Unasked Questions

The Final Days

by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
Simon and Schuster, 476 pp., $11.95

Instead of giving their new book a title of almost Churchillian grandeur, Woodward and Bernstein ought to have called it “Daddy Loses His Job.” Although the background for their story is the monumental marble of Washington, The Final Days is mostly about what happened to the friends and relatives when the father, breadwinner and head of an upwardly mobile, Southern California family, was unexpectedly fired from a job that everybody supposed would keep them all on easy street for the rest of their lives.

Fun, fast paced, and lively, as the writers of dust jackets are given to saying, The Final Days makes great events small and, in the process, drains them of their importance. A number of people who’ve read this miniaturization of history have remarked that they were surprised at how sympathetically Nixon comes off. But why shouldn’t he if he’s depicted, basically, as a nonpolitical figure? Everybody feels sorry for a guy with a family and a couple of mortgages who loses his job, and in The Final Days it’s very hard to tell whether Nixon is being canned as the head of Lions International, Union Carbide, or the American Presidency.

Len Garment was right, [Fred] Buzhardt thought,” the authors write of two of Nixon’s lawyers. “Watergate was a series of discrete, unrelated transactions. There had been no grand strategy, just consistently bad judgment.” Throw in bad luck, and that is the thesis of this book.

It’s an especially useful thesis for two self-described empiricists who, lacking any theory of the case, can’t develop a set of standards of what to include or exclude from their book. The result is the eclecticism of Time/Newsweek journalism in which the arrestingly irrelevant detail is used to impress upon the reader that representatives of this authoritative periodical penetrate even unto the bedrooms of the great. Or else why are we told that former special Watergate prosecutor Leon Jaworski has a green carpet in his eighth floor office in the Bank of the Southwest building in downtown Houston, or that the smile of Nixon’s criminal lawyer James St. Clair “revealed a gap between two front teeth,” or that Kissinger on a Middle East trip packed a chess book, detective stories, and a pornographic novel but chose instead to read the transcripts of the tapes “with morbid fascination”?

The book is silted with such superfluities. Tasteful or tasteless, some argument can be made for adverting to the former President’s sex life, but it’s beyond imagining why it was necessary to tell us how Milton Pitts got his job as the White House barber back in 1970. The two principal authors and their assistants, Al Kamen and Scott Armstrong, interviewed hundreds of people, but were they the right people and were they asked the right questions? No, this book is pedestrian American journalism in the literal sense of that adjective. The foot replaces the brain as our reporters tumble about with great gumption and careful fidelity asking every and anyone whether he or she was at the scene of the crime, and what, perchance did they see? The Final Days is a splendid reportorial effort but no amount of energy expended can make up for the lack of thought.

You’ll get a kick out of reading it of a summer evening if you whoosh over the dull parts where the lawyers are yakking at each other, but you’ll learn nothing more about the fall of Richard Nixon than you knew before you opened it. To this Woodward and Bernstein are entitled to complain they’re being criticized for not writing a book they never intended to write. Nevertheless if all they wanted to do was write the simple, human, and moving story of one man’s family they should have written a novel, because by giving us a depoliticized version of these momentously political events they’re making a statement whether they’re aware of it or not.

As the two men most famously identified with connecting Nixon, or at least his people, with the Watergate crimes, Woodward and Bernstein can’t help but shape the general opinion about the reasons for the man’s fall. Granted their book confines itself to the final days, it tells us that Watergate is the story of a bad king who gathers a lot of bad knights around him who do bad things, but the good people find out about them and they stop the bad king and the bad knights by sending the bad king into exile and the bad knights to the dungeon. The last two sentences of the book read, “Gerald Ford lingered for a minute, and then turned. He grasped his wife’s arm with both his hands and the two walked back to the White House.”

Only we haven’t lived happily ever after and this notion that Richard Nixon’s defenestration can be explained by defining him as a unique moral deviant doesn’t stand up. The good guys did not finally win, and Woodward and Bernstein don’t answer the question that Nixon posed as they describe him down on the rug saying his orisons with Herr Henry: “How had it come to this? How had a simple burglary, a breaking and entering, done all this?”

