Fanboy Comics Managing Editor Barbra Dillon looks back at this classic account of journalistic triumph.
In the political suspense novel, All the President’s Men, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein phenomenally depicted their Pulitzer-prize winning investigation of the Watergate scandal, which had implicated and exposed the corruption of President Richard Nixon and his administration to the American public. Chronicling the leads, successes, and failures of their investigation, Woodward and Bernstein created a sensational and shocking political drama which kept the audience on its toes, despite their previous knowledge of the resulting historical consequences. Capturing the totality and frightening reality of such widespread corruption throughout the United States government, the novel’s thematic emphasis embodied the quintessential mood felt throughout the American public. Corresponding with their anti-war sentiment for the Vietnam War, the people of the 1970s were becoming shockingly more aware that the government was not infallible, and that its limitless power threatened the ideals and standards on which the country and Constitution were founded. Overall, All the President’s Men greatly benefited and impacted American society, as it commemorated the complexities of the Watergate scandal for those who lived through it and those who unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) missed the events.
Centering on the activities of reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the story followed their entire investigation of the Watergate scandal through the inner workings of the Washington Post and U.S. governmental institutions. Initially assigned to the burglary of the National Democratic Committee headquarters at the Watergate offices, both Woodward and Bernstein initiated their routine of telephone calls and memos to their consistently reliable sources. Upon their investigations of the burglars involved in the break-in, both reporters discovered their unusual and inexplicable link to White House aide and CIA correspondent Howard Hunt. Intrigued by the connection of a “third-rate burglary” to a White House official, Woodward and Bernstein began their excavation into the most complex, extensive, and dangerous assignment of their lives.
After printing their first article regarding the questionable relationship between Hunt and the Watergate burglars in the Washington Post, the reporters were met with more opposition and resistance than anticipated, by both government officials and members of the Washington Post editorial staff. Determined to further investigate their initial assignment, Woodward and Bernstein contacted White House aides and Cabinet members to uncover the truth, or at least a straight answer. While receiving contradictory stories from each new contact, their investigations soon uncovered wide-scale illegal fundraising and political sabotage on the part of President Nixon’s advisors and political party. While the White House denied any involvement in wrongdoing, Woodward and Bernstein continued to print damaging stories against the entire Nixon administration.
Thrilled with the thought of uncovering the most fantastic story in American history, the reporters never imagined the extent to which the current administration was involved. Piecing each part of the puzzle together, they soon realized that even the President, himself, may have played a role in the scandal. However, with such damaging information linking the President and his advisors to corruption and the misuse of power, Woodward and Bernstein’s sources refused to supply their names to the information printed in the paper. The sources understood the extent to which the administration was involved and feared the life-threatening consequences of breaking the story. Faced with the inability to print such devastating information without a source to back its veracity, the reporters’ investigation was saved by a mysterious high-level source known as “Deep Throat.” Mimicking a controversial movie title from that same year, Deep Throat supplied unshakable evidence of upper level involvement, although, he refused to allow his identity to be quoted in the articles. Driven in the right direction with Deep Throat’s facts, Woodward and Bernstein were only required to find a secondary source to support the allegations.
Woodward and Bernstein were not without failure in their investigation, as their article linking White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman to the President’s secret fund was vehemently denied by their source: the Justice Department attorney. However, supported by the Post’s Executive Editor, Ben Bradlee, the reporters succeeded in printing their stories despite their controversial topics. In the end, the courage and dedication demonstrated by Woodward and Bernstein paved the way for Grand Jury investigations, widespread journalistic interpretations of the Watergate scandal, and the resignation of President Nixon in 1974. Their determination played a pivotal role in U.S. history by illustrating the fact that President Nixon and his co-conspirators attempted nothing less than the complete subversion of the U.S. Constitution and the democratic process.
