Tuesday, July 25, 2017

"All the President's Men" by Bob Woodward & Carl Bernstein

I was 11 years old in the summer of 1972 (45 years ago -- yikes!!), when five men wearing suits and carrying photographic and surveillance equipment were arrested after breaking into the Democratic Party National Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. Gradually, over the next two years, the name "Watergate" became a household word, as the story of the break-in, who had authorized it and why unravelled on the nightly news and in Congressional hearings.

Being just 11-13 years old, I didn't pay a lot of attention -- I was mostly annoyed by the whole thing, because the hearings invariably cancelled out my favourite daytime television shows during the summers of 1973 & 1974. (Before Watergate, it was the Apollo space missions to the moon that took over the TV screens -- ho hum. If I'd known then that the Apollo 17 mission of December 1972 was going to be the last one, I might have paid more attention.)

It all climaxed on the night of August 8, 1974, when President Richard "I am not a crook" Nixon announced his resignation, in the face of almost certain impeachment. I was 13 years old by then, and we were all at my grandmother's tiny house in northern Minnesota, gathered in the living room around the TV set (which I think was still a black & white set, and pulled in about 5 or 6 channels with the help of a rotary antenna -- NBC, ABC & PBS, sometimes CBS (depending on the weather, lol), and CBC & CTV from across the Canadian border.)(And the French-language CBC channel, which we never counted.)  I remember being glad to be rid of Nixon (and of Watergate) -- I never liked him -- but the sober faces of the adults in the room brought home the seriousness of the situation, and even then, I realized that I was witnessing history in the making. The next day, we left on a road trip to visit my uncle in Minneapolis, and everywhere we stopped along the way, the newspapers had huge headlines, the likes of which I had maybe only ever seen once before (when the astronauts landed on the moon), "President resigns."  I still have a copy, somewhere in the depths of my parents' basement.

Despite all the media coverage, I didn't really know or understand much about the details of Watergate or how it had led to the president's resignation until a few years later, the spring/summer of 1976. I was now 15, my sister & I went to see a new movie, "All the President's Men," starring Dustin Hoffman & our favourite movie idol of the day, Robert Redford, as Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the two Washington Post reporters whose stories helped crack the case and won a Pulitzer Prize.

(My sister & I had first seen Redford in "The Sting" with our cousins in Minneapolis a few summers earlier, and fallen madly in love with him -- even though he's older than our father...! (ALI note: in recent years, I learned that Redford's first child, a son named Scott, died of SIDS when he was 10 weeks old in 1959.)  A year or so later, our mother took us to see him in "The Way We Were" with Barbra Streisand, and to the drive-in, ON A SCHOOL NIGHT, so that we could see "The Great Gatsby." (Although we had to suffer through "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad," the first of a double-header bill, before we got to Gatsby.)  Such was the power of Robert Redford in his prime...!)  

We both LOVED the movie -- NOW all that Watergate stuff we'd lived with for so long was starting to make sense!  (Plus -- Robert Redford.)  There was still a lot we didn't quite "get," though -- because one of our school friends came over & sat with us and talked incessantly throughout the entire movie. :p  So we went back to see it again the next night, to catch the parts we'd missed. ;) Shortly after that, I bought and devoured the paperback version of the 1974 book by Woodward & Bernstein that the movie had been based on (with a photo of Redford & Hoffman on the cover).  I found it just as riveting as the movie had been, and a lot easier to follow, since I could digest the information at my own pace and flip back to the "Cast of Characters" at the front of the book to keep all the names & titles straight. There was a lot of information that hadn't been in the movie, too.

*** *** ***

I've read "All the President's Men" at least once or twice in the years since I first picked it up (as well as other books written by the two, together and separately, including "The Final Days" and "The Bretheren")(and seen the movie many times too) -- but not in many years.  And with the recent events unfolding in Washington, and frequent appearances by Woodward & Bernstein on TV news shows, I decided it was timely to re-read the book again.

Even though I've read the book before -- even though the story is a lot more familiar to me than the first time around -- I still found myself hooked, right from the opening pages. (It took me more than a week to get through "Tribe," which was only 130 or so pages long... I devoured "All the President's Men," a much longer book, in just under a week.)  It's still a gripping read -- and entirely relevant to the present day.