That’s on page 423, but on page 53 they are already saying that Nixon “knew, the staff knew and the other side knew that what his [Woodstein italics] people had done was nothing—literally nothing—compared to what had gone on before.” “Literally nothing” is a trifle exaggerated, but can anybody doubt that by the time he came to take the oath of office large-scale violation of civil liberties had long since become the standard operating procedure of the federal government and that not only did his predecessors know it but many others inside and outside the government as well?

The press knew too, as the history of the harassment and persecution of Martin Luther King shows. What the FBI did to King was a lot worse than bugging Larry O’Brien’s telephone, and important figures in the press knew the FBI was doing it because the bureau came to them and told them in an effort to get the papers to print nasties about the civil-rights leader not unlike what Woodward and Bernstein would print about Nixon a decade later.

This is written not to censure W-B for quoting jocose speculations by White House staffers about Nixon’s sexual habits, but to remind us that politics can bend perception. The editors who shared the services of their reporters with the CIA or heard the FBI volunteer how they were routinely depriving King of his First, Fourth, Fourteenth, and every other right couldn’t bear to face the implications. It was only when the top of the government had become rancid in their eyes that they grew to be stern civil libertarians. Over the years there were hundreds of incidents of government law breaking that were known about and occasionally got in the papers (cf. many stories by Jack Nelson of The Los Angeles Times). By 1972, before the Watergate break-in, the evidence that the government routinely and as a matter of policy committed crimes was so obvious that if it had had teeth it could have bitten the editors and politicians who didn’t see it. After March 1971, when radicals broke into the FBI resident agent’s office in Media, Pennsylvania, it was no longer necessary to come to these conclusions a posteriori. Xeroxed documentary proof of the policy and practice was circulated all over.

This doesn’t make Richard Nixon any less of a nerdly aspiring tyrant, but it does make his question about why this burglary the more important to answer. Ten years previously a woman believed to be the mistress of another president was murdered under mysterious circumstances, her residence was broken into by a CIA agent and her diary burned. Washington has been awash with such frightful stories and rumors for many, many years; so why Watergate, or more precisely, why did the cover-up fail? Cover-ups never failed before even when they had no covers; people simply turned their eyes away.

Woodward and Bernstein appearing on a number of television shows to talk about their book have repeatedly said that such questions lie outside their purlieu as reporters. We’re only interested in the facts, Ma’am, just the facts. It’s the strength and the weakness of our journalism to believe the facts are always to be found on the inside, to see the reporter’s job as penetrating closer and closer to find out what really happened. The trouble is that the closer you get the harder it is to distinguish between a volcano cone in eruption and the puss from the pore of a pimple. W-B may not have penetrated the sanctum sanctorum—Richard Nixon is largely absent from this book—but they did get to the anteroom where they discovered David Eisenhower playing dice baseball.

The answer to why this burglary should decapitate a president isn’t to be found by interviewing the White House butler or the Nixon children. It must lie in the domain of politics, in the hypothesis that a confluence of groups and individuals decided somewhere along the line to exploit Watergate and use the incident to rid themselves of a man who they’d come to think was either dangerous or dangerously incompetent. If so, that might explain why in late 1973 and 1974 we experienced this sudden establishmentarian interest in the protection of civil liberties.

There is increasing conjecture that the CIA, or elements of it, at least greased the skids for Nixon. The record shows that most of the people immediately involved in the burglary either were at the time or had been CIA operatives. The tapes of CIA-White House conversations concerning these transactions were destroyed in defiance of a congressional request that they be safeguarded. Former CIA director Helms probably lied in some of his testimony about Watergate. Then we have the case of Alexander Butterfield, the man on the Nixon staff who told the Ervin committee about the existence of the White House taping system, the proximate cause which sank the president. Butterfield, a retired air force officer, has been accused of being a CIA man. He denies it and the accusation hasn’t been proven, but given the byzantine intrigue of our nation’s capital and the fact that Butterfield’s revelation was so injurious, there has been speculation that Butterfield deliberately let the secret out.

