Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Scandalmongering


All The President’s Men, by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, read by Richard Poe, Recorded Books LLC, 2004

Political junkies, does this at all sound familiar? “All they care about at CRP is Richard M. Nixon. They couldn’t care less about the Republican Party. Given the chance, they would wreck it.”

Ah, history, how it repeats itself. An insular, combative, dishonest president, a foreign war going badly, discontent and economic woes at home, and a scandal that grew bigger and bigger reaching right up into the White House itself, weighing down the President's party. Watergate brought about a reversal of Republican fortunes (though one that didn’t last all that long, sadly) and as political watchers prepare for the 2006 cycle, it looks hopeful that more repetition is in the cards.

I haven’t been much into politics during my life. My earliest political activity was when Oliver North spoke to my high school and I got in line to ask him this question: “What were you doing in a mental hospital a few years before you were involved in Iran-Contra, and what had you done to be placed there?” I never got in to ask it, as lines were long and the other kids at school probably would have kicked my ass later anyway. (Correct answers to that multi-part question above are “recuperating” and “wandered around babbling, naked with a pistol.”) If I had to put a finger on it, I'd say it was the impeachment hearings of Clinton that got me angry enough to be regularly involved.

So this month marked my first actual reading of All The President’s Men, though I had seen the movie some years ago. It was the recent governmental scandals that got me interested in learning more in depth about that previous, quintessential one. By sheer luck, the week I sat down to listen to Richard Poe’s rather thrilling reading of the story news broke that Plamegate (as the scandal has come to be known, all governmental scandals having –gate attached at the end now, denoting how iconic Nixon’s trouble is) had sucked into its maw no less than Bob Woodward, breaker of the original –gate scandal.

To put it in a nutshell, what started out as an investigation of a botched burglary turned on wisps and scraps to eventually kick over the rock under which Nixon’s campaign laundered money in order to finance a host of dirty tricks and foul play. What’s remarkable in this story is how unlikely its exposure seems when you look at the evidence chain. Had not one of the burglars had the phone number of an ex-CIA, White House employee E. Howard Hunt and one of his checks in his pocket, how much farther would things have moved along? It is small chances of luck and determined journalistic digging that kept bits and pieces turning up.

The story flip-flops back and forth between its main characters of Woodward and Bernstein, and it is clear when each of the authors is writing about himself. I say “characters” because the book is written in a novelistic fashion, not in plural first person but in third person with turns taken at the helm. This seems a bit strange in the beginning, but you get used to it quickly enough and the method does pay in dividends. The two authors’ styles are well-blended so there’s no clear distinction save investigative focus to tip you off who was behind what chapter. But the book moves with the pacing of a well-written thriller, even if most of what happens is people making phone calls, giving interviews, typing out new lead paragraphs, digging through old files and notes, and having arguments.

What seems rather strange about it all is that Woodward became the more well-known celebrity of the two (or gloryhound or, as the case may be) since it’s rather clear in the beginning that Bernstein (who did get top billing) does more of the legwork and has more flair for investigating and writing. While Woodward has the most memorable portion of the story — ‘Deep Throat’ — he fills about probably 40% of the space. Where the hell is Bernstein, who only seems to be disinterred from some crate and mothballs when cable news channels want to run anniversary Watergate stories or when ‘Deep Throat’’s’ identity was announced?

In the book’s final third, when actual criminal investigations are underway both with the Department of Justice and the Congressional Watergate Hearings, Woodward’s relevance becomes much more obvious. The man’s various governmental sources and contacts give him the inside track on breaking news and not just ‘Deep Throat’ confirming things obliquely in a parking garage. But without Bernstein’s digging early on we’d never have gotten this far; there’d almost certainly never have been the investigations and the resignation.

The one truly dramatic and earth-shattering thing Woodward gets himself is the name of Butterfield, a man involved in “internal security” for the Nixon Administration When Woodward passes this along to an aide in the Congressional Watergate Hearings, the Senators follow up, grilling Butterfield. He accidentally confesses to the existence of White House recordings. This is the final nail, the “smoking gun,” the absolute and total death knell for the Nixon Administration without which his resignation might never have actually come about.

Throughout the book there are a number of lines that stood out for comparative purposes with today’s Washington and today’s media. A cute little wink is hidden in this sentence about government leakers who blab to other papers: “No dissatisfied FBI agent or CRP employee had ever come to Bernstein or Woodward offering information.” No, just the number two at the FBI.

Then, later when their reporting on grand jury testimony erroneously naming H.R. Haldeman blows up in their faces, there is another fine little snippet: “They would probably offer their resignations to the paper. There’s little demand in journalism or book publishing for discredited reporters.” Oh, how untrue such things are today.

For those more familiar with current political and journalistic names, we meet a number still in circulation, such as Seymour Hersh, and in passing Albert Gore Sr., as well as Bob Dole, who works as an attack dog for the Republican Party. Hearing his statement denying Nixon involvement in Watergate and his scurrilous attacks against the Post made me want to dig up the video of Dole falling off the stage and watch it a few dozen times. My memory may be faulty, but I don’t recall during the 1996 election much press surrounding Dole’s shameful role in this episode.

The quick pacing and thriller-esque quality of the writing gave me the feeling that I should be checking the headlines, that news was breaking right this very minute. The book is remarkably intense, even if you aren’t particularly politically active or all that interested in politics. Bernstein and Woodward put together a tightly woven story that never gets confusing, taking just enough time to flesh out who’s who without devolving into overly detailed character portraits. Reader Richard Poe gives it to us straight and hardly alters his voice for any character save the gruff, brusque warmth of Post editor Ben Bradlee. It’s the right kind of performance and gives weight to the tale’s telling.

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