Exploding the Watergate Myth

A new book shows that Woodward and Bernstein lied. And lied. And lied.

Bruce Bawer is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

I was a child of the Watergate generation. Vacationing at a lake house the summer I was 17, I spent weeks glued to the committee hearings on TV. Back in school that fall, I wrote a paper arguing that Nixon should resist pressure to resign. Headed south the next August, I watched Nixon’s resignation speech at a motor lodge on I-95 and the next day, on the highway, listened on the car radio as Gerald R. Ford declared “our long national nightmare” over.

And then there was the book All the President’s Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the two Washington Post reporters who’d supposedly brought Nixon down. When it came out in 1974, I read it avidly. And two years later I was enthralled by the movie version, written by William Goldman and directed by Alan J. Pakula.

But there was one thing - in the book and the movie - that always puzzled me.

I’ll describe it as it’s presented in the film. Woodward (Robert Redford) meets late at night in a parking garage with his secret source, known as Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook), who drops a bombshell. The Watergate cover-up, he says, wasn’t really about the June 17, 1972, break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex. Its actual purpose was to protect a whole raft of covert operations that involved “the entire U.S. intelligence community - the FBI, CIA, Justice.”

After receiving this revelation, Woodward rushes to Bernstein’s (Dustin Hoffman) apartment, puts on some classical music at top volume (the walls, he’s been told, have ears), and types out this mind-blowing new information while a stunned Bernstein reads over his shoulder. They then hurry to the home of Post editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards), where - on his front lawn, to avoid hidden microphones - they share the news with him.

And then? Well, that scene is followed immediately by the famous (to movie buffs) deep-focus shot of the Post newsroom where our heroes type away in the far background - saving American freedom with every keystroke - while on a TV set in the foreground our villain, Nixon, takes his second-term oath of office. Then, in a tight close-up, headlines on a teletype machine finish the story: “Magruder pleads guilty,” “Segretti sentenced,” and so on, concluding with “Nixon resigns.” Run credits.

All the President’s Men was a splendid work of American cinema - and it was about what we’ve all been told ever since was the most splendid chapter in American journalistic history, a textbook case of dogged footwork and moral integrity that lifted the Post into the front rank of American newspapers, gave Woodstein (the Post’s in-house nickname for Bob and Carl) an Olympian status that they still enjoy to this day, made journalists as a class more important and influential than ever, and ushered in a new era of aggressive and ambitious - yet far more respected - investigative reporting about politicians.

But what ever happened to that earthshaking revelation about covert operations by “the entire U.S. intelligence community”? In the nearly half-century since Watergate, we’ve never heard another word about it. Not from the Post, anyway.

There was always another big question about Watergate: why would the Nixon White House have wanted to burglarize Democratic headquarters in the first place? It was already obvious that Nixon was heading for a landslide victory. He didn’t need any DNC dirt. Even in the movie, an unnamed editor at the Post, played by John McMartin, tells Bradlee: “I don’t believe the story. It doesn’t make sense.” The motive for the burglary remained murky for decades.

Then, two and a half years ago, John O’Connor - a veteran criminal prosecutor and friend of FBI number-two Mark Felt, who in 2015 admitted to being Deep Throat - published a book entitled Postgate: How the Washington Post Betrayed Deep Throat, Covered Up Watergate, and Began Today's Partisan Advocacy Journalism.

Alas, that work never made it onto my radar. But now, just in time for the fiftieth anniversary of the break-in, O’Connor has given me a second chance. In The Mysteries of Watergate: What Really Happened, which he characterizes as “a more accessible, plainspoken” version of its overly “dense” and “lawyerlike” predecessor. In it, O’Connor leads us, Virgil-like, through the whole convoluted scandal, debunking old conjectures, proffering new information, and ultimately spelling out, with prosecutorial meticulousness, the myriad ways in which the full story deviates from the Post’s accounts.

By book’s end, Woodward and Bernstein - and their editors - no longer look like heroes. Far from it. Also, the title All the President’s Men turns out to be a misnomer. Watergate wasn’t really a Nixon job. It was a CIA caper.

Where to start? Perhaps with Howard Hunt, the White House operative whose name was found in address books belonging to two of the Watergate burglars.  If you saw All the President’s Men, you may remember Woodward’s discovery that Hunt was also at the CIA and that he worked part-time at a PR firm called Mullen. Mullen never comes up again in the movie. In fact, as Woodstein soon found out, it was a CIA front.

But that little detail never made it way into any of their Post articles. Because on July 10, 1972, according to CIA records to which O’Connor gained access, Mullen’s president, Robert F. Bennett made a deal with Woodward - O’Connor calls it “a conspiracy of obstruction” - to feed him Watergate stories in exchange for a promise to omit from Post reporting any mention of Mullen’s role as a CIA front. It was a highly curious arrangement, given that, as O’Connor notes, “Bennett had no stories to feed Woodward, who, with Deep Throat’s help, hardly needed Bennett. So if Woodward kept quiet, and intentionally so, about Mullen, it was for the Post’s purposes, not the CIA’s.”

