If J. Edgar Hoover Had Lived a Few Months Longer, Would Watergate Never Have Happened?

Then, again.
April 22 2013 10:26 AM

Unanswered Questions About Watergate

There are many—why is no one asking them?

U.S. President Richard Nixon listened to by First lady Pat Nixon and daughter Tricia Nixon (R), says goodbye to family and staff in the White House East Room on August 9, 1974.
President Richard Nixon says goodbye to family and staff in the White House East Room on Aug. 9, 1974

Photo by Reuters

The title of Robert Redford’s new documentary, which aired on the Discovery Channel last night, is All the President’s Men Revisited. At times, it seems more like All the President’s Men Repeated. Though created to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Watergate, the first half of the film contains little that could not be found in Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 political thriller starring Redford and Dustin Hoffman. You know the story: A pair of scrappy young reporters named Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein stick to their guns when nobody else will, and their reporting helps to bring down a president.

This is, to be sure, a terrific story. No matter how many times you’ve heard it before, there is something gripping about watching Nixon’s slow, painful descent into national disgrace. Redford’s film hits all the highlights: Nixon’s press secretary Ron Ziegler dismissing the original break-in as a “third-rate burglary”; Woodward and Bernstein scrambling to “follow the money” all the way to the White House; Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield admitting to Congress that his boss maintained a voice-activated taping system; Nixon’s restrained farewell address to the nation, then his devastating, heartfelt goodbye to the White House staff.

As far as it goes, the film is a reasonably adequate primer on Watergate mythology, and it’s certainly fun to watch. But it is also a missed opportunity for historical reflection—and one that, given the age of most Watergate participants, is unlikely to come around again. Forty years out, we know most of the basic facts about Watergate. The real challenge is figuring out what they all meant.

The film begins with footage of Nixon mugging for cameramen (awkwardly, as always) just before his August 1974 resignation speech. Redford then cuts back to June 1972, when the neophyte reporter Woodward received an assignment involving some sort of botched break-in at DNC headquarters. There is no hint of the controversies that have dogged Woodward in recent years, such as the accusation that his reporting (then and now) relies too heavily on anonymous inside sources. Redford sticks to the script first introduced in Woodward and Bernstein’s 1974 book All the President’s Men, then repeated in the 1976 film, laying out how the “good guys” in the media got the bad guy in the White House.

We now know, however, that Watergate was more complicated than that. Woodward and Bernstein did perform heroic work in the early months after the break-in. But the Watergate story didn’t capture national attention until 1973, well after Nixon had been re-elected to office. In those early months, some of the Post’s best information came straight from government investigators, already conducting their own troubled but expansive inquiries largely outside of public view. By far the most famous of these was Deep Throat—now largely accepted to have been W. Mark Felt, the FBI’s No. 2 man, who died in 2008. The film shows an aged Felt waving at reporters from behind his walker in 2005, when he revealed his identity to Vanity Fair. But Redford barely explores the implications of this revelation: Was Felt using Woodward for his own ends, and if so why?

The journalist Max Holland took up this question in his 2012 book, The Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat. Working painstakingly through FBI files and other Watergate material, Holland argued that Felt leaked information to Woodward in order to win a “war of succession” then underway at the FBI. J. Edgar Hoover had died in May 1972, a month before the Watergate burglary. Like many top FBI officials, Felt wanted the job. Instead, Nixon appointed FBI outsider L. Patrick Gray, setting off a chain of events that even a conspiracy-minded president could not control. Holland makes a powerful case that Felt was an ambitious, skilled bureaucrat out to serve his own interests rather than the “conscience-stricken” man who appears in Redford’s documentary.

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Indeed, it’s entirely possible Watergate never would have blown up in the way it did if Hoover had simply lived a few months longer. Hoover and Nixon were close friends and political allies, going back to their work on the Alger Hiss case in the 1940s. They had some serious disagreements during Nixon’s presidency, mainly over issues such as wiretapping and surveillance procedures. But whatever his flaws or resentments, Hoover knew how to keep things quiet in politically delicate situations. On the White House tapes, Nixon can be heard lamenting the loss of his old friend as the Watergate crisis escalated.  “I could talk to Hoover about all sorts of things and I talked to him very freely over the years,” he told “hatchet man” Chuck Colson in February 1973, “and there it never, never came out.”

One of the great ironies of Watergate is that Nixon actually knew Felt was leaking, but felt powerless to stop him, at least at first. “If we move on him,” Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman warned his boss as early as October 1972, “he’ll go out and unload everything.” Redford could have used a bit more of this lesser-known detail, if only to add some tension and interpretive verve to his good-guys-vs.-bad-guys story. Instead, for historical perspective he mostly relies on celebrity pundits such as Jon Stewart, Rachel Maddow, and Joe Scarborough. Their commentary can be pungent. “Every generation has to lose their virginity,” Stewart says, in one of the film’s more disturbing metaphors, “and it was just the day my generation did.” The result, though, is a certain amount of conventional wisdom. Over the course of the documentary, we learn that Nixon was “fatally flawed” and that the country was in “turmoil” throughout the Watergate years—analysis that could have been offered up by most self-respecting AP history students.

For sheer weirdness, no moment in the film surpasses the breakdown of former Nixon speechwriter turned game show host Ben Stein. Asked about Nixon’s resignation, Stein slumps down and begins to cry. “It was really sad, really sad,” he says. “I don’t think any president has been more wrongly persecuted than Nixon—ever. I just think he was a saint.”

The effect is mildly ridiculous. All the same, Stein provides one of the film’s few hints that Watergate is not, even now, an entirely settled matter. With four decades’ perspective, there are still big political questions to ask: How did a Republican Party on the verge of collapse in 1974 surge back six years later to launch the Age of Reagan? How much of the scandal was really about Nixon and his paranoia, and how much was about a broader set of institutional and political rivalries? Did the reforms put in place after the scandal—on presidential power, on intelligence prerogatives—effectively constrain the executive branch? To what degree did Watergate, once seen as a great Democratic triumph, help to fuel a conservative anti-government backlash?

The film gestures toward a few of these questions. Fundamentally, though, Redford’s main interest is in the media, and in the shining example set long ago by Woodward and Bernstein. And historians themselves have only begun to consider Watergate’s long-term consequences. Accounts of the scandal tend to fall into one of two modes. The first are blow-by-blow histories: What did Nixon know and when did he know it? The second are cultural examinations, looking at how, why, and when we classify Nixon as sinner or saint. Outside of that, Watergate has languished in recent years as a subject for serious research. The ’70s are a hot decade within the historical profession at the moment. But most recent books deal with other matters: deindustrialization, culture and gender, the fracturing of intellectual life, race, and civil rights. Watergate itself is increasingly a footnote, or an obligatory paragraph, rather than the political bombshell it once was. 

One key question, 40 years out, is what the whole story can tell us about today’s fractious political scene. On this front, Redford’s film does offer a few tantalizing thoughts. Rachel Maddow argues, for instance, that Obama’s fondness for drones and secret intelligence operations owes much to Nixon’s “imperial presidency.” Bernstein himself suggests that the Watergate era may look shockingly good when compared to today’s bitter partisan politics. In 1974, he notes, Republicans and Democrats finally joined together to serve the public interest by ousting the president. What’s unimaginable in our own political age may not be the recurrence of a Watergate-style scandal, but the possibility that things would turn out so well.

Beverly Gage, a Yale history professor, is the author of The Day Wall Street Exploded.

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