W. Joseph Campbell

‘All the President’s Men Revisited': A mediacentric rehash, with some insight

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 22, 2013 at 2:49 pm

The much-ballyhooed documentary, All the President’s Men Revisited, was mostly a mediacentric rehash of the Watergate scandal 40 years ago. Even so, the show, which aired last night on the Discovery channel, managed to present insight into the forces that really uncovered the criminality of what was America’s gravest political scandal.

The two-hour program took a look back at Watergate often through the context of All the President’s Men, the 1976 cinematic adaptation of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s eponymous book about their Watergate reporting for the Washington Post.

The movie, which starred Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, idealized Woodward and Bernstein, identifying their reporting as central to uncovering the scandal that toppled Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency. The first hour of the Discovery program similarly emphasized that misleading interpretation, mostly through frequent snippets of interviews with the aging Woodward and Bernstein.

The inescapable impression was that their reporting was essential to spurring the federal and congressional investigations that ultimately produced tape-recorded evidence that showed Nixon conspired to cover up the signal crime of Watergate — the break-in in June 1972 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

That interpretation — that Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting set the table for the crucial official inquiries — is favored by the Post (its Web site explains Watergate that way).

But  it is utterly misleading.

As serious historians of Watergate have demonstrated, federal investigators were far ahead of Woodward and Bernstein in their piecemeal reporting about the unfolding scandal in the summer and fall of 1972.

For example, Max Holland, author of Leak, a book about Watergate published last year, has aptly noted:

“Federal prosecutors and agents never truly learned anything germane from The Washington Posts [Watergate] stories — although they were certainly mortified to see the fruits of their investigation appear in print. … The government was always ahead of the press in its investigation of Watergate; it just wasn’t publishing its findings.”

What’s more, the Post’s investigation into Watergate “ran out of gas” by late October 1972, Barry Sussman, then the newspaper’s city editor, acknowledged in an interview in 1974.

The most interesting segments of All the President’s Men Revisited were during the program’s second hour, when the federal and congressional investigations of Watergate figured prominently. At the same time, Woodward and Bernstein receded noticeably from the limelight, replaced by the likes of Alexander Butterfield, the former White House aide who disclosed that Nixon recorded his conversations in the Oval Office.

Butterfield’s revelation about the tapes came during a U.S. Senate select committee’s investigation into Watergate — and represented a decisive pivot in the unfolding the scandal. Nixon ultimately was compelled to surrender audiotapes that demonstrated his role in attempting to coverup the Watergate breakin. He resigned soon afterward.

Interestingly, All the President’s Men Revisited  made clear that Woodward and Bernstein did not break the story about the existence of the tapes — and pinned the blame on the Post’s executive editor, Ben Bradlee.

Woodward recounted in the program (as he did in the book All the President’s Men) that he had heard about the tapes and asked Bradlee about pursuing a story along those lines. Bradlee, according to Woodward’s recollections, rated a prospective story about the tapes a B-plus: Not good enough for Woodward to pursue immediately.

(In the book, Bradlee is quoted as saying: “See what more you can find out, but I wouldn’t bust one on it.” And the reporters didn’t, thus failing to report a pivotal story about the scandal.)

The program’s second-half focus on the federal and congressional inquiries in a way addresses a major flaw of All the President’s Men, the movie, which was criticized for ignoring the contributions of federal investigators, special prosecutors, and congressional panels in ripping away the coverup of the Watergate break-in.

The movie’s narrow focus, I wrote in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, served “to solidify and elevate the heroic-journalist myth” of Watergate — the notion that the dogged work of Woodward and Bernstein brought down Nixon.

While the program did not challenge the deeply entrenched heroic-journalist myth, All the President’s Men Revisited did offer an historically accurate interpretation about how the scandal unspooled: As such, it rather succeeded where the movie had clearly failed.

WJC

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