Life in the Shadow of Watergate
Alicia C. Shepard
(Wiley)Well, it sure took long enough: from 17 June 1972 until 9 August 1974: more than two years. That is how long American democracy needed to purge itself of an elected official who committed the worst crime of them all. That is, he recorded everything that went on in his office ... and got caught.
In those countries that are true democracies, the government would have fallen quickly enough, he would have been out of the way in a matter of months, they could have gotten on with the business of the governing. Not this one.
Ms. Shephard seems to think that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were astonishing, against-all-odds, out-of-the-blue heroes. They fought the presidential machine, fought other news media, fought their own bosses, at times fought themselves in order to, in a Shakespearan way, bring all to rights again. "The greatest political story of the 20th Century," she writes, implying that one stupid act of a sitting president masterminding a political imbecility was worth all the newsprint and television time given to it. And the correlation: that the two journalists made Nixon pay, as he should have, for his involvement in a "third-rate burglary." Woodward and Bernstein "shaped the next thirty years of journalism," she says.
Maybe so, maybe not. What they call the "Watergate" was a delightful dramatic performance --- a compelling political soap opera --- stretched out over twenty-six months. Those of us who consider ourselves ur-Menckenesque journalists doted on the whole of it, couldn't get enough of it. We knew, early on, something was fishy (John Mitchell's resignation was just too strange; those telephone calls from his wife were even stranger.) And after Judge Sirica did the ritual foot-burning in January, 1973, we knew we had a real telenovela. And when Alex Butterfield, one of the few honorable heroes of the entire melodrama spilled the beans about the recording system, (he almost didn't) we knew that the President's time was nigh. The only question was when would he himself (no idiot) finally figure out that his goose was cooked?
§ § §
Ms. Shepard's Woodward and Bernstein managed to hold this reader's interest until Nixon gave up the ghost. After that, we have lost our Iago, everything trails off. Woodward is a hard-nose, Bernstein smokes too much, borrows from everyone, and marries Nora Ephron. Apart from losing each other, we lose the tension of what they accomplished. The gossip of their lives provided here (that Woodward's first wife doesn't want to talk about him, that the divorce between Ephron and Bernstein was a stinker) only means that Shepard did her humdrum homework, looked up all the court records, recorded their secrets, The Secret Lives of the Stars (that she so pretends to dislike).
Woodward didn't get the house in Georgetown; Ephron "was shocked by my husband's claim that he was in love with this other woman" --- this other woman. Stuff like this may mean something, but I am not so sure it is earthshaking. Many --- probably most --- were little affected by Watergate. The bodies were all alive, in the closet, so to speak. And we are not so sure about the Big Changes in American Political Life. "The greatest political story of the 20th Century?" All "political stories" are stories of power, used and misused. And there are so many out of the tortured 20th century. A Mitchell Palmer and the "red scare" of 1920; the consequent deportation of innocents; the destruction of viable democracies in the Dominican Republic fifty years ago ... in Chile thirty years ago ... in Nicaragua fifteen years ago ... and the consequent murder of even more innocents.
The combined evils of J. Edgar Hoover, Francis Walter and Pat McCarran --- now benignly forgotten --- are of far more political importance than Watergate, for, between the three of them, they managed to ruin more livelihoods, reputations, than did Haldeman and Erlichman and all their cohorts. And the ultimate evil acts of Nixon --- including 3,500 bombing sorties resulting in more than a half-a-million deaths in Cambodia --- are far more ugly than having doltish Maurice Stans hitting up corporate shills for tens of thousands of dollars (the fact revealed in the hearings that CREEP had a slush fund of "$350,000 - $700,000" makes us want to weep: So little compared to today's political/financial stings.)
At one point, preparing for the filming of the pot-boiler All the President's Men, Robert Redford comments on the fact that Woodward was "able to read a book in an hour-and-a-half." Now there is something to grab the attention, something we wish we had been able to accomplish while struggling to make it through the last of Woodward and Bernstein without dying of The Ultimate Yawns.--- Marie Fontanella