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All the President's Men
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Staff Picks > Staff Pick - All the President's Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

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Brian Bess (BOBWRITER) | 214 comments Mod
The epic battle of the Press vs. the President

I don’t think that the Washington Post Watergate investigation actually began as a takedown of the presidency of Richard Nixon. Initially I think the editors and the reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein hoped the break-in of the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in the Watergate complex was isolated from the knowledge and consent of Richard Nixon, although Nixon’s paranoia and distrust of the media and other ‘enemies of the state’ was well-known at that time to anyone that paid close attention to the workings of the administration. I think that as the ramifications were increasingly widespread and the leads in the web of corruption began to be pursued that the momentum grew as well as the reporters’ determination to get to the heart of the matter.

Woodward’s and Bernstein’s book has the style of the news reporter: no frills, no embellishments, just the facts or a fairly objection examination of the misunderstandings of the facts. It is novelistic in that scenes are established with characters speaking in dialogue that is obviously reconstructed but with a fidelity to the essence of interactions.

The book is really comprised of two stories. One is a fairly linear depiction of the events that unfolded throughout the initial Watergate investigation of the second half of 1972 following the June break-in as well as the jury trial of the burglars happening concurrently with the Senate investigation of the administration’s role in the incident. The other is a zigzag journey of the reporters’ investigation of the story and how they bobbed and weaved between true and false leads, sometimes widening their scope to seemingly peripheral matters only to learn that the peripheral matters actually reflected a pattern of desperation apparent in all of the criminal and near-criminal activity.

The story of the reporters is what makes the book more compelling than it would be if it were merely an objective historical account of the scandal. One needs only to refer to a Wikipedia article for that information. We learn of the different temperaments of Woodward and Bernstein: Woodward, a registered Republican, cautious and conservative in his obsession with nailing down details and cross checking before committing to publication; Bernstein, a liberal whose zeal and obsession with following leads that often lead him to making conclusive leaps prior to learning the entire picture. Although both men initially distrusted each other and were temperamentally at odds, the experience of being thrown together in this quest led them to establish an almost telepathic bond. Like the songwriting partnership of Lennon and McCartney, both of their names began to be carried on bylines to any follow-up story that they wrote. They were even dubbed Woodstein by their colleagues:
“Gradually, Bernstein’s and Woodward’s mutual distrust and suspicions diminished. They realized the advantages of working together, particularly because their temperaments were so dissimilar. The breadth of the story, the inherent risks and the need for caution all argued for at least two reporters working on it. By dividing the work and pooling their information, they increased their contacts.”

The description of their working methods is just as compelling to me as the accounts of what they found out. They kept separate master lists of telephone numbers that they called at least twice a week. This method of working separately and establishing separate contacts worked to their advantage. Some sources would be more likely to trust one or the other of them and the reporters felt that the establishment of personal trust was essential. They would also employ a method with a terrified witness in which they might have their notebooks out while outside someone’s home. Once they got passed the threshold and were invited in, the notebooks would be put away as a gesture of trust that encouraged the interviewee to let down her guard. They would also sympathize and reassure people that they were on their side:
“Woodward could say he was a registered Republican; Bernstein could argue a sincere antipathy for the politics of both parties.”

This bond of trust was no more significant than in Woodward’s secretive contacts with ‘Deep Throat’, the FBI official (decades later identified as Mark Felt) that felt there was a cancer growing from within the government and that it was his ethical duty to ensure that it be revealed to the public while maintaining a cloak of secrecy. The interactions with Deep Throat have the ominous atmosphere of a John LeCarre’ thriller. Deep Throat told them to “follow the money” and widen their scope from the Watergate break-in itself, which seemed to be a symptom of a larger disease.

That Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation was able to continue without being shut down completely amazes me, especially in light of Nixon’s mounting desperation. If other news organizations had not unfolded some of the same revelations and the Congress not felt it was worth pursuing, if they were alone in their pursuit I think it could have been suppressed.

After Nixon is reelected in November of ’72, the second phase of the investigation is less compelling. This is due more to the nature of the unfolding events than flagging narrative skills. They realized that the momentum of the investigation had grown beyond them. They were no longer the sole crusaders for the truth. The breakdown of the Nixon presidency was like a melting glacier and the heat was applied by many others in addition to the Washington Post reporters.

One essential character whose role in guiding and mentoring his reporters is the Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee. He makes his presence known whenever he enters a newsroom and doesn’t appear to be intimidated by the engines of power. However, he generally knows when to act and when to hold back. He sometimes acts as the brakes, at others as the accelerator to Woodward and Bernstein’s journalistic vehicle. He also knows the reality of the newspaper business:
“The reporters understood Bradlee’s philosophy: a daily newspaper can’t wait for the definitive account of events.”

The last 50 pages or so seem to be more of a summary of the last nine months of the investigation, as more and more of the President’s men are caught and convicted. Woodward and Bernstein are observers more than essential actors in the drama. The book ends with Nixon’s statement in his January 30, 1974 State of the Union speech:
“I want you to know that I have no intention whatever of ever walking away from the job that the American people elected me to do for the people of the United States.”

‘All the President’s Men’ was first published on June 15, 1974. By that time the proverbial writing was on the wall; Nixon resigned almost two months later. The effort to oust the President had reached critical mass by that time after everything that had been revealed. The book stands as a relic of a time when media outlets were fewer and the dissemination of information occurred at a much slower rate. The question, “Could something as significant as the Watergate scandal be revealed and resolved in today’s world” seems to be a reasonable one to ask when evaluating this story. That question and the possible answers to it are some of the main reasons why ‘All the President’s Men’ is still a timely and relevant account today.

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