Butterfield produced the rope for the noose at a meeting of the Ervin committee junior staff. There was no stenographer present but one of the book’s authors, Scott Armstrong, was. According to The Final Days it was Butterfield who drew attention to the fact that a White House memo sent to the committee on a supposedly unrecorded Nixon-Dean conversation “included an actual quote.” The book, after giving us some back and forth between Butterfield and the staff, says, “Don Sanders, the deputy counsel to the Republican minority, thought there might be some way to document the President’s innocence. He led to his question cautiously. ‘Dean indicated there might be some facility for taping…. Is it possible Dean knew what he was talking about?”’

In reply the book has Butterfield saying, “No, Dean didn’t know about it,’ he said at last, ‘But that is where this must have come from. There is a tape in each of the President’s offices. It is kept by the Secret Service, and only four other men know about it.”’

But this isn’t the only version of what happened in Room G-334 of the New Senate Office Building that afternoon. J. Anthony Lukas in Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years gives Don Sander’s recollection about how the single most important Watergate event—next to the arrest of the burglars themselves—came to happen:

Sanders: …Do you know any basis for the implication in Dean’s testimony that the conversations in the President’s office are recorded?

Butterfield: I was hoping you fellows wouldn’t ask me about that. I’ve wondered what I would say, I’m concerned about the effect my answer will have in national security and international affairs. But I suppose I have to assume that this is a formal, official interview in the same vein as if I were being questioned in open session under oath.

Sanders: That’s right.

Butterfield: Well…yes, there’s a recording system in the President’s office.

Leave it to others to determine which version is more accurate and whether either or a mixture of both supports the suspicion that Butterfield was told by the CIA to do a job on his boss. Where Woodward and Bernstein can be faulted is in failing to say that one of their two other collaborators was a participant, not an after-the-fact researcher, and a participant against whom unpleasant accusations have been made by the committee’s Republican minority counsel, Fred Thompson. He writes in his book (At That Point In Time: The Inside Story of the Senate Watergate Committee),

Armstrong, in my view, should never have been on the staff. Although very capable, he was a close friend, from their days at Yale, of Bob Woodward of The Washington Post…. More than once I accused Armstrong of being Woodward’s source. After Rolling Stone magazine published an article that characterized every member of the staff—except Armstrong—as incompetent or worse, Armstrong admitted to Sam Dash that he had provided information for that article.

None of which is to say that participants shouldn’t collaborate in writing history or that the Woodstein version of these events is to be dismissed as unreliable. We don’t know that. What would help is if all the authors put their cards on the table and let the readers know how they were partis pris to the controversies unless they also are to be regarded as anonymous sources whose identities must be hidden. (In the foreword Armstrong is described as “a former Senate Watergate Committee investigator,” which makes him out to be far more watery and neutral a character than Thompson sees him.)

The CIA might have wanted to topple Nixon out of fear that he was setting up an independent spy operation or worry that he was conceding too much to the Russians or the Arabs. But even if the whole organization was involved, and not just some unhappy elements which might have supplied Nixon with the means to commit his crimes and then exposed him, that wouldn’t be enough to bring a president down. A CIA attempt to set Nixon up couldn’t come off unless many other larger power groupings either wanted him to go or were sufficiently dissatisfied with him that they would stand aside and withhold their help.

The crimes of Watergate have so preoccupied us that we haven’t considered the possibility that it was Nixon’s politics which may have laid him low. By the time 1974 and his expulsion rolled around he was a man fighting a five-front was against interests who didn’t care how many offices his burglars broke into but who had to be scared and threatened by the other things he was doing.

By every outward indication every part of the federal bureaucracy that could stick out a foot to trip him or whap him over the head from the back did so. In the fall of 1973 an IRS employee sent a computer read-out of Nixon’s income tax returns to the Providence Journal-Bulletin, and there’s little doubt that the publication of the fact that he was paying less than $1,000 a year in taxes did more to wreck his popularity than the combined activities of all the White House horrors, as John Mitchell called them. Before this revelation it would have been easier to steal the designs of the Polaris missile than a president’s tax returns. Every expense account chisel, large and small, for furniture in his houses or extra maid service fell out on to the sidewalk and public view from the Government Services Administration, the Secret Service, the FBI, or who knows where. It will take some patient sifting to go back over so many leaked stories to locate their probable sources.

