Bob Woodward of Watergate fame has been on the lecture circuit of late and his talks have stirred reference to the myth that his reporting for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in 1974.
“For 40 years, Bob Woodward has pried open some of the toughest secrets in government, from the Watergate scandal to the secret war in Pakistan.
“His reporting has exposed corruption, helped to send people to jail and pressured a president to resign.”
The writeup continued much in that frothy vein, declaring:
“As a young reporter at The Post, Woodward teamed up with Carl Bernstein to dig into a ‘third-rate burglary’ of the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate complex. Over many months, through hundreds of stories, the two exposed political dirty tricks and abuse of power in the Nixon White House that eventually forced Nixon from office.”
Let’s address and untangle the myths invoked here.
For starters, the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein did not pressure or force Nixon to resign.
While their reporting won a Pulitzer Prize for the Post in 1973, it did not break open the Watergate scandal. It did not uncover the evidence that led or contributed to Nixon’s resignation.
“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.”
To roll up a scandal of the dimensions of Watergate, I write, “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.”
And even then, Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for disclosures about the audiotape recordings he secretly made of his 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” of the Watergate break-in, I write in Getting It Wrong.
So against the tableau of prosecutors, courts, federal investigations, and bipartisan congressional panels, and the Supreme Court, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein recede in importance.
Their contributions were modest, I write, “and certainly not decisive” to the outcome of Watergate.
This is not to say their reporting on Watergate was without distinction.
I note in Getting It Wrong that the Post was the first news organization to report a connection between the Watergate burglars and the White House, the first to demonstrate that campaign money was diverted to fund the break-in, the first to tie former Attorney General John Mitchell to the scandal, the first to link top Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman to Watergate.
But those reports were scarcely enough to unseat a president.
Put another way, Woodward and Bernstein did not uncover the evidence vital to understanding and unraveling the scandal.
They did not disclose the White House-led cover-up and payment of hush money to the Watergate burglars. Nor did they reveal the existence of Nixon’s secret White House tapes, which proved decisive to Watergate’s outcome.
No, Woodward and Bernstein and the Post did not force Nixon from office. As Ben Bradlee, the newspaper’s executive editor during the Watergate period, said in 1997:
“[I]t must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”
Or as Woodward put it in an interview with American Journalism Review in 2004:
Now there’s an emphatic line that Woodward might consider working into his speeches.
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