A little marked anniversary is January 30, 1973. That is the day, ten days after Richard Nixon’s second inauguration, that G. Gordon Liddy and James W. McCord, Jr. were convicted of conspiracy, burglary, and wiretapping for breaking into the Watergate complex housing the Democratic National Committee headquarters. Five other men aiding the break-in plead guilty to lesser charges earlier.
A local journalist friend recently handed me three Watergate books by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and promised – maybe threatened – to ask me about them later. So I’ve been reading of the scandal that forced Richard Nixon from office, August 9, 1974. It is a lurid story but Woodward and Bernstein aren’t the people to tell it.
To hear it from some quarters, Nixon’s resignation was due only to the intrepid reporting of Woodward and Bernstein of the Washington Post, with a bow to “Deep Throat,” their undisclosed source.
Critics say the two were stenographers. They sat around the newsroom changing typewriter ribbons (before PCs), awaiting Deep Throat to phone in their latest scoop.
The late Mark Felt, second man at the FBI, was Deep Throat, an inelegant reference to a porn movie. But Felt was never the source. He rarely confirmed other sources, actually offered few of his own, but he was the one who sought the faceless fame of anonymity. Most of their reporting was their own; give them that.
For Woodward and Bernstein, Watergate became a cottage industry – at least five books. I read The Final Days (1976) when it appeared, but nothing after. The other two my friend gave me, The Last of the President’s Men and The Secret Man, I’d never seen.
The Final Days (co-authored) deliberately evokes the feeling of a locked-down bunker as Nixon’s presidency disintegrates, senior aides scrambling to hold something together. The two authors report doing 394 interviews, yet neither one thought to ask the 395th un-interviewed guy whether Nixon, as a condition of resignation, sought a pardon from his successor, Gerald Ford.
Of course they could have simply have invented it and reported that. The reporting style is novelization, telling us what the characters are thinking and feeling, leaving lots of room for inane speculation. The two authors, as one would in any novel, inject interior dispositions to the characters. “Haig frowned to himself.”
Gosh, the detail. Did Haig describe that himself when they interviewed him? Did they interview him? Did somebody, one of the 394 interviewed, see him frowning to himself and pass it along under Woodward and Bernstein’s careful interrogation? Can we be sure it wasn’t a twinge of gas?
Psychic journalists reporting the interior feelings and emotional states of their subjects are always of dubious validity. Try this.
Three Republican leaders arrive at the house of John Rhodes (the House minority leader) to discuss Nixon’s worsening position. “Rhodes wife, Betty, served iced tea because it was too early for the Scotch Rhodes felt like having.” As the authors have said in the book, they have at least two sources for every quote and observation recounted in the book. That includes the iced tea and not Scotch Betty Rhodes served at 1:15 PM on Monday, August 5, 1974? And which of the four, five counting Betty would have talked?
I never met Rhodes personally, not until 1975. But I knew some of his staff when I worked on the Hill. My impression was if John Rhodes wanted a Scotch at 1:15 PM that day or any other, Betty or no Betty, he’d have one.
The Last of the President’s Men (Woodard, 2015) features Alexander Butterfield. Butterfield was deputy to H.R. Haldeman, doing most of the things Haldeman did not wish to do. It was Butterfield who disclosed to the Senate committee the existence a secret Oval Office taping system, that led to the tape that convinced even my diehard Republican Nixonian congressman that Nixon should go.
Butterfield was 88 when Woodward was pestering his memory in the same rough narrative style as Woodward’s other efforts. The New York Times called it a “decidedly slender addition to the Nixon and Watergate saga.”
The Secret Man (Woodard, with Bernstein’s separate “assessment,” 2005) is about Deep Throat, Mark Felt, who was the associate director of the FBI, number two behind J. Edgar Hoover. Felt died late 2008, suffering from stroke-induced dementia. Though there is Woodard’s dithering whether to reveal Felt’s name while he is living, as happened in 2004, there is very little in the book of deeper interest; “slender” as the Times might put it.
For all Deep Throat’s tidbit leaks, Felt never argued for a thorough FBI investigation of Watergate. He was in a position to do it, but his resentments against Nixon for not making him FBI director led him to obstruct even the weak efforts by the new FBI director to investigate. Felt was more interested in leaking to Woodward than conducting an inquiry Nixon was eager to obstruct.
There are better Watergate books. They stick to what is known, they are thorough, and refrain from psychic observations. I specifically recommend Stephen Ambrose’s third volume of his Nixon biography, Ruin and Recovery 1973-1990.
Woodward and Bernstein, finally, give no broad assessment of Nixon’s presidency than how bad it was, and it was bad mostly because it was Nixon’s. But what was driving the man’s failures? They cannot offer any real insights because, finally, they are reporters, stenographers, not historians.
We seem to have entered a similar time. Whether Trump’s crimes will in any way match Nixon’s real crimes remain to be seen, but the simple story is, Trump’s presidency is bad mostly because it is Trump’s.