The fact that Ben Bradlee, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and Robert Redford are collaborating 40 years on to make a documentary about Watergate, enflames, even prospectively, the raw sore of that terrible wound. There are, broadly, two versions of the Watergate saga. The first and still principal one is that brave, questing journalists and some incorruptible judges and members of Congress exposed and ended a conspiracy to subvert the U.S. Constitution, from the presidency and the offices surrounding it. The good guys won, the republic was saved, and virtue was exalted.
This is almost as colossal a fraud as the alleged attempted constitutional putsch whose fabrication is the core of this gargantuan self-serving myth. The second version, and what really happened, is that the Nixon re-election effort in 1972 committed some reprehensible but minor illegalities, and senior administration figures, in order not to embarrass the re-election effort, gave false testimony to congressional committees about it. Then there was a disorganized and half-hearted scramble to withhold evidence about these indignities, while the president's counsel, in a scandalous breach of professional standards, traded false evidence against his client for a sweetheart sentence for his own crimes.
The journalists who were lionized as holy crusaders of investigative courage and virtue were fed both real and false findings of FBI research by a former senior FBI official who was not particularly concerned with Nixon, but was outraged at having been passed over in the succession to J. Edgar Hoover as director of the bureau.
There was no plot by Nixon, whose conduct was not especially outrageous compared to many of his predecessors. And all he did that was legally questionable was maybe approving payments to one or more of the Watergate defendants in exchange for altered testimony. And a fair trial of the issue, if one could have been had, would have had great difficulty producing a conviction. There was no theft or damage in the Watergate, and the whole affair was unspeakably amateurish and could not possibly have been part of any coherent plan.
In all of Nixon's record through the whole tawdry business, what is discreditable is that he did tell his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, to break into the Brookings Institution and clean out the safe, and he did write in his memoirs, well after the fact, that even if he had known in advance of the proposed break-in at the office of the psychotherapist of Daniel Ellsberg, who stole and published the Pentagon Papers, he might not have prevented it. These are, at the least, signs of irrational impulses, but not necessarily of impeachable proclivities, as neither happened.
Nixon came from the Roosevelt-Truman-Eisenhower tradition that broadly defined national security cover for ostensibly questionable activities. But the Ellsberg revelations exposed the lies and mistakes of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and did not reflect on Nixon at all; there was no possible self-serving motive in his objection to them. Nixon was a lonely and emotionally taut man, and like other people in challenging positions, he sometimes uttered some pretty wild and woolly thoughts in what he thought to be the privacy of his own office and entourage. He didn't act on them.
The first Nixon term was one of the most successful in the country's history. He extracted the country from Vietnam while retaining a non-communist regime in Saigon, where 550,000 draftees had been mired when he entered office and 200 to 400 were returning each week in body bags.
He separated China and the Soviet Union from Hanoi, developed satisfactory relations with China, negotiated and signed the greatest arms control agreement in history with the USSR, started the Middle East peace process, started the Environmental Protection Agency, ended school segregation while sparing the country the court-ordered nightmare of busing children around metropolitan areas for racial balance in school districts, reduced the crime rate and made the government a much greater patron of the arts. The Johnson-era riots and assassinations stopped.
Nixon always had a powerful instinct for political survival, which inexplicably failed him after Watergate. No one is qualified to give a psychological explanation for that, though many have tried. But the penalty he paid for his errors vastly exceeded their gravity.
And when this absurd episode -- aptly allegorized by novelist Muriel Spark in The Abbess of Crewe, in which a thimble was stolen in a convent -- was super-imposed on public policy, the consequences were horrifying. Nixon saved the Democrats' war. In 1966, when President Johnson offered the North reciprocal withdrawal from the South, Ho Chi Minh, who could have accepted and returned after a brief interval and taken over the South, declined, as he thought he could defeat the U.S. He would not pay anything, even a minor face-saver such as he had given the French after Dien Bien Phu, to secure American withdrawal.
In April 1972, between Nixon's historic visits to China and Russia, the South Vietnamese repulsed the North's invasion, with no ground forces contribution at all from the United States, though with massive air support. Nixon believed this could be done again, after a further year's strengthening of the South, and it was to ensure the probability of American air support that he submitted the Vietnam peace treaty to the Senate in 1973.
When the expected North Vietnamese violation came, the Democrats' war in Vietnam having been saved by Nixon, the Democrats, cockahoop over Watergate, cut off all aid to South Vietnam and doomed Indochina to the communist massacres, the agonies of the Boat People, and the genocidal atrocities of the Cambodian Killing Fields.
The "Smoking Gun" that brought Nixon down, a tape that revealed that he had authorized his aides early on to ask Richard Helms and Vernon Walters, who directed the CIA, to suggest to the FBI that they drop the Watergate investigation, was not substantively damaging at all. Helms and Walters both said they would follow a direct order from the president and Nixon declined to take it further. The articles of impeachment voted against Nixon were nonsense, except possibly for the suggestion of witness tampering in the case of E. Howard Hunt, and that is far from clear. This whole affair was never more a just grounds for Nixon's removal from office than were the spurious and unsuccessful impeachments of Presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton.
The chief authors of the Watergate onslaught do not have clean hands. "Deep Throat," Mark Felt, was trying to avenge himself on the FBI. Woodward and Bernstein and Bradlee recast these allegations Felt fed them (many of them unfounded) into an attempted Nixonian putsch against the constitution. This was the most colossal and damaging fraud on the conventional American political wisdom in history, and it was distressing to see an aged Ben Bradlee on television recently cheerfully repeating this unspeakable canard.
The true journalistic colours and integrity of Bob Woodward were shown in his po-faced invention of a confession from former CIA director William Casey, when he was in fact comatose and heavily guarded in his hospital room, as the clincher in Woodward's puerile Iran-Contra whodunit, Veil. A conservative author who laid such a rotten egg would never be published or listened to again.
Felt, when charged by the Carter administration with criminal violation of the privacy of a domestic terror organization, was defended in court by Nixon, who insisted on being called though he suspected Felt of being "Deep Throat." Nixon braved unruly and foul-mouthed demonstrators to testify, and later was instrumental in securing a pardon for Felt and his co-accused from incoming President Reagan. This was scarcely mentioned by the Liberal media when Felt emerged as "Deep Throat," or when Felt died.
The Liberal national media unjustly destroyed a very successful presidency, albeit with the unwitting cooperation of their quarry. They temporarily unhinged the co-equality of the three branches of government, infected the whole American media for a generation with the rabies of uncritical assault, incited the ungrateful Democrats into crowning a war they started with defeat, and are complicit in the death of millions of Indochinese innocents, whom 57,000 American servicemen died trying to protect.
They have never faced up to any of this nor ceased, apparently to this day, to lavish commendations on themselves. They are the reason the populist right rules the news airwaves and their once mighty network newscasts and punditry have withered. The fervor and interminability of their ululations of triumph indicate they may have misgivings about the reckoning. The terrible wound they inflicted -- the "long national nightmare" they amplified -- will continue until this pseudo-Manichaean farce ends, the demonizations and canonizations stop, and Watergate and Vietnam are seen plain, just, and in proportion. This is Robert Redford's great chance.