*All The President’s Men* for the Trump era

If you’re looking for guidance on the current media-political climate in the United States, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of All The President’s Men, the book-length account of the Watergate investigation by Woodward and Bernstein. This is one of those I-can’t-believe-I-haven’t-read-it-sooner books, something I really should have been handed the day I walked into the newsroom at the Ottawa Citizen almost a decade ago. (The movie is great too, but it only covers the period from the break-in until Nixon’s re-election in ‘72, so it misses what is arguably the most interesting stuff. It’s also a bit jarring to read the book knowing that Deep Throat was Mark Felt, the #2 at the FBI at the time.)

Aside from its value as analogue journalism-porn (See also: Spotlight) in many ways, it will make you feel better about what’s going on now. History doesn’t repeat itself but it definitely rhymes: America has seen shit-show presidencies before and survived. But it isn’t just that Nixon’s administration was a shit-show, it is that it was a shit-show in many of the same respects as Trump. In fact, the resonances are so strong, I’d love to see an updated history of Watergate and the journalism that helped bring Nixon down.

At any rate, here are five takeaways from AtPM for the Trump Era:

  1. You think the Trump White House lies? The Nixon White House lied. Constantly, about everything. At one point Woodward and Bernstein meet Seymour Hersh, then of the New York Times, for dinner. They quote Hersh saying something like “All this administration knows how to do is lie”. They lied to the public, they lied to Congress, but most importantly, they lied to one another. (See #5 below).
  1. The media is the enemy. Everyone went nuts when Trump called the media “the enemy of the people”, but Nixon and his spokespeople said pretty much the same thing, over and over again. They also made it personal, accusing the Washington Post in particular of working for the McGovern campaign. (This grated particularly on Woodward, a registered Republican). Toward the tail end of the saga, when it was clear that the reporting had been accurate, Nixon’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler (the Sean Spicer of his day), actually apologized to Woodward and Bernstein.
  1. Journalism matters. One of the more interesting effects of the Trump victory is the way it has reinvigorated legacy media, with the NYT and the WaPo reporting huge bumps in paid subscriptions. As the Trump debacle stumbles on, the Post and Times are going head to head in a scoop war. It’s great to watch, but it also echoes what happened with Watergate. While the Post (and Woodward and Bernstein) get most of the credit for uncovering Watergate, it’s not clear how much of that is very successful positioning by them (which is why I’d love to see an updated history). Some of the biggest advances in the story were made by Time Magazine, the LA Times, and the NYT, which W&B were left scrambling to match. This is of course how it should be; there are some pretty obvious lessons here for the debate over the future of the news media.
  1. Impeachment takes time. Reading through social media and the #resist feeds, there’s a strange impatience with the fact that Trump is still the president, as if he should have been removed from office at the first signs of serious trouble back in February. It’s worth keeping in mind that the period from the break-in till Nixon’s resignation was over two years. Furthermore, Nixon won the ‘72 election with 61 per cent of the vote, in the midst of the crisis over Watergate. Canadians in particular need to keep in mind that the US is not a confidence-based system, and it’s really, really hard to end a presidency mid-term. It wasn’t until April of ‘73 when White House counsel John Dean started cooperating with federal investigators, that events took on a momentum of their own, and even then Nixon hung on right until it was clear he was going to lose the impeachment vote in the Senate. 
  1. The rats will turn on themselves.  Trump is obsessed with hunting down the sources of leaks to the press from his administration. What’s hilarious is that every time one of his officials reads the riot act to his or her staff about leaks, that gets leaked. Nixon was similarly obsessed with it; in fact one of the great revelations in the Watergate story is how the ratfucking stretched back to long before the break-in, as Nixon tried to find out how was leaking to the press. (Which is how Watergate became connected to the Pentagon papers, as Nixon ordered wiretaps on reporters and government employees to find out who was doing the leaking).  But here’s the point: It is one thing to have a single mole in an otherwise solid and high-trust organisation. But when everyone starts leaking on everyone else, the gig is up. And that is what eventually caused the dam to burst over Watergate, when it became every man for himself. Like I said, history doesn’t repeat but it does rhyme. 



*All The President’s Men* for the Trump era — 4 Comments

  1. It would have been considerably more enjoyable to read the piece if it was not for the appearance and repetition of the unnecessary profanity (“shit-show” and “ratfucking” – do such terms really make an argument more academic, intellectual or thought-provoking?).

    I very much enjoyed the movie and the book when they came out and always considered Woodward and Bernstein to be heroes. They proved that investigative journalism and freedom of the press are important, and could do the unthinkable…overthrow a corrupt President.

    But comparing Nixon to Trump and suggesting they are essentially the same on all levels makes me cringe. While they are certainly both bullies who were willing to cheat and fight dirty, Nixon had a political record that stretched back many years before his Presidency, and he also wrote many fascinating books. Nixon knew a lot about global power politics and strategy. He defended and promoted what he believed to be America’s interests during a very difficult period of the Cold War. Some things worked, and others did not. He successfully opened the door to a new era of relations with China. He tried to end the Vietnam War through some honourable negotiations, but proved that you can’t negotiate from weakness. America abandoned Vietnam in 1973, and by ’75 communist tanks from the North were rolling into Saigon. Nixon bombed the Ho Chi Minh trail through Cambodia that the communist north was using to supply the Viet Cong, and the world criticized him for it. But after America left, Cambodia’s fields became known as “killing”. Then the “boat people” refugee crisis occurred. Over a million people left Vietnam after the communists imposed their “peace” (I don’t remember that kind of figure of desperate refugees fleeing in overcrowded and unseaworthy boats – half of whom could expect to die at sea – while Nixon was orchestrating America’s attempt to prevent the communists from taking the South over). Of course there were other debacles, like the Allende Affair in 73, but the point is that at the height of the Cold War, nobody had any doubts about where Nixon stood with respect to the Soviets the global game of chess. With an advisor like Kissinger, you knew that there were at least some brains in the White House somewhere and that there was some sort of strategy being pursued that had some consistent rationale behind it.

    In contrast, since Trump took over the White House in January, it seems that he is probably the most unqualified person for the job and behaves like a bull in a china shop. Practically every thing he has done to date has left traditional allies worried, and historic opponents smiling. After the most recent NATO and G7 meetings Trump spoke of “good meetings” whereas the German Chancellor suggested that it was increasingly clear that Europe cannot rely on America anymore. It strikes me as insulting to Nixon to suggest a similarity with Trump.

  2. One important difference in the Watergate era is that the Republican party was polycentric. A few major donors now seem to exercise discipline over the party. A few Republican leaders need to rediscover the virtues of greater independence in order to end the Trump nightmare.

  3. >Reading through social media and the #resist feeds, there’s a strange impatience with the fact that Trump is still the president, as if he should have been removed from office at the first signs of serious trouble back in February. It’s worth keeping in mind that the period from the break-in till Nixon’s resignation was over two years.

    Ah just like in catch 22, Trump is guilty beyond a doubt… All that remains is to find something to charge him with.