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…

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