All the President’s Men: Review

12 November 2009

Written by: Lawrie Zion

As the 37th President of the United States walks defiantly across the Whitehouse lawn, it is not hard to distinguish the glimmer of regret in his eyes. A red carpet, which has been laid down to cover the grass, separates the military guard of honour on hand to farewell the President.

His resignation speech, recently delivered to Whitehouse staff, is tucked into the inside pocket of his blue jacket. As he places his feet on the first step of the Army One helicopter, he turns around and looks out to the gathered crowd. Richard Nixon raises both hands to the sky and smiles.

All The President’s Men is a detailed behind-the-scenes account of the reporting work of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, two Washington Post journalists who helped topple the President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon.

It is a story that – if history had not turned out the way it did – would read like detective fiction. Instead, it is the portrait of a President under investigation, with Bernstein and Woodward expertly painting the details.

The root of All The President’s Men is the Watergate scandal. If there is one era of investigative journalism that helped spawn a thousand journalists, Watergate is it. Watergate had everything – secret wiretaps, bundles of unmarked cash, cover-ups. It has become so synonymous with conspiracy that, when christening a political or social scandal, today’s media will often employ the suffix ‘-gate’.

What started in 1972 as a simple story about a break-in at the Watergate office complex, rapidly developed into a sordid tale of conspiracy that went right to the heart of the Nixon administration.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime story for Bernstein and Woodward, whose articles – under shared bylines – regularly graced the front page of the Post. Their coverage, an excellent example of investigative journalism, eventually led to a Pulitzer Prize.

Bernstein and Woodward penned All The President’s Men to help explain how the pair uncovered one of the biggest controversies in US history. The book often comes across as Holmes and Watson-like fiction, as the two detectives endlessly spend their time piecing together clues from the case.

Bernstein and Woodward are depicted criss-crossing the country, harassing sources and chasing down leads. They often portray journalism as a very dashing profession, a reputation galvanised by the 1976 film adaptation, which starred Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in the lead roles.

However, much of All The President’s Men presents the unglamorous side of being a journalist – the never-ending knock backs, the incessant deadlines and the very real possibility of libel. Bernstein and Woodward identify the setbacks that they and their editors go through to get the story.

The reporters are often plagued by doubt, confusion, regret, anger and the chance that their highly damaging story is wrong. However it is Ben Bradlee, the chief editor at the Post, who backs his reporters. He is depicted as a strong man with principles, the kind of editor that every journalist would do anything to work for.

All The President’s Men also identifies some of the sources that Bernstein and Woodward drew on for their investigation. Many of these sources were kept anonymous in the original articles published in the Post, including Hugh Sloan, a money man in Nixon’s re-election committee. It was Sloan who helped Woodward and Bernstein trace the paper trail to the upper echelons of the Whitehouse.

And then of course there is ‘Deep Throat’, the chain smoking, car park-lurking, high-level informant. Named after a famous pornographic film of the time, ‘Deep Throat’ is the code name used for Bernstein and Woodward’s most important anonymous source.

The underground car park meetings between ‘Deep Throat’ and Woodward provide some of the best sections of the book. It is not hard to be transported to the pair’s 3 am encounters, where the smoke from the Marlboro Reds cuts the bitter cold air of a Washington winter night. Reading about their breathtaking rendezvous only gives a small sense of the magnitude of the information being revealed. Both believe that any minute they will be discovered by a government willing to do anything to keep their names clean.

The identity of ‘Deep Throat’ is not revealed in the book. That was left to Vanity Fair, who, in 2005, finally revealed that William Mark Felt, associate director of the F.B.I. during Watergate, was indeed the famous whistleblower. The fact that the real name of ‘Deep Throat’ was kept secret for 30 years is a tribute to the work of Bernstein, Woodward and their colleagues.

All The President’s Men also goes some way to documenting the changing relationship between Bernstein and Woodward. Interestingly, the pair rarely interacted before Watergate broke. In fact, they despised each other. Bernstein was 28, a long-haired Democrat who identified with the counterculture. Woodward was 29, a short back and sides Republican who hated hippies.

However, their relationship eventually develops, as the two become friends with an extrasensory ability to understand what the other is thinking.

Thirty-five years ago, Bernstein and Woodward meticulously documented how they managed to untangle the web of lies that surrounded Richard Nixon. Their work, along with that of other journalists, would ultimately lead to a President’s downfall. Nixon – seeing the writing on the wall – preferred to resign in disgrace, rather than face the death throes of an impending impeachment.

All The President’s Men captures the feeling of waywardness, despair and isolation that flourished in 1970s America. It heralded in a new era, where the carefree bubble of the 1960s was shattered by mistrust, recession and war.

All The President’s Men helped break the trust of a nation in its government, a trust that has not been repaired since.

Tom Cowie is the brand new summer editor of upstart. He also has a blog called stop making sense.

Do you think All The President’s Men is a book every journalist should read?

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