I’m 26-years-old, not even close to old enough to remember Richard Nixon’s presidency and the Watergate scandal. But ever since I knew I wanted to be a journalist, I’ve meant to read All the President’s Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein:
In the most devastating political detective story of the century, two Washington Post reporters, whose brilliant, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation smashed the Watergate scandal wide open, tell the behind-the-scenes drama the way it really happened.
Beginning with the story of a simple burglary at Democratic headquarters and then continuing with headline after headline, Bernstein and Woodward kept the tale of conspiracy and the trail of dirty tricks coming — delivering the stunning revelations and pieces in the Watergate puzzle that brought about Nixon’s scandalous downfall. Their explosive reports won a Pulitzer Prize for The Washington Post and toppled the President. This is the book that changed America.
I have a serious weakness for books about the history of journalism or books that show how the process of journalism works. Watergate is one of those huge moments in the history of my profession, a time when the full power and importance of the press was made totally obvious. If it weren’t for the work of Woodward, Bernstein, and other journalists at major newspapers and magazines around the country, Nixon and his closest aides would have gotten away with a massive political conspiracy. It’s awesome they were caught! By reporters!
As you probably can’t tell, this isn’t a proper review because I couldn’t honestly tell readers at large (or even a reader individually) whether or not I think this would be a good book for them to read. It’s just so very particular and so tied into my interests as a journalist and a political junkie that I can’t really think about it as “literature” in the same way I can about other works of nonfiction that I’ve read.
Part of what I loved about this book was how “inside baseball” the whole thing was about the process of journalism. Every chapter details how Woodward and Bernstein went about gathering information or putting together key puzzle pieces in the process of uncovering the Watergate scandal. Given that the book was originally written in 1974, almost before the full extent of Watergate was revealed, there are a lot of vague sources and veiled references to who each of the journalist talked with to confirm key details. That was fascinating to me because showed how committed both Woodward and Bernstein were to protecting their sources (an important value for a journalist).
It was also cool to really see how the process of old-school reporting works. Today we rely so heavily on the Internet for information, it’s easy to be lazy about looking up things as basic as a phone number, address or job title. But when the Washington Post reporters were trying to track down a lead, they often had nothing but the phone book and a long afternoon to try and get what they needed. I admired Woodward and Bernstein’s tenacity and willingness to just put in the amount of time it takes to do a big story like this, particularly the time it takes to let a story develop and see how the pieces will fit together.
I think it’s easy to get down on journalism today, especially if you just look at what is happening online or on cable news (which… don’t even get me started). If All the President’s Men did one thing for me, it was remind me how much the big picture, investigative, combative but factual type of reporting matters. I love my job as a community journalist, and I know for a fact that I don’t have the personality to be the next Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein. But someone has to do good journalism like this ethically and effectively to keep people in power honest. When the good stuff happens, it matters. And now I’ll get off my soapbox.
I loved this book. I had a ton of fun reading it, but I’m not sure it’s necessarily a book for everyone.