Reviewed by Ed Lengel
There was a time, not-too-long-ago, when the American public held journalists in exceptionally high regard. Their default assumption was that journalists would follow the truth wherever it led, at whatever the risk. All the President’s Men, published in 1974, was pivotal to bolstering this perception. Written by two Washington Post journalists who played a significant role in uncovering the Watergate scandal that ended Richard M. Nixon’s presidency just after the book was published, All the President’s Men was penned with the movie in mind. Indeed, actor Robert Redford not only encouraged the two journalists to write the book, but to write it in an easily scriptable format that focused on personal drama rather than historical documentation. Redford then naturally purchased the movie rights, and the 1976 blockbuster film starring him and Dustin Hoffman was the result.
In hindsight, the transparently self-serving mythmaking behind the book’s production obscures Woodward and Bernstein’s fine journalism. As the excellent recent biography, Richard Nixon: The Life, by John A. Farrell shows, Nixon concluded—rightly—early in his career that most journalists were his enemies. This elicited a deep cynicism that led the president again and again to play with fire; practically daring the media to expose him. And expose him they did, in the months following the June 1972 burglary of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Office Building in Washington, D.C. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this event was the oafish incompetence of the men who committed the crime, and the absurdity of the attempts to cover it up. All the President’s Men imparts more central roles to Woodward and Bernstein than they probably deserved. Indeed, the gasping astonishment with which Nixon’s guilt is uncovered at the end of an investigative process worthy of a 1970s airport thriller, belies the fact that the trail led clearly to the White House almost from the beginning, and that many people, particularly within the different branches of the U.S. government, untangled the scandal. That being said, Woodward and Bernstein undoubtedly showed indefatigable dedication—motivated, in part, by their disdain for the president—in putting the pieces together.
Since Nixon resigned in 1974, a lot of attention has been devoted to his tortured psychology and the role that played in Watergate. Oddly, a consensus has been growing among far-right conspiracy theorists that Nixon was framed by a left-wing media conspiracy. It’s odd because Nixon—in domestic policy at least—was a quintessential liberal Republican whose ideological heirs, including President Gerald Ford, would fall to Ronald Reagan’s conservative movement in 1980. And there’s such an abundance of incriminating evidence as to put Nixon’s guilt beyond question—so much so that it seems the president almost wanted to be caught. The “Nixon was framed” idea probably says more about the extent to which respect for the media in general—and journalists in particular—has fallen in the half-century since Nixon’s reelection in 1972.
Indeed, the most interesting context to All the President’s Men is the extent to which it served not just to destroy a longstanding target of the mainstream media (for the degree to which journalists loathed Nixon is no more in doubt than is the president’s complicity in Watergate), but to burnish journalism’s reputation with the American public. It’s generally forgotten today, but from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, news media was widely distrusted. The reason, of course, was Vietnam. For most of Lyndon Johnson’s time as president, from 1963 until the beginning of 1968, journalists had parroted the Democratic administration’s line in supporting the war in Vietnam. The mainstream media’s sudden U-turn after the Tet Offensive in January 1968, and its’ vociferously anti-war stance after Nixon’s election later that year, did little to restore public confidence in newspapers and television. In fact, it’s arguable that the weakening of public trust for the media helped to get Nixon elected twice despite almost united opposition to him by the press.
All the Presidents’ Men—both book and movie—by attributing Watergate’s exposure to journalists rather than to the American constitutional process (where the credit rightly belonged), played a critical role in restoring public trust in the media. In 1967, the stereotypical television journalist was a suited square echoing government statistics on the numbers of enemy soldiers killed that week in Vietnam; ten years later, after Watergate, Walter Cronkite—“the most trusted man in America”—became the symbol of all that was good about the news media. How far we have fallen.
Ed Lengel is an author, a speaker, and a storyteller.