The 1st Edition of All the President's Men. I actually have a movie cover copy.

The 1st Edition of All the President’s Men. I actually have a movie cover copy.

All the President’s Men

  • Authors:  Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
  • Published:  1974
  • Publisher:  Simon & Schuster
  • Pages:  382
  • First Lines:  “June 17, 1972.  Nine o’clock Saturday morning.  Early for the telephone.”
  • Last Line:  “The President said, ‘I want you to know that I have no intention whatever of ever walking away from the job that the American people elected me to do for the people of the United States.”
  • Awards:  Top 100 Works of Journalism #3
  • Film:  1976  (**** – #1 – 1976)
  • First Read:  Spring 1989

The Novel:  The film came first for me.  It was early 1989 and I had just started keeping track of films I had seen and deliberately seeking out films.  All the President’s Men was on television and I recorded it.  I watched it and was enthralled.  So I read the book and I was just as enthralled.  This was history (for me, anyway, in 1989), this was journalism, this was a mystery, this was a thriller, and it was all so clear and concise.

The book works so well because of the research that preceded it, because of the journalism that feeds it, but also because of waiting for the right moment and finding the right style.  This is not simply a collection of the original pieces edited together into book-length.  They are re-written to provide a compelling narrative, but also one that follows the trail of the reporters from the time they first come on the story and as they discover it.  That’s what turns it into a compelling mystery.

Bernstein and Woodward aren’t just tooting their own horns.  Woodward has been called in from home to work on this story and is not pleased to see Bernstein interested in it: “Oh God, not Bernstein, Woodward thought, recalling several office tales about Bernstein’s ability to push his way into a good story and get his byline on it.”  For his part, Bernstein isn’t too thriller about this new kid, who’s only been at the paper for nine months while Bernstein has been there for six years, working on something that could turn out to be important: “Bob Woodward was a prima donna who played heavily at office politics.  Yale.  A veteran of the Navy officer corps.  Lawns, greensward, staterooms and grass tennis courts, Bernstein guessed, but probably not enough pavement for him to be good at investigative reporting.  Bernstein knew that Woodward couldn’t write very well.  One office rumor had it that English was not Woodward’s native language.”

We slowly learn who all the major players are, both in the Nixon White House (Woodward doesn’t know that much about them and we follow him through learning about them), as well as in the Post newsroom.  We first encounter Ben Bradlee, the executive editor of the Post, when the two give him a story about Howard Hunt and his interest in Ted Kennedy.  Bradlee is unimpressed  and edits the story and keeps it off the front page.  “Get some harder information next time.”  He knows a good story when he sees one and he will start to see them soon.

Slowly, the two reporters learn how to work together and eventually they become an unbreakable team: “The August 1 story had carried their joint byline; the day afterward, Woodward asked Sussman if Bernstein’s name could appear with his on the follow-up story – though Bernstein was still in Miami and had not worked on it.  From then on, any Watergate story would carry both names.  Their colleagues melded the two into one and gleefully named their byline Woodstein.”

While many parts of the book came out of the pieces that the two reporters had already been writing, there was also important information that wasn’t revealed until the publication of the book.  One of those things was that Hugh Sloan was a pivotal source for some of their information (there is a footnote explaining that Sloan gave them permission to use his name in the book).  But certainly the most important revelation to come out of the book was the other place where they were getting so much of their information:

Woodward had a source in the Executive Branch who had access to information at CRP as well as at the White House.  His identity was unknown to anyone else.  He could be contacted only on very important occasions.  Woodward had promised he would never identify him or his position to anyone.  Further, he had agreed never to quote the man, even as an anonymous source.  Their discussions would be only to confirm information that had been obtained elsewhere and to add some perspective.

From the publication of the book and through the next 30 years, until it was finally revealed, the identity of this man, named Deep Throat by one of the editors (both because his information was on deep background and because of the popularity of the film – Bernstein even goes to see it while hiding from a subpoena) would be the biggest guessing game in Washington.  There were many possibilities that were brought up over the years (Pat Buchanan, Martha Mitchell, even Diane Sawyer) and while Nixon guessed that Mark Felt was doing some leaking, the Nixon Transcripts were published before this book and Haldeman was gone from the White House before then so his diaries say nothing about it (can you tell I have an extensive Nixon library?).  While the readers of the Post knew nothing during the time period that the investigative work was being published, it makes for great drama in the book when Woodward sneaks off to the parking garage to meet his mysterious source and it would make for some nice drama on film as well.

They include us deeply in the process of how this all comes together, not just the investigative work, but the actual process in the newsroom of putting together a published story.  On pages 148 and 149 we follow that process – having gathered all the information for an extremely vital story, Bradlee gives them guidance and the assurance that this is all one interconnected story, then the reporters go to work, writing different parts of the piece, trading them back and forth, editing each other’s work, passing it on to the editors, getting their contributions to shape the article, which came out on October 10 and was a pivotal step in establishing that the dirty tricks had begun long before Watergate and continued after.

Woodward and Bernstein do not spare themselves in the book when it comes to their failures.  They write about times that they didn’t have things right, about the pushback, not only from the White House, but from the legal system, and even about the way they would fight against each other:

Compounding the problem was Bernstein’s deadline pushing.  Both Woodward and Rosenfeld were hollering at him.  Bernstein kept making language changes in what Woodward had written and Rosenfeld had approved, putting everyone’s nerves on edge.  It took four hours to get a barely satisfactory story – a 52-inch monster that quoted endlessly and offered the reader little help in understanding the charges and countercharges.  It had been a disastrous night.

All in all, this is not just a great work of journalism, but a great work about journalism.  It helps to illustrate not only how things work in Washington, but also how things work at a paper like The Washington Post.

There’s a great moment late in the book when Edward Bennett Williams confronts Pat Buchanan at a party.  Williams was the lawyer for the Post and also was the president of the Washington Redskins, whom Nixon loved (god how that must have galled him).  Both Williams and Buchanan make very valid points in their argument.  “Sixty-one percent,” Buchanan says, “Sixty-one percent.  Just the biggest landslide in recent history and if it hadn’t been for Watergate, it would have been more.”  He’s right, of course – Nixon slaughtered McGovern in the election because of McGovern’s inept campaign and if not for Watergate it might have been even higher.  So why bother with Watergate?  Why do something so inept when the election is yours for the taking?  Williams points out to Buchanan, “Aren’t you ashamed?  You’re a conservative, and all this law-breaking.”  Buchanan points out the dirty clients Williams has defended but Williams gets the key last word: “I didn’t run any of my clients for President.”

In the end, Woodward and Bernstein didn’t topple a presidency (in fact, Nixon was still president when the book was published).  If they had, that president wouldn’t be nearly as interesting as he is.  Nixon toppled himself with his inability to trust, with his need to crush his enemies with any means at his command, with his total lack of morality or even any need for it.  But this book is a vital light that shined through that wall that Nixon tried to build around himself and his actions and an important read for anyone interested in history, politics or journalism.

The Film:  I have already written about this film twice.  The first time I wrote about it in my Great Directors post for Alan J. Pakula.  The second time I wrote about was in the Best Picture post for 1976.