And what were the Post’s purposes? Well, it soon became clear to Woodstein that the Watergate break-in had been a CIA operation for which Hunt, because he was a White House official, had been able to claim presidential authorization. Yet the Post - which, as O’Connor notes, was founded in 1877 as “the official organ of the Democratic Party” and which in the 1970s, believe it or not, shared a general counsel (Joseph Califano) with the DNC - didn’t want to bring down the CIA. It wanted to bring down Nixon. And after learning that the CIA’s motive for the break-in had to do not with political secrets but with a prostitution referral service that was operating out of DNC headquarters, the Post wanted to protect Democrats.

Why, then, did Nixon pursue the ultimately self-destructive cover-up? Because John Dean - the White House counsel who, unbeknownst to Nixon, had had his own personal reasons for wanting the DNC’s prostitution records - urged Nixon to do so, never informing him that what he was covering up was, in fact, a CIA project. As O’Connor observes, if Nixon hadn’t pursued the cover-up, the truth about the break-in might actually have come out, and Nixon would’ve been seen not as its mastermind but as an innocent fall guy.

You may ask: if the Post hid the truth about Watergate, how did that truth stay hidden for so long? The answer requires you, if you’re old enough, to think back to the pre-Internet era. It was remarkably easy, back then, to hide facts - even facts that had gone public. As it happens, news stories containing key elements of the real Watergate story appeared at the time in various newspapers around the U.S. But they weren’t national newspapers. Their reports weren’t picked up by other media. And so they disappeared quickly down the memory hole.

Meanwhile the Post, whose reporting on the subject was considered definitive, consistently - and dishonestly - covered up the truth. And kept doing so in the years that followed.

An example. In 1980, Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy published Will, which O’Connor calls “the most honest of the Watergate memoirs.” Because its publication was a headline event, the editors of the Post felt compelled to weigh in. In an editorial, they dismissed Liddy’s claim that the burglary had (in their words) been “not an attempt to collect political intelligence on President Nixon’s enemies, but an effort master-minded by then White House counsel John Dean to steal pictures of prostitutes” - even though they knew this was true. Woodward was similarly dishonest in his Post review of the book.

Then there’s the Baker report, issued in 1974 by Tennessee Senator Howard Baker and other Republican members of the Ervin Committee. In it, they pegged Watergate as a CIA job. O’Connor calls the Baker report “a stunning revelation.” But in a Post preview of the report, Laurence Stern emphasized one of its least important details while deep-sixing its spectacular conclusions. The point, as O’Connor writes, was “to tell the public, falsely, that the report would be ho-hum.”

Yes, Woodward and Bernstein mentioned Deep Throat’s bombshell about “the entire U.S. intelligence community” in their book, and allowed it to be included in the film, because it needed that jolt of drama and danger toward the end. But neither the book nor the movie ever elaborated on the “intelligence community” angle. Nor did anything of the kind find its way into Woodstein’s articles for the Post.

Bottom line: the Post, that vaunted bulwark of American freedom, was, as O’Connor puts it, “guilty of a cover-up far more significant than Nixon’s.”

There’s another relatively new Watergate book that’s well worth reading. In The Nixon Conspiracy: Watergate and the Plot to Remove the President, Geoff Shepard, who was a young lawyer in the Nixon White House, doesn’t focus overmuch on the Post or the CIA or the reasons for the DNC break-in, but instead laments Nixon’s betrayal by appointees like John Dean and Elliott Richardson, demonstrates that Nixon was a victim of “extensive judicial and prosecutorial abuse,” and shows how, once Nixon was in their crosshairs, leading figures in the Deep State - from Bradlee to Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, both Kennedy family intimates - cynically worked together to remove from the Oval Office a man who’d just been re-elected by an overwhelming margin of 520 to 17 electoral votes, but whom they, the Beltway insiders who felt their own judgment should trump that of the American people, uniformly despised.

And they won.

So it went. As both O’Connor and Shepard illustrate, there are plenty of scoundrels in the annals of Watergate. But when it comes to long-term impact, none of them compare to Woodward and Bernstein. To revisit the movie All the President’s Men after reading these two recent books is to appreciate anew the genius of Goldman and Pakula. For all the cloak-and-dagger drama of the film, in real life the Post’s big Watergate headlines were almost entirely based on leaks from Mark Felt at the FBI, and had no influence on the proceedings that ultimately brought down the Nixon presidency.

Which is not to dismiss the massive influence of Woodward and Bernstein. Thanks to their selective, slanted reporting, Americans started revering journalists, of all people - a habit that they began to shake off only a few years ago. Consider that, if all the facts of Watergate had been properly reported, Americans’ disdain would have been aimed primarily at the intelligence community - which, in real life, it took most of us another half a century to learn to distrust.

Woodward and Bernstein didn’t just destroy Nixon. They radically altered the course of American history. By bringing down Nixon, they gave us Jimmy Carter. They revealed to their colleagues in the American news media just how much power they all had to shape public opinion - and how much wealth and prestige they could accrue by bending the facts to fit a partisan narrative. Woodstein’s example made possible the news media’s use, decades later, of endlessly repeated lies about Donald Trump to bring down yet another successful presidency.

In short, the real story of Watergate is far different from the story we’ve been told all these years. The only remaining mystery now is this: to what, if any, degree will John O’Connor, in the face of a press corps and a community of academic historians who are devoted to the Watergate myth, succeed in replacing that myth, in the public record, with the Nixon-friendly, Post-damning facts? 

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