Once upon a time — recently, actually; it was only 40 years ago — in a far-away land, there ruled a gang that thought they would always go unpunished. That is why before elections they would organize street demonstrations against their opponents, spread nasty gossip about them, have thugs break in to their apartments and steal important documents and so on. The boss of the gang, the president, bugged his office to have the upper hand against all interlocutors, just in case.
The chief of police of this country held office for 48 years, until his death. One of the six presidents he served wanted to fire him, but he did not dare because he knew that the chief of police had been collecting incriminating evidence, of extramarital affairs, for example, against all public figures—politicians, actors, writers. And it so happened that the chief of police could reveal that the president had dozens of mistresses.
When the all-powerful chief of police died at the age of 77, his secretary burned the secret dossier containing aggravating documents, which was apparently several thousand pages long.
According to the police of this peculiar country, the biggest threat to its security had been a pastor who demanded equal rights for blacks. He was constantly followed. The spooks quickly discovered that the pastor, just like the aforementioned president, had a soft spot for women, whom he would score compulsively in motels in which he stayed when he traveled around the country. The police recorded the pastor's encounters with mistresses and threatened him. They sent letters to him—and his wife—with recordings of the motel rendezvous, demanding he cease his public activism, or that he not go to Oslo to collect his Nobel Prize.
The soldiers of this peculiar country fought in South Asia, where they committed unheard-of massacres. One day in a little village they slaughtered about 350 to 500 civilians—the precise number has never been established, but it is clear that there were mostly women and children. The soldiers went berserk; they had the defenseless victims form small groups and shot them with machine guns, they would push living people into a well and then throw grenades into it, and so on. The commanders tried to cover it all up, but the company photographer sold the photos of the massacre to the press. An investigation was carried out, as a result of which one general was demoted to the rank of colonel and one lieutenant, who killed over 20 people with his own hands, was given a life sentence, but the secretary of defense pardoned him (“because he was just following orders”...). It appears then that no one has been punished, which is even more shocking than the massacre itself.
The country of which I speak would have fulfilled almost all the criteria to be called a banana republic; all but two: Bananas never grew there and it has been—and still is—the biggest superpower in the world, and a self-proclaimed leader in humanity's march towards democracy, happiness, freedom, etc.
Such was America by the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 70s—the country of President Richard Nixon, the country of lifelong Head of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover, the country of his threats toward the Pastor Martin Luther King and the country of unpunished killers of Vietnamese children and women from My Lai.
The Watergate scandal, which the book “All the President's Men” talks about, was a symbolic end to that country; it became a nationwide shock, a collective cleansing comparable to that of ancient Greek catharsis and, finally, proof that America was not a banana republic.
The journalistic investigation, led by two young Washington Post reporters, regarding the break-in to the Democratic Party headquarters—which initially seemed like an irrelevant episode in the election campaign—saw Nixon step down from office in infamy and his closest partners from the White House, among them the chief of staff and attorney general, go to jail.
Of course, it would be a huge exaggeration to claim that Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward single-handedly saved America. Journalists from a few newspapers, as well as attorneys and congressmen who eventually opened their own investigations, contributed to the final exposure of the gang at top political levels.
It has to be said, however, that in the beginning, the two stubborn Washington Post reporters did dig deeper into the case and they did notice there had been more to it than just simple mischief by a few common criminals. Each day they made dozens of calls. At night they would show up at dozens of private homes of people who they thought might have known something. They acted on the principle that “when a door closes, with a little force a window opens.” They demonstrated an incredible ability to gather information—even the famous private detective Philip Marlowe, from Raymond Chandler's novels, would have envied their determination.
In “All the President's Men,” Bernstein and Woodward give a day-by-day account of their investigation, using dry and common language. They are not exceptional writers. But their book is exceptional, for it describes incredible events from the perspective of the eyewitnesses who created them.
My association with Chandler is not coincidental—you read “All the President's Men” like you would read an excellent detective story. Despite the fact that the reader knows how it ends, it is fascinating to gradually discover the conspiracy, to observe how chapter by chapter the noose grows tighter and tighter—first the mercenaries who do the dirty work are exposed; after that minor advisors to the president; and finally, his most important associates.
It is fascinating—and, admittedly, very pleasant—to see how self-righteous people of power first mock the journalists, but slowly lose their cynical smirks as they start getting nervous, their testimony slowly muddling, until they relent and finally they beg, tears in their eyes, not to publish yet another aggravating article. The evil satisfaction that the reader feels is bigger because all this really happened.
And this is an added value to Bernstein and Woodward's book: Although it is set in a foreign reality of Washington in the beginning of the 70s, it tells a universal story about those in power whose haughtiness gets punished.
In the end President Nixon drops, falling victim to his own paranoia. He recorded all conversations in the Oval Office of the White House to have the upper hand against others, but it was those very recordings—made public—that crushed him for good. That, and the infamous missing 18 minutes that have been erased before the recordings were handed over to the court of inquiry. To this day, no one knows what was said then; various crazy conspiracy theories have emerged. But in the thousands of minutes that have remained untouched, there were more than enough fragments that aggravated the president.
“All the President's Men” does not end with Nixon stepping down, since the book was published a few weeks before that. That is why, after reading the last chapter, it is recommended that you turn on your computer, go to YouTube and look up Nixon's last speech yourself.
The second gap that the authors have not been able to fill was the famous case of Deep Throat. This pseudonym was attributed to a mysterious informant, someone who was at the top of the ladder of authority, who delivered to Woodward the most important clues, provided he would forever remain anonymous.
The pseudonym was taken from a porno famous at the time of Watergate—and, in some circles, still to this day—called “Deep Throat.” (It tells an absurd story of a woman who does not have a clitoris in the usual spot but instead in her throat, and so ordinary sex did not bring her full pleasure.)
Woodward meets with Deep Throat in an underground garage, usually at 3 a.m. If the journalist wants to talk, he puts a pot plant on the windowsill of his apartment. If the informant wants to say something, he writes down the time of the meeting on the 20th page of The New York Times, a copy of which Woodward finds every day at his door as part of his subscription. Woodward never looked into how on earth Deep Throat had access to his copy of the paper.
For many years it has been debated who the mysterious informant might have been. Only three men knew: Woodward, Washington Post Editor-in-Chief Ben Bradlee and, of course, Deep Throat himself. The mystery went unsolved until 2005: 92-year-old Mark Felt came out himself. He had been the number-three man in the FBI by the end of Hoover's life; after Hoover’s death, Felt advanced one level to deputy chief. He had been expecting to become the director, but Nixon preferred to appoint one of his own men, not someone from Hoover's team. Unfulfilled ambitions surely must have been one of the things that caused Felt to decide to destroy Nixon and his team. It is also said that he had been protecting the FBI from being “taken over” by the White House.
Even 40 years ago, it was suspected that Deep Throat must have been someone from the very top of the FBI; apparently, sometimes Woodward and Bernstein's articles seemed straight out of the agency's reports. Nixon even suspected Felt, but Felt would point-blank deny involvement.
The exposure of Deep Throat’s identity complicates the Watergate legend—about the fourth power, the press, which saved America at an ugly time when the three powers—executive, judicial and legislative—had failed. It may be that the journalists were not the main actors of the drama but were just pawns that the FBI's number-two man skillfully used to play Nixon. The fourth power may have only been a tool in a conflict of two factions of the first power.
Talk about this topic is, on some level however, purely academic; that is, it is over-complicated. It resembles a little the discussion about which was first, the chicken or the egg. Even if Bernstein and Woodward were indeed used, the America in which Deep Throat won is much better than an America in which Nixon's gang would have won.