Both the President’s Men
As the media teaches us, democracy is a delicate flower whose pale blossoms bloom only in temperate climes, and so, against the backdrop of the nakedly fraudulent elections in Pakistan and Kenya, our own democratic process shines forth like a shiny city on a shiny hill. After all, the fact that our primary candidates are basically coronated after standing in only two states is still democracy, right? And while those states are two of the whitest states in the union, well, the next major primary state is South Carolina with its substantial African-American vote, helping to complete the rainbow of diversity that is this American republic. And if you believe that the first state to join the confederacy is where you look for racial harmony, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.
Anyway, I watched All the President’s Men and read the book a month or two ago, and it’s still kicking around in my brain. I discovered a few things that surprised me. You’d think the movie would have been based on the book, and in a way you‘d be right. But it also wasn’t, exactly: Robert Redford was the driving force behind the movie, and it turns out that while Woodward and Bernstein were still just kicking around the idea of writing something together, it was Redford who phoned them up and suggested that they write a book not about Nixon and Watergate, but about their reporting. He then offered to get a film of it made.
In other words, the idea to write a drama about successful journalism (instead of about corruption and democracy gone sour), came not from the reporters themselves, but from a movie producer looking to make a film. Perhaps as a result, the book itself is a little strange–and frankly, not very good–a bit more like a lousy prose screenplay than non-fiction. It’s written in the third person (“Bernstein thought to himself…” and so forth) and big chunks of it became the basis out of which William Goldman wrote the movie, so it feels oddly familiar after having already watched the film. But Redford’s advice was clearly sage: the duo got a Pulitzer out of it, and they’ve been legends of journalism ever since.
This is revealing , I think, but first, the next thing that surprised me. Mark Felt (Deep Throat) characterized the Watergate clique as, I paraphrase, “not very bright people who are in over their head.” Yet however not-bright they were, it’s also clear that a lot of people knew how corrupt and criminal they were (and how far up the chain of command went) without ever doing anything about it. Woodward and Bernstein pieced together a lot of the earliest stories by basically just asking people to tell all the dirt on their bosses or former colleagues, and a lot of people were surprisingly willing to do just that, albeit off the record. But Watergate was the not the first time that Nixon’s people had done something illegal of the kind– they had been getting away with it for years. And nobody had caught them, despite (apparently) tons of people knowing exactly what was going on. This is what surprised me: not that the Nixon people were so corrupt, but that they were so openly corrupt and still almost didn’t get caught. Given how lucky this pair of bottom rung reporters were in the first place, “Watergate” could easily not have happened, for a lot of reasons. For example, Woodward had already known Felt socially, and although Felt had a variety of reasons for keeping the story moving, it seems unlikely that he would ever have approached a reporter he didn’t already know pretty well (or that the story would have broken without the cooperation of Felt, the deputy director of the FBI). And a part of the story I never knew before was that while Woodward is surprisingly unaccomplished, he seems to know a ton of people: the phrase “who Woodward had met socially” occurs very frequently in the book, to remind you that he wasn‘t a republican in name only. I suspect that this was a huge part of what he brought to the table, especially since it’s so frequently observed that Woodward was a pretty bad writer in those days.
So I’m surprised to find myself surprised. It turns out that Nixon wasn’t run out of town because the tireless vigilance of the free press defended our democracy; instead, a bunch of “not so bright people in over their heads” got caught because they were dumb and unlucky, and they almost got away with it anyway. Nixon didn’t resign because of the Watergate burglary alone, but because there had been a pattern of abuses of power that had gone on, unchecked, for a very long time, and a couple of ambitious careerists happened to have the connections and be in the right place to uncover it. I’m surprised to find that cynical old I had somewhere along the line been persuaded to believe that Nixon was an anomaly that got caught by the system‘s safeguards, that the US voting public had somehow been tricked into voting for a criminal but that the institutions of democracy and checks and balances had sorted things out in the knick of time. Why did I have that belief? How was I duped? Where did I get that impression?
Take a bow, Robert Redford! Spinning straw into gold, he took what should have been a story about the utter failure of democratic process (the election of a fraudulent crook) and turned it into a feel good story about American journalism. Reassuring us that all is well with the world because of journalistic heroics, well, that sells better than muckraking, doesn’t it? So the movie isn‘t about corrupt institutions but about housecleaning. As my friend Ted pointed out recently, the movie is kind of an anti-noir: whereas real noir (of which there is no such thing, but bear with me) brings a not-quite nihilist failure of idealism to center stage, the great scenes in this movie (the ones that make me nostalgic for living in DC) are the ones where the grandeur of the city takes over, from the Library of Congress to the fantastic marble buildings looming in the background. These are the very famous shots where the camera starts in tight on Woodward and Bernstein and slowly pans back to reveal the enormous built architecture around them, engulfing the tiny ant-like figures in the great labyrinthine corridors of power. For example, in one, they are leaving a federal building and as the get into their car, the camera slowly, slowly pulls back, gradually widening the frame until their car is lost in the multitude of cars and traffic. The shot keeps going back until the massiveness of the metropolis takes over, until we look down on the lights and darkness of the district itself. Somewhere, far beneath, Woodward and Bermstein are ferreting out corruption.
On the one hand, the story being told by those amazing crane shots is of gigantic and impersonal power versus the people, the extraordinary difficulty of finding a truthful needle in that corrupt haystack. Yet on the other hand, there can’t be any doubt that they will find it. The ending to that story, after all, has already been told, and for that reason Redford doesn‘t even include it in the movie, doesn‘t let all the compromises, conflicts, and hesitating half-measures that actually characterized the Watergate investigation get shown. Instead, when Nixon takes his oath of office in the last scene, promising to uphold the constitution and so forth, the TV screen in the newsroom where they’re watching him fades out of focus and the camera keys in on Woodward and Bernstein, furiously typing. They, the film implies, can and will do what the president has not, this duo of republican golden boy and bicycle riding jewish radical. America, coming together!