Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (Woodstein for our purposes) now claim, in a Washington Post piece, that Nixon was “far worse than we thought,” and accuse him of conducting five “wars”: against the anti-war movement, on the media, against the Democrats, on justice, and on history. In evaluating such a volcanic farrago of pent-up charges, the facts must be arrayed in three tiers: the facts of Woodstein’s activities and revelations; the facts of the Watergate case and related controversies; and the importance of Watergate in an appreciation of the Nixon record.
Woodstein were showered with the prizes and awards the media narcissistically pour on one another to deafening collective self-laudations, and became the pin-up idols of two whole generations of aggressively investigative journalists. Other media outlets were hotly pursuing and uncovering disturbing stories of campaign skulduggery, but the Washington Post, led by Woodstein, under the inspiration of editor Ben Bradlee, confected the Brobdingnagian fraud that Nixon was trying to perpetrate a virtual coup d’état by imposing an “imperial presidency” on the prostrate democracy of America.
Woodstein showed no great enterprise; they stumbled upon a senior official of the FBI angry that he had been passed over as successor to the deceased J. Edgar Hoover. Mark Felt — Deep Throat, as he became known to history — provided almost all of the Post’s investigative initiative in a squalid and envious attack on the nominated heir to Hoover, L. Patrick Gray. The reporters, who were effectively note-takers, and their editor parlayed it into an impeachment controversy, assisted by the uncharacteristic ineptitude of Nixon in dealing with what he would normally have recognized as a potentially serious problem. (Here’s an indication of the bigotry of the Woodstein school: When Felt was charged by the Carter administration with criminal violation of the privacy of the Weather Underground, Nixon insisted on speaking in his defense at the trial even though he suspected Felt was Deep Throat, and persuaded incoming President Reagan to pardon Felt after he had been convicted — and yet neither Felt in his memoirs, nor Woodstein ever, nor the Left generally, even recognized Nixon’s generous actions. That would have been inconvenient to the demonizing narrative.)
The facts of Watergate have been wildly exaggerated. Neither in financing techniques nor in the gamesmanship with the other side was the Republican campaign of 1972 particularly unusual. And it was puritanical compared with what appears to have been the outright theft of the 1960 election for Kennedy over Nixon by Chicago’s Mayor Daley and Lyndon Johnson. And perhaps the all-time nadir in American presidential-election ethics was achieved in 1968, when Lyndon Johnson tried to salvage the election for his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, with a completely imaginary claim of a peace breakthrough in the Vietnam talks a few days before the election. LBJ announced an enhanced bombing halt and more intensive talks in which the Viet Cong and the Saigon government would be “free to participate” (i.e., Saigon declined to attend since there had been no breakthrough).
In Watergate, Nixon knew nothing of the break-in, nor had he known anything of the earlier break-in at the office of Dr. Fielding, the psychotherapist of the thief and publisher of the Pentagon papers, Daniel Ellsberg. These papers reflected badly on Kennedy and Johnson, but had nothing to do with Nixon, and his opposition to their publication was based on the notion that secret government documents should not be stolen and published when national security is involved.
The congressional treatment of Nixon was an unmitigated outrage. The president’s counsel, John Dean, a slippery weasel who was up to his eyebrows in unauthorized illegal practices, made a plea-bargain deal and then gave perjured evidence against his own client, which would have been completely inadmissible in a law court. The House Judiciary Committee was a mockery. Its counsel, John Doar, a foaming-at-the-mouth partisan on all fours with Bradlee-Woodstein, produced five counts of impeachment, of which four were farcical on a Kafkaesque scale: Articles 2 to 5 of the impeachment alleged that Nixon “endeavored” to misuse the IRS (not that he had actually done so) and had violated his oath of office and the rights of other citizens. (By this last criterion, historically guilty parties would have been numerous and distinguished, including FDR, the Kennedys, and LBJ.) Article 3 impeached him for resisting Congress’s right to 147 tapes; presto, Nixon had no right to try in court to retain tapes of private conversations.