The Vietnam War and “The Pentagon Papers” put The Washington Post on the map, but it was the Watergate scandal and the resignation of President Nixon that gave the newspaper everlasting fame. After blogging about the former in connection with Steven Spielberg’s new movie The Post, I heard from several readers who suggested I do the same for the 1976 film All the President’s Men. So here goes. Better fasten your seatbelts.
All the President’s Men was billed as a thriller/mystery. Forty-one years later, it still is. No cell phones, no fancy computers, no eye-popping special effects, just an increasingly bizarre story told by a couple of hard-working reporters, but it’s a story that grabs you at the start and never lets you go. The kicker, of course, is that it’s all true.
Offices frequently get burgled in the dead of night, right? This one happened to be home to the Democratic Party’s national headquarters, located in the Watergate complex. Still, no big red flag yet, so The Post sent a rookie reporter to cover it. At the courthouse the next day, Woodward dug up a few weird facts. The five burglars were wearing suits and rubber gloves. They were carrying “bugging” equipment, a walky-talky and large amounts of cash. Four of the men were Cuban-Americans, but the one all-American, James McCord, was former CIA and now in charge of security for CREEP, the Committee to Re-Elect the President. (Nixon’s men used the acronym CRP.) Four days later, Nixon’s press secretary Marty Ziegler dismissed the incident as a “third-rate burglary,” because that’s what press secretaries do, right? Many headlines later, Ziegler would accuse The Post and Executive Editor Ben Bradlee of “shoddy reporting.” In fairness to Ziegler, history now reports that he was a loyalist to a President who hated the press so much that he didn’t even want a press secretary, nor did Nixon keep him in his “dirty tricks” loop. Also, Ziegler eventually apologized to The Post in 1973, after two of Nixon’s top aids pleaded guilty.
Redford’s film was put together quickly, a mind-boggling feat given the timeline:
Watergate break-in June 1972/All the President’s Men book by Woodward and Bernstein in stores June 1974/Nixon resigns August 1974/movie opens in theatres April 1976
While the two reporters are the main heroes of the story, Redford deserves a special place in history. The idea for the film was his. This was a pre-Sundance Institute Redford, but he had already won moviegoers’ hearts for performances in films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Way We Were, and The Sting. In 1976, his first directing gig was four years away (Ordinary People, for which he’d win an Oscar), but he did have a small film company, and it was his offer to buy the film rights that made the reporters decide to go ahead and write their book. It was also Redford, Woodward credited publicly, who suggested the book’s story-telling structure: instead of just writing about all the Watergate-related events, he urged them to tell their story of investigating the break-in at the DNC headquarters; chasing down leads; facing ridicule, scorn, or threats everywhere they turned; and coming up with enough different sources to verify each piece of reporting along the way.
What stunned me most about seeing the film again was how much crookery and “dirty tricks” Nixon and his men were up to. Watching it years ago, I either missed that, or, over time, succumbed to the general thinking that the cover-up was worse than the crime. In 2012, the two reporters wrote an opinion piece for The Post, Woodward and Bernstein: 40 years after Watergate, Nixon was far worse than we thought. Here’s what WORSE looks like:
Nixon was paranoid about anyone who disagreed with him and would do just about anything to discredit anti-war protesters, the press, other politicians, and Presidential candidates running against him. Nixon and the CREEP people used a secret slush fund to pay for dirty work like smear campaigns, spying, break-ins, and illegal wiretaps. One particularly nasty “dirty trick” involved Presidential candidate Senator (D) Edmund Muskie, who was ahead of Nixon in the polls. Nixon’s men leaked a fake letter on Muskie stationery to a newspaper. It made the candidate look bad, and he ended up dropping out of the race.
In the film, the source known as “Deep Throat” tells Woodward that John Mitchell (Nixon’s first attorney general and afterwards head of CREEP) was doing “covert operations” before anyone else. Covert? See above. But it involved getting the CIA and FBI to do some of their dirty work. In 1975, Mitchell was sent to prison for Obstruction of Justice and Perjury. Deep Throat finally outed himself as Mark Felt in 2005, a few years before he died. During the time he was meeting secretly with Woodward, he was #2 at the FBI. Mark Felt’s boss was Acting FBI Director Patrick Gray III, who had to resign after admitting to destroying documents given to him by the White House shortly after the Watergate break-in.
Deep Throat’s most important advice to Bob Woodward: “Follow the money.”
All the President’s Men was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won four, including Best Screenplay and one for Best Supporting Actor Jason Robards as Executive Editor Ben Bradlee. The film lost out to Rocky for Best Picture. I remember loving Rocky, and I’m not saying Redford’s film should have won. But I am suggesting that the film should be required viewing for every incoming President and member of Congress. To remind them that they’re not above the law. To remind them that a free press is not synonymous with “fake news,” and it’s not in the country’s best interest to pretend it is.
Today there are obvious parallels between Watergate and the Russian investigation, but since the jury’s still out on President Trump, I’m going to stop there.
The film ends with the 1973 swearing-in of Richard Nixon for his second term. Woodward and Bernstein are listening to it on a TV in the newsroom, and it’s chilling hearing Nixon swear to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” when you know he’s done no such thing. Meanwhile, headlines roll off a typewriter–Nixon’s men being charged or pleading guilty to their various crimes as the President’s second term gets underway. The last headline, of course, belongs to Nixon. He’s a goner.
Nixon’s lies are no way to end this piece. Instead I’m going to end with a line from the film, delivered by Editor Ben Bradlee to the two rookie reporters:
“Nothing’s riding on this except the First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but. . .”
If anyone tells you art doesn’t matter, please set them straight or send them my way.