W. Joseph Campbell

Nixon quits–36 years on

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on August 9, 2010 at 8:40 am

Richard Nixon resigned the presidency 36 years ago today–the only American president to have done so.

Nixon leaves, August 9, 1974

He left the White House on August 9, 1974, to avoid certain impeachment and conviction. By then it had become clear that Nixon had ordered senior aides to cover up the Watergate scandal’s signal crime, the burglary in June 1972 at Democratic national headquarters.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, my new book about media-driven myths, forcing Nixon’s resignation “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.”

But in the years since 1974, the dominant popular narrative of the Watergate scandal has become the heroic-journalist meme, the widely held notion that the investigative reporting of two young, tireless reporters for the Washington Post led the way in bringing down Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Such claims appear often in the news media, both in the United States and abroad.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, “The heroic-journalist has become the most familiar storyline of Watergate: ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.”

Indeed, 19 men associated with Nixon’s administration or his reelection campaign in 1972 went to jail for crimes in the Watergate scandal–a revealing marker of the scandal’s reach and complexity.

I write in Getting It Wrong that 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.”

So why has the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate become the dominant popular narrative?

Three related reasons offer themselves, I write in Getting It Wrong.

They are:

  • the well-timed release in June 1974 of All the President’s Men, the best-selling book by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein about their Watergate reporting
  • the cinematic version of the book, which was released in 1976 to very favorable reviews, and
  • the decades-long guessing game about the identity of the helpful and anonymous high-level source, code-named “Deep Throat,” with whom Woodward surreptitiously met while investigating Watergate. The secret source was introduced in All the President’s Men and immediately prompted considerable speculation as to who he was.

“These factors,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “combined to place Woodward and Bernstein at the center of Watergate in popular consciousness, and project the notion that the scandal’s outcome pivoted on disclosures reported by the news media.”

This is especially so in the movie All the President’s Men, which, I write, “offers an unmistakable assertion of the power and centrality of the press in Nixon’s fall.”

The movie also suggested their reporting was more hazardous than it was, that by digging into Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein exposed themselves to not insignificant risk and peril.

However, to explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic-journalist is, I note, “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”–the special Watergate prosecutors, the federal judges, bipartisan congressional panels, the Justice Department, the FBI, and the Supreme Court.

Even then, I argue, Nixon probably would have survived in office and served out his term–albeit as a wounded and weakened chief executive–had it not been for the existence of the audiotapes he made of many of his conversations in the Oval Office.

Only when ordered by the Supreme Court in late July 1974 did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up and authorizing payments of thousands of dollars in hush money.

Interestingly, Woodward and Bernstein did not uncover the defining and decisive element of the Watergate scandal—the existence of the audiotaping system that Nixon had installed in the Oval Office.

And the tapes were decisive in ultimately forcing his resignation.

WJC

Related:

About these ads
  1. [...] also challenge the hero-journalist myth of the Watergate scandal, asserting in Getting It Wrong that (contrary to the dominant popular narrative) the Post and its [...]

  2. [...] Supreme Court decision was handed down in July 1974. Nixon resigned soon [...]

  3. [...] that they “amassed” evidence to “force” Nixon’s resignation. He quit in [...]

  4. [...] The U.S. Supreme Court in July 1974 ordered Nixon to surrender the tapes to the Watergate special prosecutor; he complied. The tapes’ contents forced him to resign the presidency. [...]

  5. [...] The heroic-journalist myth has it that the investigative reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post exposed the Watergate scandal and forced President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974. [...]

  6. [...] And the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein didn’t lead to Nixon’s resignation. [...]

  7. [...] Nixon resigned in 1974, in face of certain impeachment and conviction for his role in Watergate. [...]

  8. [...] resigned in 1974, to avoid certain impeachment and conviction for his role in [...]

  9. [...] reporting about the Watergate scandal brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency. (Nixon resigned in 1974, in the face of certain impeachment and conviction for his role in seeking to coverup the [...]

  10. [...] The movie’s inescapable message was that the work of reporters brought about Nixon’s resignation in [...]

  11. [...] the money” in a Watergate-related context until June 1981–long after Richard Nixon had resigned the presidency, long after the successor who pardoned him, Gerald Ford, had lost reelection. (And the article in [...]

  12. [...] investigative reporting of Woodward and Bernstein didn’t force Nixon’s resignation. Nor did journalism school enrollments surge because of the presumed glamor effect of their work, [...]

  13. [...] came out in April 1976, less than two years after the Watergate scandal reached a climax with the resignation of President Richard [...]

  14. [...] minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal” and brought about  Nixon’s resignation in August [...]

  15. [...] break-in at headquarters Democratic national committee headquarters in 1972 was what forced his resignation in [...]

  16. [...] Nixon, who recently had been sworn in as a U.S. Senator, intervened to break up the encounter. In his [...]

  17. [...] Men, which came out in April 1976 — 20 months after Watergate reached a denouement with the resignation of President Richard [...]

  18. [...] the reporting of  Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered evidence that forced Nixon’s resignation in [...]

  19. [...] Invoking the myth that the Post “brought down” Nixon is to offer an international audience a false lesson about the power of the news media. Invoking the myth is to suggest, wrongly, that that news media can, when circumstances are right, force a sitting president from office. [...]

  20. [...] the passage most commonly associated with the Watergate scandal, which culminated in 1974 in the resignation of President Richard [...]

  21. [...] so-called “smoking gun” of Watergate — sealed Nixon’s fate and led to his resignation in August [...]

  22. [...] dogged reporting about the Watergate scandal brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency (Nixon resigned in 1974, in the face of certain impeachment and conviction for his role in seeking to coverup the [...]

