The truth about Watergate is In Nixon’s Web. What follows here is adapted from the final chapter,
“The Watergate Books: Fact and Fiction.”
The myth is All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. It’s also a terrific book. The story is gripping and the characters are memorable. It reads like a novel and translated seamlessly into a screenplay.
But what gave it the legs to become an iconic bestseller and an Oscar-winning movie was the sleight-of-hand it got away with from the outset. In the book they wrote about themselves, Woodward and Bernstein aren’t the after-the-fact voyeurs they were in reality; they’re the main characters. In All the President’s Men the Watergate conspiracy isn’t unraveled by the authorities, it’s uncovered by a pair of plucky reporters who wouldn’t quit.
The literary trick they employed to achieve that shift was as simple as it was brilliant: in the narrative they treat every new discovery as if they were the ones who first uncovered it. It simply wasn’t true. They didn’t uncover the crimes, they followed the investigation that had already uncovered the crimes.
The advantage they exploited was their First Amendment press privilege to publish anything they wanted as soon as they heard about it. Thus their revelations in the Washington Post were always ahead of the legally constrained and tactically deliberate public announcements of the prosecutors. When the American people began to get a sense that there really was a conspiracy, they got their hints from the press, not from the government.
But of course that’s true in any crime story. We always get bits and pieces of the prosecution’s evidence long before the trial. In the much-later court testimony, we get the details of a story we already know, but it’s nonetheless far more compelling than the pre-trial publicity. The courtroom drama eclipses all those early news scoops. We end up knowing the judge, the prosecutors, the defendants, and the defense lawyers, but no one remembers the bylines of the reporters. So how did Woodward and Bernstein become so famous?
By short-circuiting the process.
In the world according to All the President’s Men, the government never was going to tell the tale. The prosecution was going to be stopped with the low-level burglars themselves, and the big shots were going to get away with it because everybody was in on the conspiracy, including the head of the FBI. Only through the pluck and grit of the two cub reporters was the evil scheme uncovered, the top dogs forced to resign, and the wheels of justice handed back to the honest lower echelons.