All the President’s Men: Uncovering the Desperation to Retain Power
BY NOAH KEATE
Bob Woodward, pictured above in 2010, was one of the authors of All the President's Men and is one of the foremost American journalists.
2021 has seemed a unique year in many ways. A global pandemic still raging around the world, the assault on the US Capitol and, seemingly, political scandal after scandal in the UK. On that latter point, it is not such a unique attribute to 2021 or indeed Britain. Ask anyone for their iconic political scandal and it’s inevitable some US buff will say ‘Watergate’. Just the word alone tells you everything: the resignation (not impeachment) of Richard Nixon, Republican bugging of Democrat headquarters and every subsequent scandal being suffixed by -gate.
Though the surface headlines are important, like with all political events, some deeper analysis is required. Where better than the original source material? Given Christmas is surely the time, if nothing else, for reading books and watching films you haven’t previously got around to over the rest of the year, ‘All the President’s Men’ seemed a natural, very admirable political choice. Written by the two journalists at the heart of the investigation - Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein - it conveys in immense detail the extraordinary lengths the two men went to chase the story to its conclusion.
What is striking about the book is its publication date. Initially released in 1974, it went into the public domain before Nixon’s resignation in 1975. I was reading a print from 1976 and the ending - detailing a speech from Nixon saying he would not resign - had not been changed. It is unclear to what extent the book impacted the resignation, while laying bare the reality of corruption at the heart of American government.
The story is told in a gripping, impactful way, not least as it begins in such an ordinary, even mundane manner. The two reporters are assigned to cover a Saturday burglary in June 1972 at the Watergate Office, unaware it will spark one of the defining events of 20th century American political history. As aftermath after aftermath is uncovered: who the burglars were, who paid them, the transfers of money, it evidently becomes clear that, from the heart of government, individuals were desperate to disrupt and bug the Democrats.
The book amazingly covers how evidently a paper trail was left. The transfer of money was easy for all to see, the communication and conflicts of interest were strong. This was how the story was able to run week after week. As the connections between government, the Republican Party and the burglars were so strong a list of ‘characters’ at the start was required, who were ‘All the President’s Men’.
I hope to be a journalist in the future and it was admirable to see two journalistic values on display. Firstly, of primary importance, the protection of sources. Individuals had to be willing to speak to Woodward and Bernstein while aware their information would be protected. If someone refused to speak, the journalists could not force them to. Secondly, what was admirable was the collaborative process between the two men. With both the practical aspects of writing and rewriting alongside a story appearing only if both of them agreed to it, smart journalistic integrity was on offer.
I found it striking how much more willing individuals were willing to speak after the 1972 election in November. Nixon had been reelected with a landslide, meaning individuals felt more able to speak about the realities of what his administration had undertaken. My knowledge of American politics isn’t huge, but I continue to find it remarkable Nixon embarked in such a foolish mission. He was miles ahead of his Democratic opponent George McGovern in 1972 and, as the election demonstrated, won by such a huge amount. As heads started to role in 1973 and 1974, it was those around Nixon, rather than himself, who he was willing to depose of.
The film, released only two years later in 1976, brilliantly mirrors the detail and vigour contained within the original source material. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman co-star as Woodward and Bernstein respectively, both trying to uncover the truth. There really is powerful naturalism between the two characters, with sharp focus given to taking notes, having phone calls and ensuring every story is as accurate as possible before publication.
There were powerful additions offered by a visual adaptation which allowed symbolic metaphors to capture the viewer’s attention. Many of the conversations, especially with the source deep in the White House, took place in the shadows, only highlighting the level of mystery and danger facing those who divulged information. Similarly, the film often made use of the entire frame, with typing taking place in the foreground while other events in the background occurred. It simply represented that, just as films always have to fill an entire frame, so newspapers have to fill an entire page.
Like many old films, ‘All the President’s Men’ was admirable for the clarity of its sound. What this allowed were long one shot scenes where conversations developed and demonstrated the tireless lengths the reporters were willing to reach to achieve their goals. These long shots demonstrated that the business of journalism is never ending and that perseverance is the only way to achieve justice. This became especially notable with the visual imagery of door after door being shut on the reporters as nobody wished to go on the record. But it only took one person to give information for the story to develop. The film is a very fine piece of work and worthy tribute to the book.
Fundamentally, Watergate is about a rejection of the belief in being able to convince others of your argument. Nixon thought that wasn’t possible and so opted to destroy the campaign of his opponent. Though it helped him in 1972, it ultimately forced his resignation. That he accepted the pardon of Gerald Ford, his successor as President, would imply an admission of guilt. When historians come to look at Nixon’s legacy, they return repeatedly to Watergate instead of the 1972 landslide. It is only thanks to the tireless campaigning and journalism of Woodward and Bernstein that this is the case.
Image - Flickr (Miguel Ariel Contreras Drake-McLaughlin)