  23. [...] Among them is the notion that the Watergate reporting of the Washington Post exposed the crimes of the administration of President Richard Nixon and forced his resignation in 1974. [...]

  24. [...] commentary published by the Post until 1981 — years after the scandal had brought about the resignation of President Richard [...]

  25. [...] observations about the peripheral role the Post played in uncovering the scandal that brought about Nixon’s resignation in [...]

  26. [...] the Washington Post with having brought about Nixon’s resignation or Facebook for having “accelerated the downfall of governments in the Middle East” is [...]

  27. [...] then, was forced from office only after the disclosure of unequivocal proof that he had obstructed justice in the investigation [...]

  28. [...] Left unaddressed by Politico was just what were those “roles in bringing down” Nixon. The implication was that their work for the Post was central in forcing the resignation of a corrupt president. [...]

  29. [...] The heroic-journalist interpretation has it that the scandal’s disclosure pivoted on Woodward and Bernstein’s dogged reporting for the Post, that they exposed the crimes of Watergate and forced Nixon’s resignation. [...]

  30. [...] As I note in Getting It Wrong, my media-mythbusting book that came out last year, the prolonged guessing game about the identity of “Deep Throat” help solidify the notion that the Post and its lead Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, were central to uncovering the scandal and forcing President Richard Nixon’s resignation. [...]

  31. [...] the passage is routinely treated as if it had been advice vital to unseating President Richard Nixon and unraveling the greatest scandal in American [...]

  32. [...] was sui generis, an unprecedented constitutional crisis that led in to Nixon’s departure from office in disgrace in 1974. He was the first U.S. president ever to [...]

  33. [...] set off nationwide panic and mass hysteria, and about the Watergate scandal of 1972-74 which brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt [...]

  34. [...] is to wrestle with the forbidding complexity of a scandal that sent 19 men to jail and forced the resignation of a sitting U.S. president, Richard [...]

  35. [...] in the Post until 1981 — nearly seven years after Watergate had reached a climax with the resignation of President Richard [...]

  36. [...] Nor did the passage appear in any Watergate-related news article or editorial in the Post before June 1981 — nearly seven years after the scandal reached its denouement with President Richard Nixon’s resignation. [...]

  37. [...] somehow fitting on this, the 37th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s resignation, to direct attention to the myth and hyperbole that embrace the best-known line of the Watergate [...]

  38. [...] quit the presidency not because he misused campaign funds; he resigned in disgrace after it became clear he had sought to obstruct justice by covering up the signal crime [...]

  39. [...] 1972, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai told President Richard M. Nixon that it was “too early to say” what would be the implications of political upheaval in [...]

  40. [...] there’s no evidence that Nixon authorized or even knew in advance about the burglary in June 1972 at the headquarters of the [...]

  41. [...] of Watergate — the notion that Bernstein and Woodward’s dogged reporting forced Nixon from office in disgrace — “minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the [...]

  42. [...] The Times’ erroneous assertion was made in an obituary published Saturday about a minor figure in the Watergate scandal, Kenneth H. Dahlberg, who died last week. Watergate led to the resignation in 1974 of President Richard M. Nixon. [...]

  43. [...] agency in 1973 — many months before Watergate reached its denouement in August 1974 with the resignation of [...]

  44. [...] that tape — the so-called “smoking gun” of Watergate — sealed Nixon’s fate and led to his resignation in August [...]

  45. [...] the misconduct to Watergate, the  unprecedented U.S. constitutional crisis that led to Nixon’s departure from office in disgrace in [...]

  46. [...] Cronkite was included in the Quayle poll, which meant he was compared to the likes of Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, Edmund S. Muskie,  George McGovern, Edward Kennedy, and Spiro T. [...]

  47. [...] crucial elements of the deepening scandal, which ultimately forced President Richard Nixon to resign the presidency in August [...]

  48. [...] while credulously invoking the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, the scandal that forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency in [...]

  49. [...] which has it that Woodward and Bernstein’s dogged reporting exposed the crimes that forced Nixon’s resignation in [...]

  50. [...] In the end, the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein was of faint consequence to Watergate’s dramatic outcome. [...]

  51. [...] Some of the Post’s leading figures over the years have openly dismissed the notion that the newspaper’s reporting of Watergate ended Nixon’s presidency. (He resigned in 1974.) [...]

  52. […] So the Senate select committee was vital in the array of subpoena-wielding forces that produced evidence that eventually compelled Nixon’s resignation. […]

  53. […] In the compressed Drunk History version of Watergate, Nixon soon realizes he has no choice but to resign. […]

  54. […] told a U.S. Senate select committee investigating the Watergate scandal that President Richard Nixon had installed a secret audiotaping system in his […]

  55. […] Myth Alert was the Post’s unsourced claim that Thomas had once asked President Richard M. Nixon “point-blank what his secret plan to end the Vietnam War was.” I sent an email […]

  56. […] It matters because a fairly tenacious media myth has grown up around the notion that Nixon in 1968 campaigned for the presidency while touting a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam […]

  57. […] myth has it that the Post’s dogged reporting on Watergate forced Richard M. Nixon to resign the […]

  58. […] Rosenfeld’s memoir adds dimension to the ample, mostly glowing public record about Bernstein and Woodward, who have been celebrated over the years as heroic journalists whose dogged reporting brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon. […]

  59. […] reasons unclear, Cronkite was included in the poll, meaning he was compared to the likes of Richard Nixon, Edmund S. Muskie,  George McGovern, Edward Kennedy, and Spiro T. […]

  60. […] 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 […]

Comments are closed.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,628 other followers

%d bloggers like this: