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All The President’s Men–The Scandal that Ended a Presidency

All The President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
350 pages, 1974, Non-Fiction

On June 17, 1972, five men were arrested breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee located in the Watergate complex. Over the next couple of years, tireless investigative journalism by the media and, later on, committee investigations, linked the Watergate break-in with the Committee for the Re-Election of the President and the White House under President Richard Nixon. Revelations of unethical and illegal political espionage and wiretapping of political opponents directed by the President’s men spread shockwaves throughout the country, resulting in the resignation of Nixon’s trusted aides and, finally, Nixon himself.

In All The President’s Men, reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, who led the uncovering of the conspiracy, put forward a detailed account of their investigations. Going against the might of the White House, Bernstein and Woodward make use of sources from within the Committee for the Re-Election of the President, the White House, the FBI, and the Justice Department to piece together the pieces of the puzzle. The story gradually begins to look bigger and bigger, encompassing a wider campaign of espionage and involving men placed higher up than anyone could have imagined.

Deep Throat nodded confirmation as Woodward ran down items on a list of tactics that he and Bernstein had heard were used against the political opposition: bugging, following people, false press leaks, fake letters, canceling campaign rallies, investigating campaign workers’ private lives, planting spies, stealing documents, planting provocateurs in political demonstrations.

“It’s all in the files,” Deep Throat said. “Justice and the Bureau know about it, even though it wasn’t followed up.”

Woodward was stunned. Fifty people directed by the White House and CRP to destroy the opposition, no holds barred?

Deep Throat nodded.

The White House had been willing to subvert—was that the right word’?—the whole electoral process? Had actually gone ahead and tried to do it?

Another nod. Deep Throat looked queasy.

And hired fifty agents to do it?

“You can safely say more than fifty,” Deep Throat said. Then he turned, walked up the ramp and out. It was nearly 6:00 A.M.

While The Washington Post eventually ended up winning the Pulitzer for their Watergate coverage, there were times that things looked much bleaker.  In the aftermath of their stories about Nixon’s aides being involved in the espionage activities, the White House went on the offensive with a tirade of accusations and attacks against the Post and its editors. There were claims of the newspaper being a tool for Democratic opponent McGovern and the entire coverage being just a witch-hunt by the anti-Nixon liberal media. Like it is today, dismissing the media as biased, owned by the opponent, and inherently dishonest was an easy way for those in power to avoid giving real answers although, admittedly, the media today certainly gives more reason to do so. A few rare errors on the reporters’ part also threatened to derail the entire story, even as far-reaching coverups and carefully designed isolation of the real perpetrators made it seem unlikely that the complete picture could ever be made public.

Nixon’s dismissal of the Watergate story

All the President’s Men is not a literary masterpiece. The language is straightforward and without any frills, as best suits the genre. A critical eye might be able to spot sentences that could be written better. However, the book is not read with the expectation of brilliant writing, although the crisp and lucid passages do make for an enjoyable experience. The major selling point is the thrilling peek into the world of journalism and the behind-the-scenes of the newspapers we read, especially in the context of America’s biggest political story and one of the best journalistic efforts of all time. However, a reader picking up the book for the complete story might end up disappointed on reaching the last page. The book stops with the initiation of the investigation against the president, with the actual conclusion of the saga coming in the follow-up book, The Final Days.

Publisher Katharine Graham and editor Ben Bradlee played crucial roles, placing faith in their reports even in the face of personal attacks, and the danger to the newspaper in the case of any mistakes. Image: The Economic Times 

The book goes beyond just the reporting efforts, offering insights into the working of the mechanisms of the government. With a story like this, a multitude of names and titles is unavoidable. Remembering and keeping track of all of these can prove a difficult task, requiring quite a bit of effort and concentration. A reader unfamiliar with American institutes could also find themselves a little out of their depth.

The story is a powerful reminder of the importance of an efficient and responsible free media in keeping a check on those in power. The abuse of power and flouting of ethics and laws by the President’s men would have continued unabated were it not for the perseverance of the reporters.

Yet, Woodward and Bernstein have not won the war for the world. There are almost certainly several more such cases that haven’t been brought to light and there will almost certainly be more such cases. The story of Watergate must therefore simply be looked to as inspiration to carry on the fight; inspiration that is much needed in the present-day context of falling media standards and increasing government surveillance. Today, when it is most needed, the media must not fail.