Personal disclaimer: I wanted to be a writer from a young age.  I was thinking "books,"  but it wasn't until around the time I was in junior high that I realized most authors of books didn't make very much money at it. That's when I started thinking of journalism as a career. My family always received a daily newspaper, and I read it (or at least parts of it) almost from the time I learned to read. (The idea of a career in "corporate communications" wasn't even on my radar until I was in journalism school, and I don't think we even called it that back then. "Public relations," maybe.)

So I don't think it was Woodward & Bernstein who inspired me to go to journalism school -- I'm pretty sure I was already thinking along those lines -- but just about anyone who entered the field in the late 1970s & 80s was certainly inspired by their example and looked to them as the gold standard. They were and still are rock stars to me, and I still get a huge kick out of seeing them on TV, individually or (especially) together. When Woodward &/or Bernstein talk about current events, how they compare to Watergate (or not), and why we should pay attention -- I think we should pay attention. These guys know whereof they speak.

Reading the book again, now, reminded me that a lot has changed since 1972. For example:
  • the reporters' calls were sometimes made at payphones and routed through switchboard operators -- no cellphones back then...!, 
  • they wrote their stories on typewriters and made edits with pencils vs on screens with word processing software,
  • their stories were published (& read) in a physical newspaper, not online,
  • television news consisted mostly of a half-hour evening newscast on one of the three networks -- no Internet, no cable TV, no multichannel universe, no CNN, 
  • Woodward & Bernstein spent spending an entire afternoon sorting through box after box of request slips at the Library of Congress (which made for a memorable scene when translated to the movie screen) -- something that no doubt could be done in about five seconds on a computer today
(to name a few things).

Some of the language has changed (one of the Watergate burglars is said to have a "retarded" daughter). And although the Post's publisher was a woman (Katharine Graham -- her memoir, Personal History, is also an excellent read, by the way),  and a female bookkeeper at the Committee to Re-elect the President proves to be a critical source, the vast majority of the main players in the story are (as the title of the book would suggest) MEN -- there were certainly nowhere near as many women in the newsroom or in government and political jobs, 45 years ago.

But while technology has made reporters' jobs easier in many respects, the basics of journalism -- cultivating sources, calling and talking to people (many, many people), asking questions and more questions (and asking them again), taking careful notes & keeping files, researching through piles of dusty books and press clippings (not everything you need is available on the Internet), checking your facts and checking them again, confirming what one person tells you with multiple other sources before publishing your story -- that remains the same. (Another great movie in a more modern setting about reporters unravelling an important story about the abuse of power (by the Catholic church) is "Spotlight,"  which deservedly won the Oscar for Best Picture a couple of years ago.)

And human nature, certainly, remains the same too.

While Woodward & Bernstein were eventually recognized as heroes and inspired an entire generation of journalists, their tactics were sometimes questionable, they didn't always get it right (at one point, they thought they were headed for jail), and they encountered formidable obstacles and opposition along the way.  Early on, they write about how the story was barely mentioned outside of the Washington & New York papers, half the country had (at that point) never heard of or cared about Watergate, and government spokespeople derided the Post for chasing a story that just wasn't there....  I found myself thinking, hmmm, why does this sound familiar...?? (This happened more than once as I read. The White House's disdain for the press, the obsession with leaks -- all familiar territory...!)

Nevertheless -- aided by anonymous sources such as the now-infamous "Deep Throat" -- they continued to ask questions and pursue the story, gradually putting the pieces together into a coherent picture of what went on behind the scenes at the White House and the Committee to Re-elect the President, ultimately leading to the downfall of the president and his men.

If you ever wanted to learn more about Watergate and/or about how journalists really do their jobs, this book is an excellent choice -- a classic.  And if you wanted to understand why so many people are talking about Watergate again lately in the context of current events, read the book. The parallels are eerie and unmistakeable.

This was book #11 that I've read so far in 2017, bringing me to 46% of my 2017 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 24 books.  I am currently 2 books behind schedule to meet my goal. :p  ;)  

1 comment:

  1. I'm pretty sure I've read it, but you're right, now is probably a good time to reread it. I loved Spotlight too.

    (Two books behind? - don't panic, you'll easily catch up!)