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.
The latest in this sequence, and in some respects the most damning of all, because it is outside Woodward’s normal beat of Washington politics, is a recent critique of Woodward’s biography of Saturday Night Live and Animal House comedian John Belushi, published in 1984, two years after Belushi died of a drug overdose. Belushi’s widow asked Woodward to write her husband’s biography, because Belushi had been a Woodward fan, who disliked Nixon, and Mrs. Belushi believed that Woodward would be the perfect writer to expose what she believed to have been negligence in the investigation and reporting of her husband’s death by the Los Angeles Police Department.
As Tanner Colby, a subsequent Belushi biographer, wrote recently in Slate (and the fact that this comment appeared there is a dangerous omen, as the Woodward defensive perimeter is now finally thrust back into traditional liberal thickets of locked-arm solidarity), Woodward’s life of Belushi was an appalling travesty. Colby wrote that Woodward smeared his subject as almost exclusively a drug abuser, and scarcely mentioned his talents and personal conviviality. Approximately 75 percent of the pages of Woodward’s book focus on Belushi’s drug use, and almost no use is made of the rich harvest of appreciative recollections of the late comedian’s friends, including current senator Al Franken.
Like the recitation of Deep Throat’s ulcerous sour grapes, it is a mere chronicle. There is no editing, no overview, no subtlety, no analysis, just a fictional morality play, by a slanted, strident scold. Dan Aykroyd called it “exploitative, pulp trash.” At one point, Belushi’s manager said, apparently jokingly, “It made you think Nixon might be innocent.” Bingo. Let us alight on that forbidden planet.
Article I of the impeachment of Richard Nixon by the House Judiciary Committee in 1974 held that Nixon “had made it his policy” and acted “directly and personally through his close subordinates and agents, to delay, impede, and obstruct the investigation of the [Watergate break-in], to cover up, to protect, and to conceal the existence and scope of other unlawful covert activities.” In fact, he had authorized staff to suggest to the director and deputy director of the CIA (Richard Helms and Vernon Walters) an intervention by the CIA with the FBI, and had declined to pursue the matter when the CIA officials said they would do so only if given a presidential order. He also authorized payment of the Watergate defendants’ legal and personal expenses by his reelection committee, but there was only the flimsiest evidence that this was in exchange for altered testimony.
Article II of impeachment claimed Nixon had “endeavored” to misuse the IRS (not that he had actually done so, as some of his predecessors had), had not fulfilled his oath to uphold the Constitution, and had violated the constitutional rights of citizens. Article III of impeachment charged Nixon with impeding impeachment proceedings by non-compliance with eight Judiciary Committee subpoenas for 147 tapes of White House conversations. All the Democrats voted for these three articles and half the Republicans for the first two. Nixon’s handling of Watergate was sleazy and uncharacteristically inept, but the first article was a stretch, and the second and third were an outrage. But such was the sense of presidenticidal righteousness confected by the Woodward-Bernstein revelations and their media echo chamber that Richard Nixon resigned. Thus ended an administration that must be ranked — with Lincoln’s time in office, Washington’s first term, and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first and third terms — as one of the most successful presidencies in American history. Woodward, Bernstein, Bradlee, and others have jubilated about it ever since.
Now, it is all unraveling. There were not grounds to remove Nixon from office, shabby and neurotic though the tone of the administration’s response to its enemies often was. What occurred was a tragedy that wounded the country and the presidency and facilitated the Democratic desertion of the anti-Communists of Indochina — which led to the massacres of the South Vietnamese resisters, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, and the Boat People. Woodward and Bernstein are conducting an inelegant and unpersuasive rearguard action, with an implausible claim that Nixon was guilty of “wars on the anti-war movement, the Democrats, the media, justice, and history,” and was more odious even than they had suspected 40 years ago. In fact, finally, without the veneer of sanctity in which almost two generations of aspirant investigative journalists cloaked them, Woodward and Bernstein are naked to posterity, Woodward a mendacious, journalistically incontinent hack, Bernstein a burned-out tabloid journeyman, and both silent partners even in an antique book business of questionable ethics (Glenn Horovitz Books, which gives new warmth and depth to the old warning “caveat emptor”). Tanner Colby mentioned in Slate that, earlier this month, Woodward had claimed to have been “threatened by a senior White House official” for revealing details about budget sequester negotiations. The White House released the e-mail correspondence in question, which only cautioned Woodward against needless embarrassment if he published an erroneous report.
It is too late to redress the unjust fates of those who gained and those who lost, including among the disserved the whole nation, in the Watergate debacle and its sequels, but not too late to welcome the miraculous emergence of a balanced treatment of a cautionary and tragic episode, and to reassess blame and credit accordingly. Richard Nixon did not live to see his comeback, but it is no less real and just and astonishing for that, and he was confident it would come. And Woodward and Bernstein will, with the luck of a few more years, see themselves, figuratively, shorn like harlots in olden time. The political system and the media failed, with unseemly self-celebration, but history will not.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and the recently published A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at [email protected].