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In new edition of classic Watergate expose, Woodward and Bernstein link Nixon, Trump

All The President's Men
Simon & Schuster

There have been scores of memoirs and analyses written about the events we call "Watergate," but none captures the early days of that era-defining White House scandal quite like All the President's Men.

Its authors were two Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose reporting helped a "third-rate burglary" — which took place 50 years ago on June 17, 1972 — become a national obsession.

Both in their 20s at the time, they seized on a suspicious story about a bungled break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters in Washington during the presidential campaign of 1972. Over a matter of weeks, they found themselves following a trail of evidence all the way to some of the most powerful men in the federal government — ultimately including President Richard Nixon.

Nixon would resign in August 1974. Several of his most senior staffers went to prison, many others had their reputations destroyed. Nixon's Republican Party would need the better part of a decade to recover.

In the years thereafter, Woodward and Bernstein became part of the nation's shared memory and the folklore of the period. They also came to personify a sea change in American journalism.

And now, All the President's Men is back. The publisher, Simon & Schuster, has issued a commemorative edition to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the burglary this week (although the original version of the book itself did not appear until two years later).

The new edition is more than an artifact or a prompt for nostalgia. It coincides with the televised hearings of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. And to underscore the connection, the authors have included a fresh, 15-page foreword explicitly linking Nixon and former President Donald Trump.

"As reporters," they write, "we had studied Nixon and written about him for nearly half a century, during which we believed with great conviction that America would never again have a president who would trample the national interest and succeed in undermining democracy through the audacious pursuit of personal and political self-interest. And then along came Trump."

In that statement, Woodward and Bernstein, now in their 70s, sum up what many Americans have found incomprehensible about Trump. Seven presidents had taken the oath since Nixon and each had shown respect for the lessons of Nixon's fall. They knew the moral of the story, the meaning of the cautionary tale that was Watergate. And then along came Trump.

Entering the time warp

Woodward and Bernstein profess amazement that, after half a century, another president came along who was willing to jettison whatever conscience he had, and whatever respect for the rule of law, in an effort to stay in office.

Nixon condoned, and then tried to conceal, an array of covert campaign operations designed to cripple potential opponents in his re-election year. Trump, having lost his re-election bid, decided to insist instead he had won "in a landslide" and to declare the election "rigged" or "stolen." Beyond these pronouncements, he engaged in a series of apparently illegal acts — urging elected and appointed officials to break the law or rewrite the Constitution — to overturn the election results and remain in office.

Woodward and Bernstein perceive a personality pattern in these presidents, noting that both Nixon and Trump "had been outsiders, given to paranoia, relentless in their ambition, carrying chips on their shoulders."

But going beyond such characteristics in common, Woodward and Bernstein write that Nixon and Trump "created a conspiratorial world in which the U.S. Constitution, laws and fragile democratic traditions were to be manipulated or ignored, political opponents and the media were 'enemies,' and there were few or no restraints on the powers entrusted to these two presidents."

The foreword also includes an anecdote about Woodward sitting down with Trump at Mar-a-Lago in December of 2019, 12 days after Trump's first impeachment by the U.S. House. Rather than discuss the articles of impeachment, Trump shows his guest a video of his 2019 State of the Union address, dwelling on the TV "reaction shots" of various prominent Democrats. "Hate! They hate me! See the hate!" Trump shouts, inches from Woodward's ear.

The emphasis on the word hate also prompts the authors to recall Nixon's famous valedictory on the day he resigned: "Always remember, others may hate you — but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself." The authors call this "a blinding moment of self-understanding."

Controversies and myths

As long as they have been household names, Woodward and Bernstein have had their critics and controversies. Was their work for The Washington Post actually responsible for Nixon's disgrace? And did their Watergate stories change the course and character of American journalism?

The publicity for the new edition of All the President's Men includes several hyperbolic blurbs of the kind one associates with movie ads. One from Time magazine hails "the work that brought down a presidency...perhaps the most influential piece of journalism in history." A quote from a former managing editor of The New York Times reads: "Maybe the single greatest reporting effort of all time."

This sort of hagiography has always made the authors themselves uncomfortable. W. Joseph Campbell, a communications professor at American University (and a former newspaper reporter) has disputed the importance of the Post in the Watergate saga. In his 2010 book, Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism, Campbell credits Woodward and Bernstein for their work in the critical weeks and months when few others were focusing on it.

But in the end, he argues, Nixon's edifice was dismantled by intrepid public servants in all three branches of government who did their jobs and held him accountable. Woodward has made much the same point in interviews and appearances over the years.

He and Bernstein also acknowledge this on the second page of the new foreword: "Nixon's illegal conduct was gradually exposed by the news media, the Senate Watergate Committee, special prosecutors, a House impeachment investigation, and finally by the Supreme Court."

What most deserves respect in All the President's Men is the reporters' gritty and painstaking process. They had little to go on, many doubters and an imposing wall of resistance to overcome. The message is that great journalism takes time and patience, frequent self-examination and perhaps even admissions of error along the way.

The point is to persist and to penetrate and ultimately to expose. In the end, the countless phone calls that yield nothing lead to the contacts that produce the story. Tiny brush strokes fill the canvas until a portrait emerges.

How much did they change journalism?

Turning to the impact of Woodward and Bernstein on their profession, generations of journalists have been admonished to emulate their best traits — to be dogged, fearless and so on. Surely they elevated the aspirations of the craft, giving a generation of reporters a model for taking on all kinds of powerful institutions and individuals.

But there has also been a long-running critique of their reliance on unnamed sources, which some say has helped to erode the public's faith in the news media in general and political journalism in particular.

Woodward has written a shelf's worth of best sellers (21 and counting). Bernstein has added six books and been a featured contributor on CNN. Both have relied on sources they do not always name or identify. And for better or worse, that practice has become far more common and acceptable in legacy media; unnamed sources are far more acceptable in far more media outlets today than they were before Watergate.

There is no question this has allowed many more stories to be told, but also no question it is often cited by survey respondents who say they have "lost faith" or lessened faith in the news media as a result.

Are the advantages of allowing at least some unnamed sources concrete enough to justify the loss of some confidence in some portions of the audience?

It is a judgment that news organizations and their audiences ultimately make for themselves. But we can expect Woodward and Bernstein to be cited in the arguments pro and con for some time to come.

Speaking as one who applied to journalism school in year All the President's Men was first published, it is hard to imagine the intervening decades without it — or without the institution of "Woodward and Bernstein."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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