Watergate Myths

Buzzkillers have been asking lots of questions about the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s that brought down the Nixon presidency. And Buzzkill Nation clearly wants to know whether the common and well-known stories about Watergate are true and historically sound.

The details of that tense period in American history have been steamrolled by those two great myth-making machines — movies and the need for individual heroes. For so many of us, our understanding of “Watergate” and the unravelling of the Nixon presidency is defined by the book and subsequent film, All the President’s Men. And many of us believe that the Nixon presidency was brought down almost solely by the heroic efforts of two young, energetic, truth-seeking and fearless journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein from the Washington Post.

I do not use “young,” “energetic,” “truth-seeking,” and “fearless” in any sarcastic or snarky way. Woodward and Bernstein were all those things and they played important roles in the revelation of the details of the Watergate break-in and President Nixon’s culpability. But their role in bringing about Nixon’s resignation have been raised to mythic levels in our culture.

Furthermore, I want to stress that Woodward and Bernstein themselves have never claimed to be the lone heroes charging up the hill of righteousness in the Watergate affair. In fact, Woodward himself has frequently complained that the duo’s role in Watergate has been “mythologized…to the point of absurdity.” But it’s almost impossible to keep the history of any event in balance whenever the movie version of that history establishes itself in the cultural consciousness.

Let’s review the basic details: On June 17, 1972, five men were arrested for breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. It turned out that the Watergate burglars were partly funded by the official Committee for the Re-Election of the President. Subsequent investigations revealed that important members the President’s staff had been involved in directing the break-in and other “dirty tricks.” When the famous Nixon tapes were discovered later, and the Supreme Court ruled that Nixon had to release them, things went downhill for the President very quickly. It became clear that Nixon had used federal officials to try to stop investigations of the Watergate crime, and Nixon had to resign in 1974 rather than be impeached and removed from office.

The First Watergate Myth: The Washington Post discovered all the important events in the Watergate Scandal

The Washington DC police were the first people to investigate the the June 17, 1972 break-in at the DNC offices at the Watergate. And it was they who came to the conclusion that the burglars weren’t just snooping around, but were planning to place tiny microphones in the DNC offices to record conversations and gain information that could be used against the Democratic party.

Journalists covering the police beat at The Washington Post naturally got word of the break-in through normal police sources. One of the things that is usually overlooked in the standard Watergate story is that all the other newspapers and news outlets got the same information at roughly the same time. And they all started working on the story right away, with varying degrees of success. The Washington Post put the story on its front page, which some other newspapers didn’t do, and that may have been one of the reasons that they got more attention for their coverage.

But the crucial point here is that lots of different news outlets (as well as federal agencies, and congressional committees) were responsible for “breaking” elements of the Watergate story as it spread. The Senate Committee investigating Watergate, known officially as the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, led by Democratic Senator Sam Ervin from North Carolina, was perhaps the most important. (I distinctly remember my mother having a “Support Your Uncle Sam” t-shirt with Senator Ervin’s picture on it.)

Woodward, Bernstein, and many other reporters at The Washington Post and other major newspapers, did an excellent job of reporting the work that official authorities were doing, and reporting on the evidence that Congressional Committees were uncovering, as well as reporting on leaks about that evidence. But they uncovered very little themselves.

The Second Watergate Myth – The Washington Post’s Reporting Ended the Nixon Presidency

In the early ’70s The Washington Post promoted its classified section with an ad campaign featuring various individuals in different walks of life who claimed to have gotten their jobs through the paper. After Nixon’s resignation, some wag created a mock advertisement featuring former Vice President Gerald Ford, who succeeded Nixon, saying “I got my job through The Washington Post.” That image, good-naturedly signed by Ford himself, hung in the office of the Post’s legendary editor Ben Bradlee for years. But it was a joke, not a truth.

