2017-07-26

Book Review: "All the President's Men" by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

I recently got to read All the President's Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward; although I had seen the movie many years ago, I hadn't gotten the opportunity to read the book until now, and I figured that with the current political situation in the US which so many are calling "Nixonian", it would be good to revisit one of the definitive works about a pivotal political scandal in that era. It's a documentation, from the perspective of the Washington Post reporters (the authors of the book), of the events and investigative journalism starting from the reports of the Watergate Hotel burglary and ensuing arrests all the way to the implication of President Richard Nixon and his top aides in engaging in illegal dirty campaign tactics to harm political enemies and subsequent illegal coverup tactics. It's a moderately long book, yet the smooth writing and structure of the details keep the narrative moving quickly. Although it has been a while, from what I remember, the movie focuses more on Bob Woodward's meetings with Deep Throat (the deep background informant who worked for the government), so it was nice for me to see the fuller picture of events from many other angles, showing that the meetings with Deep Throat, while important, were not necessarily the primary focus of any reporting events.

From the standpoint of this being a documentation of historical events, more than anything else, I was fascinated to see the (usually clever, sometimes questionable) extent to which reporters like Woodward and Bernstein would cajole agreements to meet and then share information on the phone, in person, or in writing with various people; it was like a miniature course in human psychology in the framework of various competing institutions with different power structures, and this was evident not just in the conduct of the interview subjects but also in Woodward and Bernstein themselves. That said, there were a few instances were their conduct went beyond the point of being questionable, becoming sleazy or even straddling the line of legality, and while these instances were discussed, they weren't given the same gravity as the corrupt behavior of government officials that they were uncovering; from their perspective, it makes sense as they would of course cast themselves in their own story as sympathetic protagonist reporters going up against a corrupt and vile group of people in a powerful institutions, but I would have liked to see more of this (though maybe other accounts from this era from other reporters would go further in depth). Overall, I really enjoyed reading this, and would recommend this to anyone interested in the political situation then or now. Follow the jump to see a few more brief thoughts about this book in the context of the current political situation in the US.

In the context of current political news, I find it telling how many similarities there are. This includes one side claiming "fake news", actively antagonizing and turning their followers against the media (after the media fawned, sometimes uncritically, upon the other side previously), and holding the media to an impossibly high standard while hypocritically holding themselves to practically no ethical standard at all, while the other side would scream about a stolen election and threaten lawsuits. Plus, all of this happened in the midst of sketchy foreign business dealings, with a backdrop of a culture of leaks and fear of reprisals in the White House. That said, there are some important differences. Foremost of course is that investigations now are still ongoing to see whether anyone in the current administration (with a couple exceptions known by now) has broken any laws, while essentially the whole Watergate saga is known now. Additionally, I got the sense from the book that during the Watergate scandal, leakers in the government were more ashamed of the roles they played in aiding and abetting corruption and illegal activities compared to some of the leakers today (and that may be because nothing illegal has happened this time around, so there's less reason for shame), Plus, defenders at that time were more scrupulous about making private campaign activities and finances appear to be separate from public campaign activities (likely because the Citizens United case would not be adjudicated by the Supreme Court for over 3 decades after that), and were also less brazen in essentially daring the public to care at all about the disclosures as they came; the latter point is likely because the polarization of public opinion in politics did not run to the level of deciding what facts/reality to trust then, whereas that deep polarization appears to be the case now. Thus, all of these caveats should be taken seriously when comparing the current political situation to the Watergate saga, but the similarities certainly do lend themselves to intriguing comparisons.

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