Book review: All The President’s Men

Originally published 11/09/2015

All The President’s Men is investigative journalism at its finest. The book details the uncovering of political corruption within United States politics and weighs often on journalist and newspaper ethics. Detailing journalists Bob Woodward’s and Carl Bernstein’s relationships with innumerable sources, as well as with White House and FBI informants, this book is a modern narrative embodying classic themes of knowledge-versus-ignorance, power-and-corruption and discovery.

The book explains Watergate was not a one-off incident; United States politics had been thick with espionage and underhanded goings on for years before the Watergate-based Democratic National Committee headquarters became the scene of great media interest. All The President’s Men goes to great lengths to explain the damaging actions the Republican Party and Nixon staff had made for years prior to the incident. The book presents the true goings on behind party doors, the subterfuge in 20th century United States politics and, surprising to this reader, the nonchalance with which White House staff were willing to undermine political rivals and disrupt the democratic process. It’s a long text which highlights the unethical, undemocratic and illegal activities of White House personnel during the 1960s and 1970s, all of which was uncovered following the Watergate break-in (though it may be naïve to think absolutely everything was uncovered). The book takes the reader on a journey to the darkest depths of Nixon’s White House, exposing entire, previously unknown, organisations established for the purpose of disrupting the America’s democratic system.

The book is about integrity. Most readers will recognise the Watergate scandal, but what it introduces is the determination and intensity with which these two journalists undertook the investigation. There is no lying to sources, or misleading of contacts to get a story. Woodward and Bernstein present themselves as honest journalists. As protagonists they are authentic and as narrators they are far from condescending to the reader and regularly recognise their own mistakes while developing their investigation. But despite having the opportunity to present themselves as the focus for the story, the narrative focuses only on Watergate and the White House. This is not a biography about the journalists, or a praise of their work; this is an honest account of the work carried out by Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and the Washington Post.

The book introduces a catalogue of characters from a variety of backings: other journalists, editors, FBI agents, White House officials, Deep Throat, previously unknown professional saboteurs working for the Nixon administration, and a series of anonymous contacts who only add to the air of mystery surrounding the incident. There are no shortages of unscrupulous government officials for the reader to become frustrated with and there are a number of laughter-inducing moments (including a scene in which the two journalists were paranoid their editor’s front garden may have been bugged by White House officials). Though the topic of discussion is flatly serious, Woodward and Bernstein bring forward the facts and the suspicions mixed with admittance of their own mistakes and young-journalist impetuousness. All The President’s Men is little more and nothing less than an honest account of the entire Watergate story by the men who investigated it.

However, the text is far from always a thrilling read. Persistent readers are rewarded with a rich, engaging narrative well into the book, but the early chapters are often dry and frequently a challenge to follow. Names of Cuban thieves and low-level White House employees are thrown around so regularly you’ll struggle to work out who is who early on; similarly, the authors were happy to include anecdotes of interviews that got them little to no information to push the investigation – something that brings little to the narrative and, for the busy reader, can be frustratingly time consuming. But perseverance pays for the reader as the novel progresses and the investigation’s intensity increases. Once the story is underway, we are very much involved in the investigation and can recognise the pressure mounting on the Post as the White House moves to protect its reputation. Woodward and Bernstein recount the switching of the tides, the point when the White House became vulnerable to the Post‘s investigation and not vice versa, a major turning point in the narrative. Mounting evidence of corruption within the U.S. government switches the pressure from government to journalist, and this is especially well detailed in the final chapters. If you’re weighing up whether or not to watch the film or read the book, only the whole Watergate story is presented in the book.

All The President’s Men is a long – at times dry – narrative, detailing the successes and failures of Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein during their investigation of the Watergate break-in scandal and the revelations it uncovered about the Nixon administration. Containing mountains more information on the events than the 1976 film, All The President’s Men describes the long process of investigative reporting and the power of the press. The book brings with it no revolutionary narrative style, but is a bare-bones look at the 700-plus days from the Watergate break-in to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. To a reader with only a basic knowledge of Watergate and its implications, the novel is a great source of primary information and non-fiction storytelling. The book’s anecdotes provide real insight into the newspaper investigation and the perceived dangers to the journalists and sources involved. It remains as relevant to describing the fundamental skills required for a journalistic investigation today as it was when first printed in 1974. For added charm, pick up a first edition copy (as this reader did) – Nixon’s resignation hadn’t yet been announced when it was published, leaving a fairly ambiguous end to the text. Later editions address this.

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