Five Presidents And The Legacy of Watergate

By Bob Woodward

Review © John Ed Robertson, 2002

"Shadow is an authoritative, unsettling narrative of the modern, beleaguered presidency."  So states the dust cover of this book by Bob Woodward, who has arguably done as much as (or more than) anyone else to create the "beleaguered" presidency he decries. 

Woodward makes the point that there are two primary lessons to be learned from Watergate:

1. If there is questionable activity, release the facts, whatever they are, as early and completely as possible.

2. Do not allow outside inquiries, whether conducted by prosecutors, congressmen or reporters, to harden into a permanent state of suspicion and warfare.

The problem, according to Woodward, is that none of Nixon’s five successors were able to "get it".  He writes:

"But after more than 25 years of covering presidents, I am still surprised that his successors did not fully comprehend the depth of distrust left by Nixon.  New ethics laws, a resurgent Congress and a more inquiring media altered the prerogatives and daily lives of presidents.  Congress, made up of men and women whose lives are largely politics, was determined to play a more prominent, inquisitorial role.  The media was going to dig deep and incessantly because much had been hidden before.  And quite naturally prosecutors and ethics investigators were more and more determined.  The habit of deception and hedging practiced by presidents would no longer be acceptable."

Woodward’s arrogance is surpassed only by his avoidance of responsibility for creating this climate of open season on public officials.  In the words of Vince Foster found among his notes after his suicide: "Here, ruining people is considered sport."  Instead, Woodward blames it all on Nixon:

"By the time he (Nixon) resigned in 1974, American politics was changed forever because of Vietnam and Watergate." Although Nixon’s responsibility for Vietnam is large and for Watergate central, he could be forgiven for not entirely understanding the convulsions he had visited upon politics and the presidency.  As a result of his actions, presidents would be suspected of outright criminality.  Nixon’s tapes of his office and telephone conversations left an irrefutable historical record that the president abused government power for political purposes, obstructed justice and ordered his aides to do so as well.  Watergate ended with unusual clarity and unusual closure because Nixon resigned.  The scandal left a series of obvious questions that would come to plague his successors.  Could another president be a criminal?  Did presidents talk and plot in private like Nixon?  Would another president have to resign?"

There is no question, of course, that Nixon ended up being his own worst enemy, His paranoia toward his "enemies" in general and the press in particular contributed greatly both to his own downfall and to the diminution of the presidency.  In Woodward’s words: "But after Vietnam and Watergate, the modern presidency has been limited and diminished.  Its inner workings and the behavior of the presidents are fully exposed." Nevertheless, the mistrust and suspicion that now surrounds any president is not Nixon’s fault alone.  The press has also contributed significantly to this climate where "ruining people is considered sport" and it is "open season" on public officials.  What I found most galling about this book is that Woodward writes as if he were a totally detached observer, rather than an active participant in creating what he is ostensibly only observing.

Shadow gives a blow-by-blow description of many of the presidential scandals of the past five administrations, including:
The Nixon pardon                        Ford
Bert Lance finances                    Carter
Hamilton Jordan drug use             Carter
Iran-Contra                               Reagan
Aftermath of Iran-Contra             Bush
Whitewater                               Clinton
White House Travel Office            Clinton
Paula Jones                               Clinton
Monica Lewinsky                        Clinton

There are few new revelations for anyone who has followed presidential politics in the press for the past three decades.  One thing that was new to me, however, was the fact that Representative Henry Hyde, who was the manager of the Clinton impeachment, worked behind the scenes to try to reach a compromise solution of a congressional censure, if Clinton would only acknowledge publicly his wrongdoing.

Shadow raises some excellent questions about the role of the press in a free and open society, but its answers are less than satisfying.  It is certainly a good thing that we have a free press to make possible an informed citizenry that in turn can hold elected officials accountable to those who elected them.  The question of who holds the press accountable is still open, however.  During the events and the aftermath of Watergate, the press became practically a fourth branch of government, but one with little or no "checks and balances".  Except for the most extreme cases of libel or slander, the only ones capable of exercising any restraint on the press are advertisers who "vote" by pulling ads, and readers, who "vote" by canceling subscriptions.  Applying the two primary lessons that should be learned from Vietnam and Watergate (releasing the facts, whatever they are, as early and completely as possible, and not allowing outside inquiries, whether conducted by prosecutors, congressmen or reporters, to harden into a permanent state of suspicion and warfare) is a lot easier when you have a sympathetic press.  To take one example, Clinton could almost be considered a puritan compared to Kennedy when it comes to extra-marital affairs, yet very little, if any, of this came to light at the time because of the high esteem in which Kennedy was held by The Washington Post and The New York Times.  Nixon, on the other hand, was openly hostile to the liberal press, and they made him pay big time. 

By now, of course, both Democrats and Republicans have learned that this permanent climate of suspicion and mistrust, complete with Independent Counsels, etc. is a double-edged sword.  When political power shifts from one party to another, the "self-righteous" minority becomes the "corrupt" majority and vice-versa.  In some ways, Ken Starr was "Nixon’s revenge", in that it was anti-Nixon sentiment that led the Democrats to push for an Independent Counsel law, which was later used by the Republicans to go after a Democratic president.  And the beat goes on.

On balance, however, it is obviously a good thing that we have a free and unfettered press that serves to keep the electorate informed and politicians accountable.  I still recall the affair of the Rainbow Warrior, a ship that was used by Greenpeace to protest, among other things, French nuclear testing.  When two agents of the equivalent of the French CIA blew it up, inadvertently killing two (I think) crew members, there was a scandal, but it quietly ended when the French Defense Minister resigned.  I was stunned that the press didn’t keep going until they got the president, but there seemed to be an unwritten rule that that was as far as they should go.

Nevertheless, Woodward inadvertently suggests that the press should be held more accountable, and there should be some limit to this open season on elected officials.  Unfortunately, his only suggestion is that elected officials should do a better job of handling this permanent climate of suspicion and mistrust.  Since this seems to be beyond the reach of mere mortals, one is tempted to wonder what kind of politicians we will have.  It would seem that only the most naïve ("they will never be able to get anything on me.") or the most ambitious would want to expose themselves to this kind of scrutiny, suspicion and mistrust.  Like Israel when they demanded a king, we may well get the leadership and the leadership we deserve all in one package.