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Unasked Questions

The Final Days

by Bob Woodward, by 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?”’

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