The idea of The Washington Post single-handedly ending Nixon’s presidency overlooks the following facts. First, an enormous number of people and government agencies exposed all the details of the Watergate scandal. And secondly, it was Congressional Committees and the Supreme Court that ultimately sealed Nixon’s fate. Here’s a brief list of the entities involved in the investigation (broadly defined): the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Justice Department, special prosecutors, the House of Representatives, the Senate, the Supreme Court, and other federal judges. In terms of “the heroes of Watergate,” all of those entities come before the journalists at any news outlet.

“Deep Throat” Myths

For the benefit of our younger fans, allow me to explain that before the name “Deep Throat” became associated with the Watergate scandal, it was the title of a 1972 X-rated film starring Linda Lovelace as an anatomically challenged young woman dedicated to the art of fellatio. Why that term should be selected as a pseudonym for a notorious informant is a subject for another day.

What we know now is that the famous Deep Throat character from All the President’s Men was in fact Mark Felt, a longtime FBI agent who became an associate director of the FBI in 1972. Felt’s famous meetings with Bob Woodward were staged very effectively in the film version of All the President’s Men, but two very dramatic moments involving that character in that movie are myths.

The first and easiest Deep Throat myth to bust is the famous “follow the money” quote, uttered by Deep Throat (played by Hal Holbrook) in an underground parking garage when Bob Woodward (played by Robert Redford) mentions records of campaign funds. But that line was never spoken in real life or in the original book. It was the result of dramatic license taken by the film’s script writers.

As it turns out, Woodward and Bernstein, as well as other top reporters, were already convinced that the campaign funds question was a crucial aspect of the scandal. Their reporting helped show that some of Nixon’s funds from the 1972 campaign were diverted to pay for the break-in at DNC headquarters. In effect, they were already “following the money” before Woodward’s meetings with Deep Throat.

The other dramatic thing that Deep Throat says onscreen is that Woodward and Bernstein’s lives were in danger because of their investigative reporting. Again, this turns out to have been an exaggeration. Although Washington Post people took precautions and worried about their own offices being bugged by Nixon operatives, Woodward himself said later that there was no evidence of journalists’ phones being tapped or any of them placing their lives in danger because of their work.

If any phones were going to be tapped or people’s lives threatened, the most likely targets would have been the staffers and assistants of the congressional committees who were doing all the heavy lifting in terms of getting the important evidence that showed the extent of the scandal.

The “Explosion in Investigative Journalism Majors” Myth

Finally, we get to one of the myths about the long-lasting impact of the whole Watergate saga. This is one is easy to believe because it’s what seems to have happened.

The work of Woodward and Bernstein, as represented in All the President’s Men, was inspirational to the degree that eager young students flocked to journalism departments at colleges and universities throughout the country and around the world to sign up as journalism majors. Alas, the evidence is clear and we have the numbers. The growth of enrollment in journalism programs actually occurred between 1967 and 1972, before the Watergate break-in. And scholars who have studied this issue attribute this phenomenon up to other factors: the vast expansion in new colleges and increased enrollment in colleges as the Baby Boom generation reached college age in the mid-1960s (in other words, enrollment in all majors and concentrations of study grew); more women going to college in the 1960s and being attracted to journalism due to influential role models such as Martha Gellhorn, Jane Kramer, May Craig, Helen Thomas, and others; and journalism itself expanding as a professional field.

Remember what I always say about movies and history, Buzzkillers: Movies invariably have a grossly disproportionate impact on the public’s perceptions and understanding of history because, if they’re produced well, movies are memorable, and become fixed in the consciousness of viewers. All the President’s Men did just that, because it’s a good movie, not because it’s good history. And despite the efforts of experts, scholars, and even the people actually involved in the historical events they depict to expose some of the myths that movies project, nothing has yet proved effective in changing that phenomenon.

Professor Buzzkill wishes to acknowledge the help and advice received from Professor Matthew Pressman at Seton Hall University, and other experts. The dominant historian of this subject is Professor W. Joseph Campbell at American University. His important book, Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism (2016), is available on the Buzzkill Bookshelf.

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