W. Joseph Campbell

Woodward, ‘tombeur de Nixon’

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 25, 2011 at 7:18 am

That headline — which appeared with an item posted yesterday at Les In Rocks, a slick, Paris-based arts and music blog — translates to:

“Woodward, the guy who brought down Nixon.”

Which is hyperbole.

Bob Woodward and the Washington Post did not bring down Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal of 1972-74.

But as the headline and accompanying interview with Woodward suggest, Wooward-hero worship can be surprisingly intense and deep-seated abroad.

The article’s opening paragraph declared:

“Not many people can boast of having been played in the movies by Robert Redford. In fact, there’s only one. His name is Bob Woodward. He’s a journalist, and with his colleague Carl Bernstein, in life as in the film All the President’s Men, brought down Richard Nixon in 1974 in the Watergate affair.”

(Here’s the original French version: “Peu d’hommes peuvent se vanter d’avoir été incarnés au cinéma par Robert Redford. En fait, il n’y en a qu’un. Il s’appelle Bob Woodward. Il est journaliste et, avec son collègue Carl Bernstein, dans la vie comme dans le film Les Hommes du Président, il fit tomber Richard Nixon en 1974 avec l’affaire du Watergate.”)

Redford, of course, played Woodward in the motion picture, All the President’s Men, which was released 35 years ago this month.

It is easily the most-viewed film about the scandal and, as I point out in Getting It Wrong, my media-mythbusting book that came out last year, All the President’s Men effectively sealed the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate.

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.

That’s an interpretation not even the Post — and not even Woodward — buy into.

As Woodward declared in an interview in 2004 with American Journalism Review:

To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.”

Less indelicately, the Post’s then-ombudsman, Michael Getler, wrote in 2005:

“Ultimately, it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration. They saw Watergate and the attempt to cover it up as a vast abuse of power and attempted corruption of U.S. institutions.”

But the movie — which has aged impressively well — offers another, simpler, less-accurate interpretation.

As I write in Getting It Wrong:

All the President’s Men placed Woodward and Bernstein at the center of Watergate’s unraveling while denigrating the efforts of investigative agencies such as the FBI. The effect was to solidify and elevate the heroic-journalist myth, giving it dramatic power, and sustaining it in the collective memory.”

The film closes with the Woodward and Bernstein characters (played by Redford and Dustin Hoffman, respectively) at their respective desks in the Post’s brilliantly lighted newsroom, pounding away at their typewriters.

The newsroom is otherwise empty. Woodward and Bernstein remain oblivious to their colleagues as they slowly drift in. It’s Inauguration Day 1973 and the Post editors and reporters are shown gathering at television sets in the newsroom to watch as Nixon is sworn in to a second term. Woodward and Bernstein, however, remain at their desks, focused on their work.

The television sets show Nixon smiling as he completes the oath of office. The first volleys of a twenty-one gun salute begin to boom. Woodward and Bernstein continue their frantic typing and the cannonade resounds ever louder. The newsroom scene dissolves to a close-up of an overactive teletype machine, noisily battering out summaries about indictments, trials, and convictions of Nixon’s men.

The clattering machine spells out “Nixon resigns, Ford sworn in,” and stops abruptly. The movie’s over.

It’s an imaginative and effective ending which, as I write in Getting It Wrong, “pulls together the many strands of Watergate. But more than that, it offers an unmistakable assertion of the power and centrality of the press in Nixon’s fall.”

Indeed, it is perhaps the most powerful and vivid assertion of Watergate’s heroic-journalist myth. Who else but Woodward and Bernstein?

WJC

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