Woodward and Bernstein on ‘All the President’s Men’ 50 Years After Watergate : NPR


All the President's Men

There have been dozens of memoirs and analyzes written about the events we call “Watergate,” but none capture the early days of this defining White House scandal like All the president’s men.

Its authors were two Washington Post the reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose reporting helped a “third-rate heist” – which took place 50 years ago on June 17, 1972 – has become a national obsession.

Both in their twenties at the time, they seized on a suspicious story about a failed burglary at Democratic Party headquarters in Washington during the 1972 presidential campaign. Within weeks, they found themselves following a lead of evidence all the way to some of the most powerful men in the federal government – ultimately including President Richard Nixon.

Nixon will resign in August 1974. Several of his highest officials went to prison, many more saw their reputations destroyed. Nixon’s Republican Party would need the better part of a decade to recover.

In the years that followed, Woodward and Bernstein became part of the nation’s shared memory and folklore of the time. They also came to embody a sea change in American journalism.

And now, All the President’s Men is back. The publisher, Simon & Schuster, released a commemorative edition to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the heist this week (although the original version of the book itself did not appear until two years later).

The new edition is more than an artifact or an invitation to nostalgia. This coincides with the televised hearings of the House Select Committee investigating the January 6 attack on the United States Capitol. And to emphasize the connection, the authors have included a new 15-page foreword explicitly linking Nixon and former President Donald Trump.

“As journalists,” they write, “we have studied Nixon and written about him for nearly half a century, during which time we believed with great conviction that America would never have a president again. who would trample on the national interest and succeed in undermining democracy through the bold pursuit of self-interest and politics.And then along came Trump.

In that statement, Woodward and Bernstein, now in their 70s, sum up what many Americans have found incomprehensible about Trump. Seven presidents had been sworn in since Nixon, and each had shown respect for the lessons of Nixon’s fall. They knew the moral of the story, the sense of the cautionary tale that was Watergate. And then came Trump.

Step into time

Woodward and Bernstein profess their astonishment that after half a century another president had arrived who was willing to abandon whatever conscience he had and respect for the rule of law, in an effort to stay in office.

Nixon condoned, then attempted to cover up, a series of covert campaign operations designed to cripple potential opponents during his re-election year. Trump, having lost his re-election bid, decided to insist he won “in a landslide” and declare the election “rigged” or “stolen”. Beyond those statements, he engaged in a series of seemingly illegal acts — urging elected and elected officials to break the law or rewrite the Constitution — to overturn election results and stay in office.

Woodward and Bernstein see a personality pattern in these presidents, noting that Nixon and Trump “had been outsiders, given to paranoia, relentless in their ambition, carrying chips on their shoulders.”

But going beyond these common characteristics, Woodward and Bernstein write that Nixon and Trump “created a conspiratorial world in which the Constitution, laws, and fragile democratic traditions of the United States were to be manipulated or ignored, political opponents and the media were ‘enemies’, and there were few or no restrictions on the powers entrusted to these two presidents.”

The foreword also includes an anecdote about Woodward sitting with Trump at Mar-a-Lago in December 2019, 12 days after Trump was first impeached by the US House. Rather than discuss the articles of impeachment, Trump shows his guest a video of his 2019 State of the Union address, dwelling on televised “reaction shots” from various high-profile Democrats. “Hate! They hate me! See the hate!” Trump shouts, inches from Woodward’s ear.

The emphasis on the word hate also prompts the authors to recall Nixon’s famous farewell on the day of his resignation: “Always remember that others may hate you, but those who hate you only win if you hate them, then you destroy yourself. The authors call it “a blinding moment of self-understanding.”

Controversies and Myths

As long as they’ve been household names, Woodward and Bernstein have had their criticisms and controversies. Was their work for The Washington Post really responsible for Nixon’s fall from grace? And did their Watergate stories change the course and character of American journalism?

Advertising for the new edition of All the President’s Men includes several hyperbolic blurbs of the kind one associates with movie commercials. A die Time the magazine hails “the work that brought down a presidency…perhaps the most influential journalism in history”. A quote from a former editor of The New York Times reads: “Perhaps the greatest reporting effort of all time.”

This kind of hagiography has always made the authors themselves uncomfortable. W. Joseph Campbell, professor of communication at American University (and former journalist) disputed the importance of the Job in the Watergate saga. In his 2010 book, Getting It Wrong: Debunking America’s Biggest Journalism Myths, Campbell credits Woodward and Bernstein for their work during the critical weeks and months when few others were focusing on them.

But in the end, he argues, the Nixon edifice was taken down by fearless officials from all three branches of government who did their job and held him accountable. Woodward has made much the same point in interviews and appearances over the years.

He and Bernstein also acknowledge this on the second page of the new foreword: “Nixon’s unlawful conduct has been progressively exposed by the media, the Senate Watergate Committee, special prosecutors, a House impeachment inquiry and finally by the Supreme Court.”

What deserves the most respect in All the President’s Men is the serious and careful process of journalists. They had little to do, many skeptics and a huge wall of resistance to overcome. The message is that great journalism takes time and patience, frequent soul-searching, and perhaps even admissions of error along the way.

The point is to persist and penetrate and ultimately expose. In the end, the countless phone calls that yield nothing lead to the contacts that produce the story. Tiny brushstrokes fill the canvas until a portrait emerges.

How have they changed journalism?

When it comes to Woodward and Bernstein’s impact on their profession, generations of journalists have been urged to emulate their best traits – being tenacious, fearless, etc. They surely raised the aspirations of the profession, giving a generation of reporters a role model to confront all sorts of powerful institutions and individuals.

But there has also been longstanding criticism of their reliance on anonymous sources, which some say has helped erode public trust in the news media in general and political journalism in particular. .

Woodward has written a shelf of bestsellers (21 and counting). Bernstein has added six books and has been a featured contributor on CNN. Both relied on sources that they do not always name or identify. And for better or worse, this practice has become much more common and acceptable in legacy media; anonymous sources are much more acceptable in many more media today than they were before Watergate.

There’s no doubt that it’s helped to tell a lot more stories, but it’s also often cited by survey respondents who say they’ve “lost confidence” or diminished their trust in the media. information accordingly.

Are the benefits of allowing at least some anonymous sources material enough to justify losing some trust in some parts of the audience?

It’s a judgment that news organizations and their audiences end up making for themselves. But we can expect Woodward and Bernstein to be cited in the pros and cons for some time to come.

Talking like someone who applied to journalism school in year All the President’s Men was first published, it is hard to imagine the decades that followed without him – or without the institution of “Woodward and Bernstein”.


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