W. Joseph Campbell

Woodward, Bernstein toppled Nixon? Think again

In Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on August 27, 2011 at 9:58 am

'Nixon got Nixon'

The passing of time is making the heroic-journalist narrative of Watergate even more heroic.

A commentary yesterday at Huffington Post suggests as much, in extolling — and overstating — the accomplishments of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters who covered the scandal.

The commentary, which considers the state of investigative reporting, says Woodward and Bernstein “plugged away for two years at the Watergate story through thick and thin and false leads. They were determined to nail then President Richard Nixon for authori[z]ing a break in at the Democratic Party HQ during his re-election campaign and then organi[z]ing a cover up. They did, with his resignation in August 1974.”

Woah. A lot of overstatement there.

First, there’s no evidence that Nixon authorized or even knew in advance about the burglary in June 1972 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, the signal crime of Watergate.

Nixon, however, certainly did seek to block the FBI’s investigation of the breakin — and for that obstruction of justice, he was compelled to resign the presidency in disgrace.

But more important is that Woodward and Bernstein didn’t “nail” Nixon on Watergate. As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, their investigative reporting for the Post certainly didn’t bring down Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

The heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate, I write in Getting It Wrong, is to “misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth.

“The heroic-journalist interpretation,” I add, “minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.” Those forces included bipartisan panels of both houses of Congress, special federal Watergate prosecutors, federal judges, the Justice Department, the FBI, and the U.S. Supreme Court.

If inelegantly, even Woodward has concurred, declaring in an interview in 2004:

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

What toppled Nixon, what brought down his presidency, was clear evidence of his culpability in the crimes of Watergate — evidence captured on audiotapes that he secretly made of his conversations at the White House.

The decisive evidence — known as the “Smoking Gun” tape — revealed that Nixon at a meeting with his top aide, H.R. Haldemann, on June 23, 1972, sought to deflect or derail the FBI investigation into the Watergate burglary.

Woodward and Bernstein didn’t reveal the contents of that tape, which Watergate prosecutors had subpoenaed and which Nixon had refused to surrender until ordered to do so by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Nor did Woodward and Bernstein disclose the existence of Nixon’s secret taping system. That was revealed in July 1973, during hearings of the Senate Select Committee on Watergate.

In All the President’s Men, their book about their reporting, Woodward and Bernstein said they had received a tip about the taping system a few days before its existence was made public.

According to All the President’s Men, Ben Bradlee, then the Post‘s executive editor, suggested not expending much energy pursuing the tip. And they didn’t.

Interestingly, Bradlee also insisted the Post did not nail Nixon.

Speaking on a Meet the Press interview program at the 25th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, Bradlee declared:

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


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