Exploding the Watergate Myth

Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes

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.

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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.

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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 whatever 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.

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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……

*****

Continue reading this article at FrontPage Magazine.

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