If the bureaucracy was so estranged as to pull pranks on this president they had never dared to pull on another, they had, from their point of view, reason. Almost from the moment he entered office Nixon undertook the labor of trying to bring the slothful moloch under effective Executive Office direction. These were the days of the New Federalism and the New American Revolution if you recall those slogans. The things Nixon was saying about government five or six years ago Carter, Reagan, Brown, and Ford are saying now, but Nixon was demanding legislation and when he wasn’t getting it he was going ahead where he could and as he could to effect reorganization by executive action, some of which was legal and some of which wasn’t.

Ultimately he tried to abolish the cabinet and departmental system in order to cluster their functions under three presidential assistants located in the White House. The tool that was forged to make the new arrangements work was the Office of Management and Budget, which had a very large computer, a beefed-up staff, and the ability, in theory at any rate, to reach in and control and direct any department or agency at almost any level.

It was probably more frightening on paper than in action, but it’s incontestable that Nixon was moving toward an unheard of degree of consolidation of power and direction in the White House. With the new OMB a president might be able to run a chunk of the government. Woodward and Bernstein describe a meeting with Philip Buchen, Ford’s pal and close adviser, Senator Robert Griffin, and several other muckety-mucks just before Nixon resigns when they realize their gang is going to take over in a matter of days or hours: ” ‘The number-one priority is to get rid of Ziegler,’ Buchen said. OMB Director Ash and his deputy, [Fred] Malek, had to go immediately, others suggested. They were Nixon symbols. Buchen recognized that everyone was expressing his particular frustrations. Griffin wanted Congress to play more of a role.”

Ziegler was indeed a Nixon symbol, but Roy Ash? This dangerous man was about as well known to the general public as the White House janitor. That he would be designated the number two head to be chopped tells you something of the force of the drive to get the bureaucracy back out from under the threat of White House control.

The administrative history of the Nixon presidency has yet to be written, but it seems there was frequently more threat than execution so that potential enemies were stirred up without being deprived of their power. This certainly was the case with Nixon’s announcement, the day after his reelection, that he wanted the resignations of every presidential appointee on his desk pronto. As far as one can tell the consternation was so considerable that many of these 2,000 plus people who should have been Nixon loyalists by all rights were driven to make common cause with the already alienated bureaucracy.

The appointees and the higher levels of the bureaucracy are in constant contact with every significant power group in the society. The consternation and concern of the people in the government must have been passed over to the leaders of their constituencies or private sector baronies. That’s clear enough in social work, education, and housing, but there’s also reason to believe that Nixon’s relations with the business world, or important segments of it, deteriorated to the point that, if they didn’t help kick him out, they weren’t going to fight to keep him.

There is not yet much research on this matter, but if American corporate businessmen regard the president as the ultimate board chairman whose duty is to keep the economy somewhat stable and predictable, Nixon failed them On top of two stock market crashes and two rounds of price control, businessmen suffered not only from our well-publicized inflation but, starting in 1973, the worst liquidity crisis we’ve had since 1929. By the spring of 1974 there was an absence of money; corporations were reduced to not paying their taxes so they could pay their employees. While America watched Mr. Rodino and company do their constitutional heroics that summer, Wall Street speculated on the possibility of a general collapse after Labor Day.

As if that weren’t enough to sour business support, there’s the matter of campaign contributions or extortions. Many of the illegal contributions weren’t made by businessmen anxious to cheat the law and help their pal, but by men who were scared of what would happen to them if they didn’t kick in. “And don’t forget the people who didn’t break the law by contributing company money,” a Washington corporate Veep reminded me. “I knew lots of guys who weren’t going to break the law so that to come up with the dough they had to go home and sell their wife’s stock. If you don’t think there was resentment….”

