Thursday, October 21, 2021

Book 306: All The President's Men


"The August 1 story had carried their joint byline; the day afterward, Woodward asked Sussman if Bernstein's name could appear with his on the follow-up story - though Bernstein was still in Miami and had not worked on it. From the on, any Watergate story would carry both names. Their colleagues melded the two into one and gleefully named their byline Woodstein."

Dates read: March 27- April 3, 2019

Rating: 5/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times best-seller

I'm a bad liar. Which isn't to say that I don't everyone else, I do, but I make an active effort to do so less often than I could. Not because I'm more morally righteous than anyone else, but because being bad at lying means I'm more likely to get caught. It's just mentally exhausting to keep track of who you've lied to, about what, and the stress of how to handle it if two people who each know different versions of the story start to talk to each other is too much for me to handle. I'm more likely to keep secrets than I am to lie, but even that's dicey (I'm a compulsive confessor when I've had a beer or two).

It's hard to think of someone more closely connected in the popular imagination to secrets and lies than one Richard Milhous Nixon. On his way to virtually certain re-election, he just couldn't resist the urge to direct a break-in to the Democratic National Committee office, and the cover-up cost him not only the presidency, but his legacy forevermore. It was the reporting of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward that really pushed the story forward, and their book All The President's Men recounts how they came to be major players in the scandal. The book is less about the underlying events than one might think, instead focusing primarily on the reporting process.

It turns out that the process of reporting a major story, involving many sources, is...kind of boring? Woodward and Bernstein try to track down sources, find them, talk to them, go back and talk to the same people again to try to get more information out of them, get referred to new sources, and then lather, rinse, repeat. The tension should build towards the next story, then the next, then the next, but it felt more like a trudge than anything else. I have to imagine that it often felt that way to report, little pieces fitting into a larger puzzle here and there, rather than a swelling towards a crescendo. But realistic or not, it doesn't make for very exciting reading. Especially when the biggest mystery of the book, the identity of Deep Throat, has been solved for those of us reading today.

I found myself wondering as I was reading if this story wouldn't have been better served by having someone else tell it. Obviously I understand why Woodward and Bernstein wanted to write the book about their own deeds, but either they're not particularly gifted at narrative-crafting or they're too far inside of it to see the forest for the trees. They recount giddily the editing that led the placement of sentences within a paragraph, making it clear that as reporters this was a fraught and tense process. But as a reader, it holds little excitement. A book that recounted their investigation and placed it in its context of what was happening at The Washington Post and in the Oval Office in a broader sense would be one I'd be very interested in reading. This one, though, left me mostly feeling like I'd really like to watch the Kirsten Dunst/Michelle Williams comedy Dick again, because if this was the real story the other one is much more entertaining. If you love newspaper/political reporting, or have a deeper interest in Watergate and the Nixon administration, this will be something you'll find it worthwhile to read. If you're looking for more dynamic nonfiction, this may be a classic but it is very skippable.

One year ago, I was reading: The White Princess

Two years ago, I was reading: The Line of Beauty

Three years ago, I was reading: Detroit

Four years ago, I was reading: Player Piano

Five years ago, I was reading: The Executioner's Song

Six years ago, I was reading: Through the Language Glass


  1. I had to read parts of this book and watch the movie for a high school assignment. I remember hating it and being bored out of my mind. Since it's a classic, I'm tempted to try reading it again, but I haven't been able to motivate myself to do it.

    1. Don't do it, it's a trap! The movie is actually better in this case