Stanley I. Kutler, the preeminent historian of the Watergate scandal, was on campus yesterday to speak to a government class, and he told me after his talk that the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate is grounded in reportorial “self-promotion.”
It’s a myth, as I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong. But it long ago became the dominant narrative of how Watergate was rolled up — a simplistic narrative that Kutler effectively dismantled during his appearance at American University.
In response to a question I posed afterward, Kutler said “self-promotion” by Woodward and Bernstein — notably their book about their Watergate reporting — explains the tenacity of what I call the heroic-journalist narrative.
Kutler, an emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin, is the author, among other works, of The Wars of Watergate, a thorough and definitive treatment of the scandal that unfolded from 1972-74.
His talk at American was organized around the question, “Who really unraveled Watergate?”
In the final analysis, Kutler said, Nixon “was primarily responsible” for bringing down Nixon.
If not for the evidence of Nixon’s complicity — captured on audiotapes that he secretly recorded of conversations at the Oval Office of the White House — Nixon would have survived the scandal, Kutler said.
“Absent the tapes, Nixon walks,” he said. “You had to have that kind of corroborative evidence to nail the president of the United States.”
The tapes, which Nixon surrendered when compelled by the U.S. Supreme Court, captured the president participating in June 1972 in a clumsy attempt to cover up the signal crime of Watergate, the break-in a few days before at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.
Kutler devoted little time in his talk to the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein, whose book about their reporting, All the President’s Men, was an immediate best-seller when it came out in June 1974, less than two months before Nixon resigned.
Kutler said the book “is a potboiler in many, many ways” and offered “a layman’s brief for understanding Watergate.”
The book, he added, is “important in that way.”
Kutler praised the work of Earl Silbert, the U.S. attorney in Washington whose office investigated the unfolding scandal in 1972-73, until a special Watergate prosecutor was named. The criminal cases against Nixon’s closest aides were “made by these guys,” Kutler said of Silbert and his investigators.
The Senate select committee on Watergate, he added, “did incredible work” in investigating the scandal — notably in extracting testimony that revealed Nixon’s secret tape-recordings. “The whole story changes,” Kutler said, with the disclosure in July 1973 of the tapes’ existence.
Kutler also lauded the contributions of federal Judge John J. Sirica, of the Watergate special prosecutors, and of the House Judiciary Committee, which approved four articles of impeachment against Nixon before his resignation in August 1974.
“Everybody has a role to play” in unraveling Watergate, Kutler said. “But let’s face it: Richard Nixon was primarily responsible” for bringing down Nixon. “The tapes damn him.”
He won a judge’s order to unseal the testimony, which is to be made available November 10 at the online site of the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.
“We just don’t know what’s in there,” Kutler said of the grand jury testimony, adding, however, that he expects it to contain “no spectacular fireworks.”
Kutler said that Nixon in going before the grand jury was “not going to lie. … He knew how to give non-answers.”
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