I must admit that the plot summary of this novel was quite difficult to encompass without completely recounting each and every name, date, and event of importance. The myriad of participants and their respective functions within the Watergate scandal are infinite, commenting not only on the difficulty of summary but, more importantly, the complexity of the scandal and its widespread corruption. Having seen the movie version of All the President’s Men on numerous occasions and having read the original novel, I found it necessary to once again watch the movie in conjunction with the reading of the book. While a decent amount of the dialogue and the occurrence of some events varied, the movie accurately depicted the investigation of Woodward and Bernstein, almost as a documentary of the events and characters involved. However, what I found most helpful in deciphering the names and titles of each government official involved was the index within the book that listed each person and their relationship to the story. What I would recommend for future readers would be to watch the movie, read the novel, and then watch the movie again with the aide of the index of characters.
The theme of the novel undoubtedly depicted a major influence in the book’s dramatic arch, as well as in the political climate of the American public in the 1970s. In its implementation, the theme proved that the stark reality of the Watergate scandal and its direct involvement of the President truly frightened the American public, exposing them to the corruption and underhandedness of the U.S. government. This thesis made itself apparent in one of the most dramatic and suspenseful scenes in the novel, following Deep Throat’s (the once fearless whistle-blower of corruption’s) warning to Woodward to be cautious in his further investigation. What resulted was a memorable scene of intense paranoia yet fierce reality between Woodward and Bernstein, in their realization that their own houses and phone lines may have been bugged and tapped by the U.S. government. As it was written:
Bernstein wondered if Woodward had gone crazy or if it was some gag. They walked down the hall to Woodward’s apartment. Once inside, Woodward put on some music. A Rachmaninoff piano concerto. Woodward then drew the draperies over the large windows overlooking the city to the east. At his dining-room table, Woodward typed out a note and passed it to Bernstein. Everyone’s life is in danger. (Bernstein and Woodward 317)
As Woodward and Bernstein realized the tremendous threat opposing them in the forms of the U.S. government and the CIA, the reality of the omnipresent corruption finally occurred to them. The scandal no longer existed merely as an exciting story involving high-level government officials with no bearing on “real people.” The long arm of the government possessed the ability to accomplish whatever they saw fit, including the invasion of private property and the personal rights of average American citizens. In this respect, Woodward and Bernstein symbolized the American people, who only grew more fearful and angry in the wake of the immense power and infallibility of the Nixon and the U.S. government.
The paranoia and fear which festered throughout America during the Watergate scandal related very relevantly to the already growing skepticism of the public against U.S. government and politics. In the late 1960s, the belief in America’s omnipotence was quickly dying, and the anger and frustration of a never-ending war in Vietnam was noticeably taking its toll on the country. The deaths of positive role models such as President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Lennon swindled hope from an already hopeless nation engrossed by an unwanted war. Prior to President Nixon’s denied involvement in scandal and corruption, the American people learned of President Johnson’s deception of the true accounts of Vietnam. Television audiences watched as innocent men, women, and children were killed and wounded on both sides, while President Johnson optimistically assured the people that American troops were succeeding in their battles and winning the war. Both Presidents Johnson and Nixon demonstrated to the public that the presidency was no longer a role of certain infallibility or supreme ethics. The devastating time period conceived a people of pure skepticism and paranoia which has lasted until today, permeating through each and every aspect of American culture.
Overall, the suspenseful and exhilarating novel by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward spectacularly captured the high-stake emotions and widespread confusion caused by President Nixon and his advisors in the Watergate scandal. What was perhaps the most interesting result of the novel was its ability to exemplify the once honest, unbiased, and truth-seeking nature of American journalism. Reading as Woodward and Bernstein put in the time and effort to verify each fact and allegation was a credit to the profession of journalism, and an inevitable motivator for those seeking to enter the field. This story was definitely an example of the “American Way,” where hard work and dedication truly do pay off in the end.
Bernstein, Carl and Woodward, Bob. All the President’s Men. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974. pp. 317.
Barbra Dillon is the Managing Editor of Fanboy Comics, an independent comic book publishing company based in Los Angeles, Calif. She has produced numerous short films including Something Animal and Batman of Suburbia, and served as Legal Advisor for the film Walken on Sunshine. For more interviews, blogs, and reviews by Barbra and the FBC staff, check out the Fanboy Comics website at FanboyComics.net or sign up for the e-newsletter, The Fanboy Scoop, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.