Again, there’s no adequate measure of how great that resentment was. Moreover, in 1972 it had no way to express itself. Businessmen weren’t going to support George McGovern, but, pending the time somebody does a different kind of reporting job than the one Woodstein have done, we can speculate there was a lot of waiting in the bushes by men with clubs ready to conk Nixon should the opportunity arise. During the last six or eight months of Nixon’s reign big business support was conspicuously invisible. There seem to have been few of those discreet calls to members of Congress and no full-page ads in The Wall Street Journal. Nixon was left with little more to cheer for him than the Yahoos at real-estate conventions and the loyal intransigents like Congressman Charles Wiggins of California and Rabbi Baruch Korff.

Follow the money,” says Deep Throat in the movie, looking and sounding like that whacked-out Mayan god on the Chevy Chase show. “Follow the money.” It was good advice, and had Woodstein continued to do what the dark father of all political leaks told them, they would have had more interesting things to write about than Julie hen pecking David. As things stand, we still have no clear idea of who took what from whom—there are millions unaccounted for—nor do we yet have a fix on the part American business played.

Space doesn’t permit examining the whole coalition of enemies that Nixon’s politics, not his burglaries or the discovery thereof, raised up against him. Nevertheless mention ought to be made of Yeoman First Class Charles E. Radford, who was kicked out of his clerking job with the National Security Council when it was discovered he was a Pentagon spy filching White House documents not intended for admirals’ eyes. Radford was transferred to the command of a canoe in Oregon.

The incident suggests that while some of us lovingly remember Mr. Nixon as the Hanoi Christmas bomber, others felt he was a genuine menace to national security. Without forgetting the number of people who were killed in Southeast Asia while Nixon was horsing around making sure nobody thought America was a pitiful weak giant, we should also remember the man was responsible for the only major adjustment of our foreign policy toward peaceful accommodation since the Second World War. He was so ugly, but you can’t take credit away from him for some of the things he did, and if you do, it’s impossible to understand the forces which encompassed his downfall.

But we’ve been digressing to talk about the book we need, not the book Woodstein set out to write—and a good thing, too, with their strange, not to say eccentric, methodology. Is there anybody who hasn’t heard our two authors on a talk show explain, “Nothing in this book has been reconstructed without accounts from at least two people.”

This two-source principle must be a holdover from daily journalism. You can’t be successfully sued for libel if you can show that you took the pains to get the information from two different sources. That’s good in the courtroom but not in the history books. Are you really going to say something didn’t happen because there’s only one witness? Under that rubric we couldn’t write about the debates in our own Constitutional Convention for which we really have only one source, James Madison. One of the historian’s jobs is not to exclude Madison’s testimony, but to assay for reliability and bias as well as he can.

That’s impossible to do if you’re going to make Madison anonymous. The Woodstein anonymous source doctrine is a little titched in the head. There are vast parts of the book that are so flaccidly uncontroversial that it is impossible to see why anyone would object to having the material attributed to him. One of the reasons Woodstein give for secreting the names of all their sources is that the people they interviewed would be less likely to say “self-serving” things if they knew their words weren’t for direct attribution. That reflects the most sweetly naïve view of human beings and their motivations, but one probably characteristic of investigative reporters who don’t live in a very complicated world.

We…talked…with…people who consistently sought to give versions of events that were slanted, self-serving, or otherwise untrustworthy; we used information from them only when we were convinced by more reliable sources of its accuracy,” say our authors. Aside from the fact that every one of us is self-serving in our speech—whom else are we to serve?—you’ll note that Woodstein are (is?) operating on the premise that there is always one true and accurate story of every event and that two good, hardworking reporters can find it.

It’s a childish idea, but in their text they appear to accomplish it and they explain how they did it: “If we obtained two versions, we resolved disagreements through re-interviewing. If this proved impossible, we left out any material we could not confirm.” That solves the problem. You eliminate all conflict, uncertainty, and ambiguity. Can you imagine how different, and how much better, a book they would have written if they had included some of this material?

Woodstein have also been unfairly picked on for their use of quotation marks and their describing what people were thinking at a given moment. Assuming they have a good base for believing that so-and-so did say or think something close to that at the time, there’s no reason to object. Using such devices as “he thought,” “it seemed to her,” etc., may make the narrative flow more easily and there’s no need to think history has to be dull to be good.

Enjoy it at the beach this summer, but remember The Final Days isn’t the last word.