W. Joseph Campbell

Something exaggerated in hero-worship of Woodward

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 21, 2011 at 9:55 am

There’s something exaggerated, and a bit cloying, about the recent spasm of adulation of Bob Woodward, he of the Washington Post and Watergate fame.

Movie that solidified the myth

Early this week, Woodward and former Post executive editor Ben Bradlee received a standing ovation from the nearly 1,000 people at a program at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in California.

The library recently opened a gallery about the Watergate, the  scandal that cost Nixon the presidency in 1974.

The new exhibit replaced a display that offered a dubious and seriously distorted interpretation of Watergate, which declared among other things that Woodward and his reporting colleague, Carl Bernstein, “used anonymous sources exclusively to try and convict the President in the pages of the Post….” Nixon wasn’t a specific target of their award-winning Watergate reporting.

The replacement exhibit was undertaken after the National Archives took over the library from a private foundation. Woodward and Bradlee went to the library for what was billed as a conversation about Watergate.

Politico reported that Woodward and Bradlee attracted an audience that “listened with rapt attention and regular laughter as the two men traded wisecracks and reminisced about their roles in bringing down the 37thpresident.”

Left unaddressed by Politico was just what were those “roles in bringing down” Nixon. The implication was that their work for the Post was central in forcing the resignation of a corrupt president.

But not even Woodward and Bradlee go so far as to embrace that misleading interpretation of Watergate.

Bradlee asserted in 1997, at the 25th anniversary of Watergate’s signal crime, the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic national committee:

“[I]t must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”

And in 2004, Woodward told American Journalism Review:

To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.”

The Politico piece noted that Bradlee “marveled at how many people still care about a decades-old conflict — one that turned Woodward, his reporting partner Carl Bernstein and Bradlee into the most famous journalists of their era.”

Why people still care is not especially difficult to fathom. It’s largely because Woodward, Bernstein, and to a lesser extent, Bradlee, are living reminders of the unmasking of America’s greatest political scandal — one that sent to jail nearly 20 men associated with Nixon’s presidency or his 1972 reelection campaign.

As I point out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong:

“The complexity of the Watergate scandal— the lies, deceit, and criminality that characterized the Nixon White House; the multiple lines of investigation that slowly unwound the scandal, and the drama of what was an exceptional constitutional crisis — are not routinely recalled these days.

“The epic scandal [of 1972-74] has grown so distant that few Americans can accurately describe what took place.”

I further write in Getting It Wrong:

“What does stand out amid the scandal’s many tangles is the heroic-journalist version of Watergate — the endlessly appealing notion that the dogged reporting of two young, hungry, and tireless Washington Post journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, brought down Nixon and his corrupt presidency.

“The heroic-journalist has become the most familiar storyline of Watergate: ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.”

The heroic-journalist myth — and the celebrity cult of Watergate — were solidified by the cinematic version of All the President‘s Men, Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting.

The movie came out 35 years ago this month — and is to be a topic of discussion tonight when  Woodward, Bernstein, and movie star Robert Redford gather at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library & Museum in Austin, Texas.

Redford played the Woodward character in All the President’s Men.

The event no doubt will be the occasion for more standing ovations, more cloying hero-worship.


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