- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 4, 2006


By Alicia C. Shepard

John Wiley & Sons, $24.95, 304 pages


After more than three decades of newspaper stories, books, movies and magazine features, America really should be sick of hearing about Watergate. It’s easy to attribute the constant coverage to the media’s obsession with itself — after all, superstar Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are an integral part of the narrative.

But if anything the country needs a refresher course, because the myths surrounding the tale are many. Nixon-haters, breathless journalism students and the general public alike wax incessantly about the pair that “brought down a presidential administration!” and how important whistle-blower Deep Throat was to the whole thing.

“Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate,” by American University’s Alicia C. Shepard, takes a good, solid shot at being that refresher course. It chronicles the journalists lives before, during and after Watergate, drawing on newly available archives.

Ms. Shepard is clearly a fan of “Woodstein,” but from the work’s early pages she is careful not to overstate the duo’s importance. If only all of America would read a few sentences from the preface:

“[T]he two reporters did not single-handedly bring down the president … The courts, the Congress, the grand jury, and the FBI all played key roles. In reality, had former Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield not told Senate investigators on Friday, July 13, 1973, that Nixon kept a secret taping system, Nixon might never have resigned.”

Even within the media Woodward and Bernstein were occasionally scooped, despite having the best general grip on the situation. In July 1972 — during a lull in Post coverage — the New York Times broke the news that burglary ringleader Bernard Barker had made calls to the White House. In October of that year, the Los Angeles Times ran an interview with Alfred C. Baldwin III, who’d monitored transmissions from the bugs planted at Watergate.

But as Ms. Shepard explains later, other reporters “did not write a best-selling book or have Hollywood turn their tale into a box-office success.”

Other reporters didn’t have Deep Throat either, but as Ms. Shepard reminds us, the source wasn’t all he’s been cracked up to be. He’d only confirm information the reporters got elsewhere, rendering him of significant but limited usefulness.

For obvious reasons “Woodward and Bernstein” dwells extensively on the Watergate years, but it also gives readers a good summary of the ensuing decades. Everyone knows what happened to Mr. Woodward — a string of bestselling books on various institutions and presidential administrations, most recently a trilogy about President George W. Bush’s Iraq war.

Mr. Bernstein also accomplished some things, after a botched stunt as a bureau chief at ABC News and a particularly messy marriage (resulting in his wife’s “fiction” novel about a philandering husband). He wrote an autobiographical book about having communist parents during the McCarthy era, as well as a controversial article stating that the pope had helped mastermind the fall of communism. He later co-authored a book on the latter subject as well.

Mostly, though, it seems Mr. Bernstein chased women and spent all his money. He was a gossip columnist’s dream in the 1980s, socializing with the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Bianca Jagger. Though he now makes $10,000 to $15,000 for each media-criticizing college lecture, 15 times a year, sources speculate money was the reason he talked Mr. Woodward into selling the Watergate archives. The University of Texas bought them for $5 million.

“Woodward and Bernstein” marks those archives’ public debut, and Watergate fanatics will enjoy the extra touches the documents provide — they’re easy to recognize, as Ms. Shepard often introduces them with “In their Watergate archives is …” rather than working them into the story.

Readers see comments from early book drafts, notebook scribblings and the occasional financial document. None of it is crucial to the story, but it adds a dimension of intimacy and breaks new information without badly weighing down the prose’s flow.

All this isn’t to say the book has no flaws. The last chapter of “Woodward and Bernstein” is titled “The Revelation,” and it covers the outing of former FBI assistant director W. Mark Felt as Deep Throat. Regarding the man’s agenda in spilling the beans, Ms. Shepard only tells readers that Mr. Felt was too dementia-stricken to answer by the time Mr. Woodward managed to ask.

Here a little bit of context would have helped, because Mr. Felt’s motives aren’t all that unclear. For one, Nixon had passed over Mr. Felt for the top spot at the FBI, instead appointing “administration insider L. Patrick Gray,” according to the Post. Second, the FBI was frustrated with the White House’s attempts to control the Watergate investigation, according to the 1992 article in the Atlantic Monthly fingering Mr. Felt as Deep Throat.

Also, Ms. Shepard proves a little too fast and loose with personal opinions, though fortunately not often. It’s not surprising to see her a little enamored with her subjects, but it seems out of place when she starts deciding what’s a “threat to democracy,” whether Nixon was “mean-spirited and vindictive” and that George W. Bush has “begun an era of government secrecy under the guise of national security.”

Each of these assessments is unnecessary, and in each case Ms. Shepard, a journalist herself, should have let readers reach their own conclusions.

And while the book is well edited for the most part, Ms. Shepard’s quirks can distract readers at times. The writer repeats information across chapters, reintroducing the facts as if they’re new again — over the course of a 300-page book, some details will come up more than once, but it’s awkward to read with no “hat tip” to the previous mention.

For example, Ms. Shepard covers the case of John Mitchell, a friend of Nixon’s with ties to a secret slush fund. She even quotes at length from the Post piece that broke the story. But in the next chapter, just eight pages later, it’s deja vu all over again:

“Bernstein realized that Nixon was tied to the break-in when the Post was about to publish a story about John Mitchell, the former attorney general and the former head of the reelection effort, was one of five people who controlled a rich slush fund used for the break-in.”

Sometimes, the repetition isn’t even necessary. For example, readers twice learn the trivia that Mr. Woodward initially referred to Deep Throat as “My Friend.” Ditto for the fact that the title “All the President’s Men” came not from “Humpy-Dumpty” but from Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men” (which, of course, presumably came from “Humpty-Dumpty”). Warren taught Mr. Woodward at Yale.

But these are small quibbles with a journalist who’s provided the Watergate debate a much-needed deep breath. Readers get a fast-moving, frank account of two star journalists’ lives and times.

Robert VerBruggen (https:// robertsrationale.blogspot.com) is a freelance journalist and an apprentice editor at the National Interest.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide