The 1976 film “All the President’s Men” is fascinating for its perspectives on the craft of investigative journalism and on the Nixon Presidency, which was the ultimate object of the investigation.
The movie shows in great detail what investigative journalists do and how they do it: searching for disgruntled front-line staff willing to provide leads, following the leads, negotiating with sources, corroborating them with other sources, moving up the ladder, and attempting to catch the decision makers by surprise for candid, on the record, admissions.
That, in essence, is the whole movie, as it follows Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward as they investigated the break-in at the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee between June 17, 1972 and January, 1973, when Richard Nixon took office for his second term as President. For Woodward and Bernstein, this was an ongoing uphill battle as the White House had not yet lost credibility. The movie ends with a summary of the revelations that would emerge in the following 18 months as Nixon’s hold on power crumbled.
In addition to its portrayal of the craft of investigative journalists, the movie is a double bildungsroman, showing how two neophyte journalists learned their craft by practicing it. They also had to learn to resolve their disagreements and work together. The movie is also very explicit about the skepticism they originally encountered with the Washington Post itself about their story, and the competition with other stories such as the 1972 election, the war in Vietnam, and the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with China.
The movie is optimistic, not only in its portrayal of the power of the media to demand and get accountability, but because so many front-line staff at the Committee to Re-elect the President, at considerable risk, defied authority, and cooperated with Woodward and Bernstein. These people – mainly women – were not necessarily Republican loyalists, but were rather simply hired to do a temporary job. They could see that they were being asked to comply with superiors whose actions were certainly immoral and likely illegal, and they retaliated by cooperating with Woodward and Bernstein. “Deep throat,” now identified as former FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt, in addition to similar moral objections, was also motivated by resentment for not having been promoted to the top job in the FBI. His injunction – follow the money – kept Woodward and Bernstein focused, but they had to do the hard work of following.
The movie predates by two decades the Internet, and one necessarily speculates how it would affect a similar investigation. Much of the investigation would deal with online, rather than print sources. Many more people would be involved, as citizen journalists and bloggers would have gotten into the act. And it is unlikely that a newspaper, even one with the stature of the Washington Post, would have devoted comparable resources to an investigation.
Finally, it is impossible not to trace the Watergate affair back to Richard Nixon and his style of leadership. Insecure, embattled, and suspicious to the point of paranoia, he instituted a win-at-all-costs culture in the White House, which legitimated all manner of dirty tricks against the Democratic opposition. The 2000 PBS series on the American President has an excellent 10-minute profile of his presidency that captures the essence of the man. The last word goes to presidential scholar Richard Neustadt: “for a non-people person to put himself through a career in politics was extraordinary. What was he proving? And to whom? Beneath his stance was a man always proving something to someone. I read insecurity.”
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