Politics & Policy

Bob Woodward and the Watergate Myth

Bob Woodward in 2012 (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty)
Needed: a serious historical evaluation of the Watergate affair.

The latest round in Bob Woodward’s campaign for permanent high consciousness of the Watergate Myth is a superfluous little volume just published about Alexander Butterfield, who revealed, under questioning by the Senate Watergate Committee, the existence of the Nixon White House taping system. The book tells us nothing new, but it continues the faint pulse of the comatose fraud of Watergate as national moral catharsis. True to the entrenched media tradition of closing ranks behind the supposed authenticity of the Watergate Myth, no one asked Woodward how much the Washington Post paid the 89-year-old Butterfield for the files he had improperly removed from the White House, which provide the excuse for this latest revisitation of this hackneyed subject. While there is nothing newsworthy in this latest driblet added to the mountain of pious claptrap published about Watergate, it does enable Woodward, one more time, to wag his head contumeliously at the camera and respond to fawning questions with unctuous lamentations over the ethical frailties of the Nixon White House long ago.

I am among what must by now have become a numerous company seeking a serious historic evaluation of the Watergate affair, and not just the continuous robotic recitation of Woodward’s version of (in a phrase of Napoleon’s) “lies agreed upon.” The only evidence there has ever been that Nixon himself had anything to do with illegalities consists of the unproved inference that he authorized payments to the Watergate defendants (those who had actually wrongfully entered the Democratic National Committee office in the Watergate building), in exchange for altered sworn testimony. Nixon always claimed that he authorized payments exclusively in order to help the defendants pay their legal bills and feed their families. This issue arose particularly in reference to Howard Hunt, whose wife died in a plane crash in December 1972, six months after the Watergate break-in, and who was allegedly threatening to reveal further skulduggery by the Committee to Reelect the President, if he was not given a million dollars at once.

All this has been a matter of public knowledge and debate for over 40 years. Hunt was an old friend of the founder of National Review, William F. Buckley Jr., who never forgave Nixon for what he imagined was Nixon’s Watergate role, though he acknowledged in conversation with me that he had not known anything about the incident until after it occurred. He cheerfully volunteered that his real grievance was that Nixon was “too neurotic to be president,” but he admitted that it was hard to make the case that he should be removed for that reason from the office to which the voters had twice elevated him. (Bill also acknowledged that the Kennedys probably stole the 1960 election from Nixon.) Bill even begrudged Nixon’s visiting China in 1976 at the invitation of Mao Tse-tung, who sent an airliner to collect him, while Hunt “rotted in jail.”

There undoubtedly was a criminal conspiracy to subvert justice and disturb the pursuit of violators of various statutes involved in the reelection effort, but no conclusive evidence has ever been adduced that Nixon participated in it. The so-called “smoking gun,” which, when revealed, was so tumultuously emphasized by the media that it led directly to Nixon’s voluntary resignation, consisted of Nixon’s authorizing aides to ask the director and deputy director of the CIA, Richard Helms and General Vernon Walters, to ask the FBI not to pursue the Watergate investigation, as it could back into CIA activities against Cuba. Helms and Walters said they would do so only on a direct order from the president, who declined to take it further. It was a tawdry and hare-brained idea, but as it wasn’t pursued, it was hardly a resigning offense.

Woodward and the other propagators of the Watergate self-righteousness industry have spent the last 40 years laboring Nixon with opprobrium for having created and retained a White House ambiance of ethical laxity. There is some truth to this, and some excerpts from the voluminous tapes are certainly unedifying, but that is not unique to Nixon among presidents and is not a “high crime or misdemeanor,” in the constitutional parlance that describes what is necessary to justify the removal of a federal official from his position. No knowledgeable person today would claim that Nixon was an unprecedentedly morally unfit occupant of the great office to which he was, five months after the Watergate break-in, reelected by what remains the greatest plurality in the history of American elections (over 18 million votes). His first term had been the most successful single presidential term since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s third term, which brought the country from “the Great Arsenal of Democracy” and Lend-Lease to the brink of complete victory in World War II.

#share#Richard Nixon came into office in 1969 with 550,000 conscripts in Vietnam, 200 to 400 coming home dead every week, no exit strategy, and anti-war and race riots constantly erupting all over the country. There were no relations with China and no substantive discussions in progress with the Soviet Union or the principal Arab states. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated in 1968, and the routine skyjacking of civil airliners had begun. By 1972, Nixon had withdrawn from Vietnam with a non-Communist government still in place in Saigon, had opened relations with China, signed the greatest arms-control agreement in history with the USSR, ended school segregation while avoiding the lunacy of court-ordered busing of millions of schoolchildren around the metropolitan areas of the country for “racial balance” (i.e., chaos), started a peace process in the Middle East, founded the Environmental Protection Agency, and abolished the draft. There were no more riots, skyjackings, or high-level assassinations.

Nixon so mismanaged the Watergate aftermath that his executive authority evaporated.

Inexplicably for such a durable political survivor, Nixon so mismanaged the Watergate aftermath that his executive authority evaporated and he was bloodlessly assassinated by the Democrats and the liberal national media. The presidency was severely demystified, and almost the entire media was transmogrified into a witch-hunting operation in the instantly holy name of investigative journalism. The Washington press corps self-administered a prolonged total immersion in congratulatory awards and commendations for tearing down Nixon and, for good measure, delivering all Indochina to the genocidal attentions of the North Vietnamese Communists and the Khmer Rouge.

Bob Woodward and his sidekick, Carl Bernstein, have written steadily more inane books ever since those days, including Woodward’s account of the Iran–Contra affair in the Reagan administration. This book, Veil, went the Watergate Myth one better by concluding with a wholly fabricated confession of wrongdoing from former CIA director William Casey, who was in fact in a coma and under heavy guard in a hospital room at the time that Woodward claimed to have gained access to him while disguised as an orderly, and to have conducted this fictitious interview. Any conservative author who spewed out such wholesale untruths would be unable to find a reputable publisher. Woodward’s biography of comedian and actor John Belushi has been denounced by the subject’s widow and by an authoritative subsequent biographer as largely false, and Woodward and Bernstein have long been silent partners in the ethically checkered Horowitz rare-book store in midtown Manhattan.

RELATED: National Review, April 12, 1974: Why Richard Nixon Should Resign the Presidency

It is impossible to be precise about this, but the performance of the national media over Watergate and Vietnam must have contributed to its fragmentation and to the rise of alternative media, including some of the leading phone-in radio talk shows. And Watergate almost certainly contributed to the deterioration in quality of candidates for national office. In the terrible year of 1968, at one time or another, Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, Nelson Rockefeller, and Ronald Reagan, as well as Richard Nixon, all ran for president. This is a stark contrast with the absence of any plausible rivals to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination this year, and with the procession of absurdly improbable challengers to Mitt Romney for the Republican nomination four years ago.

No one would wish to impale Bob Woodward with a silver stake, but I am beginning to wonder if anything less drastic will deliver posterity from the consequences of the falsely righteous pestilence of the Watergate fable.

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full. He can be reached at cbletters@gmail.com


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