Book Review — All the President's Men

Summary

All the President's Men offers a compelling description of Woodward and Bernsteins investigative journalism but suffers from a narrow presentation of the events surrounding Watergate and its exposure.

This is a posting of an old review I did (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/980218287) for this book but never published here.

While the main focus of All the President's Men is invariably was on Woodward and Bernstein and their attempts to uncover the larger secretes surrounding Watergate, the story at times had too many players and there was a paucity of big picture views to help glue everything together.

Removing Watergate, this book provided a pretty vivid descriptions of the lengths that reporters might need to go to get a story or find out sources. The descriptions of Deep Throat's (i.e. Mark Felt) involvement were interesting in illuminating the paranoia at the time and the methods employed to keep sources safe. This is somewhat in contrast to their attempts to gain access to the grand jury during one of the trials and their extreme luck at not being reprimanded by Judge Sirica.

A slightly larger bit of history about reporting tactics would also have helped when judging the actions of various journalists described in the book, especially some of the more questionable ways they derived answers from sources. For example, there is a scene where they are talking to a lawyer of a source then plan to publish a piece on and they realize he can't directly give the answer. To get around this, they say he can hang up or stay on the line after they ask the question, and that'll give them the answer. He stays on the line and they interpret that as validating their question, but later on it is revealed that the lawyer was confused and was actually trying to warn them not to run that particular story.

One particular aspect of the book, at least from a reader not immersed in the journalists world, is how easy it actually is to get in contact with people in power. For example, they attempt to get interviews with President Nixon, using the fact that they will give the questions to be asked in advance to hopefully gain access. At another point, there is a phone call with Kissinger in which he becomes rather angry when some of his comments won't be taken off the record, then later calls the Washington Post office and complains to their boss. Maybe having some of the larger-than-life characters appear one dimensional is the point (or they just didn't have enough access or space in the book to flesh them out), but the frantic pace at which the book goes sometimes makes it hard to keep all the sub-stories straight.

In the end, the book would have been slightly better off taking a step back from time-to-time to provide a bit of history about how other situations like this were handled by the media, both the public facing (what was published) and investigative sides. This would have helped make the events unfolding appear all the more incredible given what had come before. As it is, it is a good description of the various players involved, how people responded to the continual revelation that Watergate involved more people than originally thought, and the still crazy idea that the President could be black-mailed and corrupted to such a degree.

-biafra
bahanonu [at] alum.mit.edu

©2006-2017 | biafra ahanonu | updated 12 december 2017
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