“MythBusters,” one of the more popular shows on the Discovery Channel, spends lots of time figuratively – and occasionally literally – exploding such myths as “Is it easy to shoot fish in a barrel?,” “Can an old hammer actually explode?,” and “Is water bulletproof?” One enduring myth that even the “MythBusters” hasn’t dared touch is the one that grew up around the Washington Post’s role in uncovering “Watergate.”
For nearly 40 years, the Post, its two intrepid young reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and its crusty executive editor, Ben Bradlee, have been mythologized as the singularly pure-minded, courageous figures who were bold and brave enough to take on the Nixon White House and uncover its perfidious threats to Constitutional government, thus saving the Republic from total ruin.
Detailed in the book, All the President’s Men, and later enshrined in the movie of the same name, Woodstein’s story has assumed mythic proportions over the course of the past four decades. Recently, fundamental elements of this myth have come under scrutiny, undermining its power and potentially damaging the credibility of its authors.
Max Holland’s recent book, Leak, has convincingly demolished the myth surrounding the mysterious and heroic figure of “Deep Throat.” Long lauded as a patriotic, idealistic civil servant, Holland has exposed Mark Felt for what he was: little more than an FBI careerist who successfully drew the Washington Post into his own Machiavellian scheme to make himself J. Edgar Hoover’s successor as head of the FBI (Max Holland will be at the Nixon Library on May 15 for a lecture and book signing).
More recently, Jeff Himmelman, a former assistant to Bob Woodward, has revealed that Ben Bradlee harbored “residual fear” that the elements of the myth that grew out of the Post’s Watergate coverage didn’t hold up. Himmelman also reports that Bernstein talked with a member of the Watergate Grand Jury, an act that could have landed him in jail had it become known at the time.
As a result of Holland and Himmelman’s work, a long-overdue discussion of the methods, practices, and veracity of the Woodstein Watergate myth is underway. This is not, however, the first time such questions have been raised.
In 1990, Stanley Kutler, in his book, The Wars of Watergate, wrote this about All the President’s Men:
Some prominent reviewers criticized the authors’ tendency to favor the style of a detective story rather than seeking the introspective level of historical analysis, and critics questioned as well Woodward and Bernstein’s failure to address any of the ethical deficiencies of their investigative reporting, including offering of bribes, illegally gaining access to telephone numbers, and talking to members of the grand jury.
Woodward and Bernstein have consistently declined to substantively address any of the questions critics raised at the time their book was published and that Kutler raised again in his book in 1990. With the publication of both Holland’s and Kimmelman’s books, Woodstein’s 40 years of successful stonewalling about the facts behind the myth may finally be coming to an end.
It is a disservice to history that the paucity of critical examination of the myth that has long helped to define Watergate as a modern morality play has allowed a one-dimensional view of Watergate to prevail.
A full understanding of the meaning of Watergate also requires an understanding that it was, in no small part, a struggle for power conducted at the highest levels for the highest stakes. Dismantling the mythology around Watergate will allow for the construction of a more complete analysis of all the forces that were at play during that tumultuous period.
Napoleon once observed that, “History is a myth that men agree to believe.” For 40 years, that has certainly been true when it comes to how Watergate is generally presented and understood in the media and academe. As objective historians and reporters now declare that cannot continue to agree to believe in the myth because the facts don’t support it, the myth begins to crumble.
Holland’s and Himmelman’s work is revealing. But what may be even more revealing is Bob Woodward’s efforts to discourage Himmelman from publishing what he discovered and his fast and furious reaction (some might even say overreaction) once it was published. Rather than rebut the argument, he attacks those making it. To many observers, Woodward seems overly defensive to any suggestion that the narrative he helped morph into myth might be at all inaccurate in any respect.
Perhaps Woodward is merely following the MythBusters mantra, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.” To me, however, it looks as if the gentleman doth protest too much. Woodward’s response suggests that he knows there’s more at stake than the accuracy of just a few scattered facts. He knows that if the myth on which he built his career is exploded, so too is his standing in journalism’s pantheon of heroes.
Bob Bostock served as an editorial assistant on two of President Nixon’s best-selling books and wrote much of the exhibit text for the Nixon Library.