By Max Holland
The scandal known as Watergate has proven unusually resistant to historical reinterpretation. Revisionist narratives of the Vietnam War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the entire Eisenhower presidency for that matter have appeared, leaving us with clashing accounts or sometimes a new synthesis. In contrast, a simplistic narrative of what was in fact a very complex scandal remains remarkably intact in the public mind. The critic Wilfrid Sheed noted this as early as the late 1970s, when he observed, tongue in cheek, that “Folks may be getting fuzzy about the Watergate details, but at least they remember the movie: a couple of nosy journalists and an informer, wasn’t it?”
Some of the reasons for this seem obvious. For 18 months, the scandal dominated the news cycle as few stories ever have, at a time (1973-1974) when news was the preserve of a few “powers that be,” to borrow David Halberstam’s phrase. These communications empires (corporate but often still family-run) dominated the media landscape and set the agenda. If blanket news coverage were not enough, the scandal also played itself out in two rounds of live televised hearings—first the Senate Watergate committee’s investigation, followed by the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment hearings—that were more entertaining and often more dramatic than the daytime soap operas they competed with. Having lived through a story that inched forward drip-by-drip, like Chinese water torture, Americans perhaps understandably developed a fixed idea of what happened.
But surely the overarching reason for the frozen narrative is the bestselling book All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, and the eponymous movie starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as the intrepid Washington Post reporters. The book, which appeared in mid-1974, months before President Nixon’s forced resignation from office, nominated several heroes—mostly from the Post newsroom—to offset what was a sordid and protracted saga of cover-ups, hush money, and break-ins in the wee hours of the night. The taut movie version, released two years later, applied the fixative. In a recent poll undertaken by Washingtonian magazine, All the President’s Men was named the best-ever film about Washington. That may or may not be true, but undoubtedly it has been one of the most influential.
Much less understood is that neither Bernstein, Woodward, nor Redford, one of Hollywood’s heavyweights, has been content to rest on their plaudits. Former Post publisher Donald Graham famously called journalism “the first draft of history,” but “Woodstein,” aided and abetted by Redford, have long been bent on seeing that their account is also the second, third, and fourth draft. Yale historian Beverly Gage noted as much in her 2013 review of a Redford-produced documentary timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in. All the President’s Men Revisited “seems more like All the President’s Men Repeated,” observed Gage in Slate. She continued:
Redford sticks to the script first introduced . . . in 1974 . . . laying out how the ‘good guys’ in the media got the bad guy in the White House. We now know, however, that Watergate was more complicated than that.