W. Joseph Campbell

Gushing about ‘All the President’s Men,’ the movie — and ignoring the myths it propelled

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Reviews, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 18, 2016 at 6:32 am

ATPM movie posterWhen it was released 40 years ago this month, the cinematic version of the Watergate book  All the President’s Men was the topic of soaring reviews.

Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times that “the real excitement of ‘All The President’s Men’ is in watching two comparatively inexperienced reporters stumble onto the story of their lives and develop it triumphantly, against all odds.” He was referring to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who were played in the movie by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, respectively.

The Long Island newspaper Newsday gushed even more, declaring:

“’All the President’s Men’ is a terrific movie – the best film about newspaper reporters ever made, one of the most enjoyable action pictures you’ll see this year and a classic example of how to make an important social and political statement within the framework of an unpretentious detective story whose revelations speak for themselves.”

And so it went for a movie that won four Academy Awards but lost the best-picture Oscar to Rocky.

The gushing for All the President’s Men resumed this month as a variety of media outlets took the occasion of the 40th anniversary to celebrate the film anew.

Michael Gaynor of Washingtonian magazine put together a lengthy oral history about All the President’s Men, which he hailed as the “most defining movie of Washington.” Meanwhile, Newsday posted its 1976 review online.

In a lengthy retrospective for the Los Angeles Review of Books,the associate producer of All the President’s Men, Jon Boorstin, called the movie “a miracle.” He further described it as an “impossible conjunction of talent and opportunity, collaboration and ego, trust, power, and luck. And then more luck.”

And the Washington Post — inclined as it is to bouts of self-absorption — published at its online site a fawning essay that gushed at the granular level, telling us about Woodward and Bernstein’s favorite scenes in All the President’s Men.

What went unmentioned in the anniversary’s nostalgic glow was the movie’s significant contributions to the mythology of Watergate, notably the notion that Woodward and Bernstein‘s reporting — the movie’s centerpiece — brought down the corrupt presidency of Richard M. Nixon in 1974.

The movie portrayed Woodward and Bernstein as central and essential to unraveling the Watergate scandal.

They weren’t.

That they were is a mythical, media-centric trope that emerged long ago as the dominant narrative of Watergate, the principal way of understanding the scandal.

I call it the heroic-journalist myth, a simplistic version that sweeps away the complexities of Watergate, leaving an easy-to-grasp explanation for Nixon’s downfall in August 1974.

The cinematic version of All the President’s Men, as I noted in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong, promoted this version — what I called an “unmistakable assertion of the power and centrality of the press in Nixon’s fall.

All the President’s Men allows no other interpretation: It was the work Woodward and Bernstein that set in motion far-reaching effects that brought about the first-ever resignation of a U.S. president. And it is a message that has endured,” I wrote.

I further noted in Getting It Wrong that rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s dimensions in fact “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.

“Even then,” I wrote, “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 the burglary in June 1972 that was Watergate’s seminal crime.

The movie contributed to Watergate’s mythology in another way: It brought into the vernacular what has become the scandal’s most memorable line — “follow the money.

It’s often said that “follow the money” was sage counsel offered by the stealthy, high-level “Deep Throat” source, with whom Woodward periodically met as the scandal unfolded.

The guidance to “follow the money” supposedly was crucial to Woodward and Bernstein in unraveling the labyrinthine scandal that was Watergate.

Except that it really wasn’t.

The line was written into All the President’s Men for dramatic effect  and spoken by the actor Hal Holbrook who played a marvelously conflicted, raspy, chain-smoking “Deep Throat.”

“Deep Throat” the source never told Woodward to “follow the money.”

WJC

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The dominant narrative of the Watergate scandal is that dogged reporting by the Washington Post uncovered evidence that toppled Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

wapo-logoIt’s a tempting if reductive media-centric myth that principals at the Post have routinely rejected over the years. Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during the Watergate period, once said, for example:

“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do.”

Graham added, quite accurately: “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Bob Woodward, one of the Post’s lead reporters on Watergate, concurred, if less eloquently. He told the American Journalism Review in 2004:

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

'To say the press brought down Nixon ...'

Woodward: ‘To say the press brought down Nixon …’

But occasionally in recent years, the Post’s myth-avoidance on Watergate has slipped. In July 2014, for example, John Kelly, a local columnist for the newspaper, referred to Woodward’s reporting partner on Watergate, Carl Bernstein, as “the former Washington Post reporter famous for his role in bringing down a president.”

And today, the front page of the Post’sOutlook” section features an essay about the appeal of conspiracy theories; the essay closes with this passage:

“It’s worth remembering that, very occasionally, conspiracy theories turn out to be true. Just ask the two cheeky journalists at this newspaper who followed a crazy conspiracy theory and brought down a sitting president.”

The reference to “cheeky journalists,” of course, is to Woodward and Bernstein. And “crazy conspiracy theory” means the Watergate scandal (which indeed may have been a bit “crazy”). But “brought down a sitting president”? That was far beyond the power of the Post, or any newspaper, to accomplish.

As I discussed in my 2010 myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s dimensions of  “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.

“Even then,” I noted, “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 the burglary in June 1972 that was Watergate’s seminal crime.

It’s an interpretation that essentially endorsed the view of Michael Getler who, as the Post’s ombudsman, or in-house critic, 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.”

The Post’s contribution to Watergate’s outcome was marginal, the mythology notwithstanding.

Given the evidence — and the traditional reluctance of principals at the Post to embrace the mythical narrative of Watergate — it’s puzzling why “Outlook” editors allowed the erroneous “cheeky journalists” passage into print.

We’ll see if the Post publishes a correction.

WJC

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