the notion that dogged investigative reporting of two Washington Post journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, was what exposed the crimes of Watergate and brought down Nixon.

“How the Post and its reporters uncovered Watergate is deeply ingrained in American journalism as one of the field’s most important and self-reverential stories,” I write in Getting It Wrong, adding:

“But to explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic-journalist is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth. The heroic-journalist interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”

Among the more decisive forces and factors were hearings of the Senate Select Committee in the summer 1973–the “Watergate hearings,” to which Stein refers.

The hearings were most memorable for the stunning disclosure that Nixon had secretly and routinely tape-recorded conversations in the Oval Office.

The disclosure was to prove decisive to Watergate’s outcome. It set off intensive efforts by the special federal prosecutor on Watergate, as well as other subpoena-wielding authorities, to gain access to tapes relevant to their inquiries.

Citing “executive privilege,” Nixon resisted releasing them until ordered to do so by the U.S. Supreme Court–in an 8-0 decision handed down 36 years ago yesterday, July 24, 1974. He complied.

One of the recordings revealed Nixon’s active role in attempting to cover up the signal crime of Watergate, the break-in in June 1972 at the Democratic National Headquarters in Washington, D.C. That recording–the so-called “smoking gun” tape–made resignation inevitable.

The “smoking gun” tape showed that Nixon “had instituted a cover-up and thus had participated in an obstruction of justice almost from the outset” of the scandal, Stanley I. Kutler, Watergate’s foremost historian, wrote in his fine book, The Wars of Watergate.

If not for the Supreme Court’s order, it is my view that Nixon never would have released the tapes revealing his guilt in Watergate and likely would have served out his term, albeit as a badly wounded chief executive.

Interestingly, as I note in Getting It Wrong, Woodward and Bernstein wrote in All the President’s Men, the book about their Watergate reporting, that they received a lead about the Oval Office tapes shortly before their existence was revealed.

Woodward said he called Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee about the tip; Bradlee suggested not expending energy in pursuing it.

Had they pursued the tip, Woodward and Bernstein might have broken the pivotal story about Watergate. Had they done so, the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate–the media-centric view that they uncovered the scandal–would be somewhat more plausible.

WJC

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  1. [...] when ordered by the Supreme Court in late July 1974 did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up [...]

  2. [...] I write in Getting It Wrong, my new book debunking prominent media-driven myths, to explain Watergate as a case of media revelation “is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in [...]

  3. [...] of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down the corrupt president of Richard M. Nixon in the Watergate [...]

  4. [...] not Woodward and Bernstein. In fact, Woodward and Bernstein and the Washington Post were really marginal to that [outcome]. But it’s become part of the story, part of the dominant narrative, [...]

  5. [...] these stories–about [Walter] Cronkite, about [Edward] Murrow, about Watergate, about [William Randolph] Hearst, and some of the others in the book–typically send a message [...]

  6. [...] in All the President’s Men I think really helped solidify the notion that those two guys were central to bringing down Richard Nixon. In fact, the movie, as clever and well-done as it is, leads to no other interpretation but that. [...]

  7. [...] out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the work of Woodward and Bernstein was at best marginal to Watergate’s outcome–the resignation of Nixon in 1974 and the eventual jailing of nearly 20 of his top aides and [...]

  8. [...] of recent historical or political books. Among them was Bob Woodward, he of the Washington Post Watergate fame and author most recently of Obama’s [...]

  9. [...] who met from time to time with Bob Woodward of the Washington Post during the newspaper’s Watergate [...]

  10. [...] time to time, the Washington Post has sought to dismiss the notion that its Watergate reporting was decisive in bringing down the corrupt presidency of Richard Nixon. Not the Post's [...]

  11. [...] Nor did Woodward and Bernstein expose or disclose the existence of the White House audiotaping system that proved so pivotal to Watergate’s outcome. [...]

  12. [...] the tableau of subpoena-wielding investigative authorities, the work of Woodward and Bernstein for the Washington Post fades into relative [...]

  13. [...] if not Watergate, what then was the “defining moment” in investigative [...]

  14. [...] panels, the Justice Department, and the Supreme Court, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein recede in significance–even though their work became the stuff of legend, at least as depicted in the cinematic [...]

  15. [...] select committee’s signal contribution to unraveling Watergate came in producing the revelation that Nixon had secretly tape-recorded conversations with top aides [...]

  16. [...] recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up and authorizing [...]

  17. [...] an interpretation of Watergate that few serious historians embrace. [...]

  18. [...] or otherwise, Biden offered up the Watergate myth as a telling example of the values and virtues of a free press. The vice president said in remarks [...]

  19. [...] Nor did Woodward and his Watergate reporting colleague Carl Bernstein uncover or disclose the existence of the White House audiotaping system, which was decisive to the outcome of Watergate. [...]

  20. [...] But even a disgraced former press tycoon can offer useful insight, and Black’s observation about Vietnam and Watergate are on target: News coverage did not bring about an end to the war in Vietnam; nor did the press didn’t bring down Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal. [...]

  21. [...] recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up and authorizing [...]

  22. [...] the tableau of subpoena-wielding authorities, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein pale in significance and [...]

  23. [...] What was decisive in Watergate’s outcome? [...]

  24. [...] the media myth of Watergate — the notion that intrepid reporters for the Washington Post broke or exposed the scandal and [...]

  25. [...] when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender the Watergate-related recordings that captured him plotting to cover up the [...]

  26. [...] when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender the Watergate-related recordings that captured him plotting to cover up the [...]

  27. [...] reputedly brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency with its relentless digging into the Watergate [...]

  28. [...] when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up” that cost him [...]

  29. [...] Nor is the line to be found in All the President’s Men, the book Woodward and his Post colleague, Carl Bernstein, wrote about their Watergate reporting. [...]

  30. [...] book, Getting It Wrong, had Nixon not recorded his conversations, he likely would have survived the Watergate scandal and served out his second [...]

  31. [...] recounted in All the President’s Men, Bernstein and Woodward’s book about their Watergate reporting, none of the grand jurors was cooperative and the overtures soon were made known to John J. Sirica, [...]

  32. [...] when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up” and cost him the [...]

  33. [...] York Times inaccurately declared over the weekend that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, in their reporting for the Washington Post, “unraveled the Watergate [...]

  34. [...] when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings,” which captured him obstructing [...]

  35. [...] tapes were decisive to Watergate’s outcome; Watergate’s leading historian, Stanley I. Kutler, has [...]

  36. [...] when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up” that cost him the [...]

  37. [...] What was decisive in Watergate’s outcome? [...]

  38. [...] movie dramatized the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein while ignoring the far more decisive contributions of federal investigators, special prosecutors, and Congressional investigative [...]

  39. […] Woodward and Bernstein’s contributions in unraveling the scandal were modest at best, and certainly not decisive to Watergate’s […]

  40. […] As I write in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the contributions of Bernstein and Woodward to Watergate’s outcome — to the resignation in 1974 of President Richard Nixon — were minimal and certainly not decisive. […]

  41. […] book, Getting It Wrong, had Nixon not recorded his conversations, he likely would have survived the Watergate scandal and served out his […]

  42. […] down” Nixon. As I wrote in Getting It Wrong, the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein was not decisive in Watergate’s outcome. Their contributions — while glamorized in the cinematic version […]

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