Gradually, inexorably, the great Watergate fraud is unraveling. The Knights of Revelation, 40 years onward, are being exposed, in the light of analysis unclouded by cant and emotionalism, as the myth-makers they always were. Bob Woodward, unable to resist the temptation to try again and again to be at the forefront of investigative journalism, is being steadily exposed as a chronically dishonest myth-maker. Carl Bernstein, his Watergate partner, is at least cautious enough not to tempt the fates with a regime of endless returns to the well of public gratitude for spurious and destructive exposés. Though there is no sign that he is conscious of the proportions of their original Mt. Rushmore–sized canard, he has been relatively uncontroversial these intervening decades, sheltering in the greasy slick Vanity Fair.
Woodward, because he compulsively seeks to be always in the vanguard of the exposeurs, is a Ralph Nader figure, a runner whom renown outran: the Harold Stassen running every election for a handful of votes, the punch-drunk retired prizefighter who jumps up and starts punching the air when he hears the bells of the streetcar. The most prominent early episode in this disintegration of a gigantic, methane-filled balloon of a reputation was Veil, the quickie, me-too scramble of the siren-chaser over the Iran-Contra affair. Woodward claimed to have dressed up as an orderly, penetrated massive security, and entered the hospital room of dying former CIA director William Casey, and although all records show that there were nurses in his room as well as a leak-proof security perimeter, and that Casey was comatose, Woodward claimed to have extracted from him a deathbed confession of wrongdoing.
This was a fabrication. It was impossible and everyone knew it was impossible, but the psycho-investment of the liberal media and political establishment in Woodward’s credibility prevented the mainstream media and the bipartisan post-Watergate political consensus from acknowledging this egregious grotesquerie that, if perpetrated by a conservative writer, would have caused him to be barred from serious publication in the United States again. Then came the authorized biography of long-serving Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee, by Jeff Himmelman), in which Bradlee allowed his biographer to see all his notes of the Watergate era. In these, Bradlee shrewdly covered both sides of the street by repeatedly expressing doubt about the truthfulness of the Woodward-Bernstein account of Watergate. It also clearly detailed that Woodward and Bernstein did little actual investigating; they just made themselves the spokesman for Deep Throat, Mark Felt, who had been passed over by President Nixon as successor to J. Edgar Hoover as director of the FBI and, in his rage, showered the administration with accusations of lack of probity, some true and some not.
It was because of the great Watergate myth that Nixon’s subsequent kindnesses to Felt — including forcing his way into Felt’s subsequent trial for criminal violations of the privacy of urban guerrillas and testifying for him (although Nixon suspected he was Deep Throat) and successfully asking President Reagan to pardon him and his co-accused after their conviction — had to be overlooked. And while Bradlee facilitated the publication of the debunking of both the honesty and the enterprise of Woodward and Bernstein, he did not unsay any of his decades of jubilation about both the fun and the virtue of destroying the Nixon administration. The unmasking of Woodward and Bernstein sheds no credit on Bradlee, nor on his employer, my late friend, and a very gracious and generally admirable woman, Kay Graham. They went to extraordinary lengths to destroy a distinguished administration, although they knew that the basis on which the destruction was happening, while it inflated their prestige and profits, was of questionable accuracy and fairness.