W. Joseph Campbell

List of flubs by pols incomplete without Biden’s Watergate gaffe

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 30, 2011 at 10:55 am

The gaffe-prone vice president, Joe Biden, claimed in a speech aboard a few months ago that the Washington Post “brought down” Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal.

Gaffe-prone

That’s a media myth — a misreading of history that not even the Post embraces.

While Biden’s blunder didn’t receive much media attention at the time, the flub merited inclusion in Time magazine’s lineup of memorable mischaracterizations of American history offered by leading U.S. politicians.

In a posting yesterday, the magazine’s “Swampland” politics blog offered what it termed were nine “epically wrong politician accounts of yesteryear.”

The “Swampland” lineup included two flubs by Michele Bachmann, the Republican congresswoman running for president — that the battles of Lexington and Concord were fought in New Hampshire and that John Quincy Adams was among America’s founding fathers.

Biden made the “Swampland” lineup for his laughable statement that President Franklin D. Roosevelt went on television and spoke to Americans after the stock market crash of 1929. Roosevelt didn’t become president until 1933 and television wasn’t pervasive in American households until the 1950s.

While perhaps not as delicious as the FDR-market crash gaffe, Biden’s ahistoric flub about the Post and Watergate would have rounded out the “Swampland” list at 10.

Its inclusion would’ve underscored how unraveling a scandal as complex as Watergate required far more investigative clout than any news organization could muster.

Although it won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973, the Post’s Watergate-related reporting was scarcely enough to turn a sitting president from office. Nixon resigned in August 1974.

Biden’s mischaracterization of Watergate was astonishing and the “Swampland” list is incomplete without mentioning the blunder. The vice president told an audience in Moscow in March:

“In my country it was a newspaper, not the FBI, or the Justice Department, it was a newspaper, the Washington Post that brought down a President for illegal actions.”

It didn’t.

As I write in my latest book, Getting It Wrong,to argue that the Post and the dogged reporting of its reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein took down Nixon “is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth.”

I note that rolling up a scandal of the sweep and dimension of Watergate “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, I write, “Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape 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” of Watergate’s signal crime — the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972.

So against the tableau of subpoena-wielding authorities, the contributions of the Post in Watergate fade in significance.

Those contributions were not decisive, as top officials at the Post have noted over the years.

Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during and after the Watergate years, said in 1997, at a program marking the scandal’s 25th anniversary:

“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do. The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Ben Bradlee,who was the Post’s executive editor during Watergate, said on the “Meet the Press” interview show in 1997:

“[I]t must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”

And Woodward himself has disputed the mediacentric interpretation of Watergate, declaring in 2004 in an interview with American Journalism Review:

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

WJC

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