Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate
By Bob Woodward
Simon & Schuster 592pp $27.50
Washington scandal books are a dime a dozen, but when Washington Post ace reporter Bob Woodward writes one, genre buffs take notice. Woodward is the Energizer Bunny of investigative journalists, still going strong 25 years after forcing Richard M. Nixon from office with revelations about Watergate. He continues to unearth new examples of abuse with such accuracy and detail that other reporters are left scrambling to catch up.
That's why Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate is a bit disappointing. The book dissects the struggles of five post-Watergate Presidents to cope with a world in which their integrity was under constant challenge. It's all here--the attacks on Gerald R. Ford's pardon of Nixon and on Jimmy Carter's honesty; the Iran-contra investigation that consumed Ronald Reagan's second term and haunted George Bush's Presidency; and of course, Bill Clinton's impeachment, to which half of the book is devoted. There are some tantalizing new details, but for the most part, the book reads like outtakes from a reporter's notebook.
Worse, Shadow doesn't offer many clues to Woodward's own thoughts on whether Watergate's legacy has been an overall plus or a debilitating negative for the country. Instead, the author punts, providing only a detached narrative of how Washington's scandal-drenched atmosphere has handcuffed each President. Does he have any regrets over what he unleashed? Has a generation of Woodward wannabes gone overboard? And is it time to return to an era when private lives are off limits?
We are left to assume, from the book's litany of ducking and dodging of the truth by Presidents and their aides, that Woodward thinks the press must not back down. For example, in Woodward's typical fly-on-the-wall fashion, he narrates the key events surrounding President Ford's pardon of Nixon in September, 1974. Piecing together what he has learned from interviews with more than a dozen participants, he attempts to show that Nixon's lawyers did offer Ford a deal--resignation for pardon. Ford to this day denies he agreed to any quid pro quo.
Woodward reveals how even Jimmy "I'll never lie to you" Carter dissembled. In 1977, Woodward asked for a White House response to a story he was about to report that the CIA for years had been making large payments to Jordan's King Hussein. Carter summoned him to the White House, confirmed the payoffs, and said that, while he preferred that the story not appear, he couldn't tell the Post how to conduct its business. Once the story ran, however, Carter denounced the newspaper and denied to Hill leaders that he had provided the confirmation.
In another reportorial confession, Woodward reveals how Bush violated his oft-stated contention that he would never discuss the advice he gave Reagan. In 1987, then-Vice-President Bush had an aide deliver a top-secret memo to Woodward contradicting Reagan's claim that he was dealing with Iranian "moderates" in trading arms for hostages. The motive: to get the word out that the worldly wise George Bush didn't buy the implausible line about Iranian moderates.
In an epilogue, Woodward declares there are two lessons of Watergate that Presidents should heed. First, if there's questionable activity, release all the facts early and completely. Second, do not allow any inquiry to harden into a permanent siege. Amazingly, Clinton always did the opposite on both counts: No President had a harder time learning Watergate's lessons. A first crucial mistake occurred in August, 1994, when Kenneth W. Starr was named Whitewater Independent Counsel. Clinton sanctioned a bare-knuckles political attack on Starr--over the objections of then-White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler, who soon departed--and unnecessarily riled the prosecution before it had subpoenaed a single document.
Several of the book's best passages lay bare Clinton's inability to be truthful with himself, his wife, his closest aides, and even his legal team. When lawyer Robert S. Bennett tried to get him to come clean about his womanizing just before the now-famous Paula Jones deposition, Clinton's nonresponse was: "This is a prison. I purposefully have no drapes on the windows." And as for women, he insisted: "I'm retired."
For the most part, Woodward refrains from passing judgment on Watergate's impact. When he does draw Big Conclusions, they seem too obvious to be profound. He calls it "pathetic" that Starr decided to send Congress a massive narrative of the Clinton-Lewinsky sexual liaison. Most Americans drew the same conclusion long ago.
Woodward appears to favor extension of the independent counsel law--possibly Watergate's most controversial legacy--yet he castigates independent counsels who take too long to conclude their cases. Woodward is highly critical, for example, of Lawrence E. Walsh's deposition of Reagan in 1992, three years after the Gipper had left office and seven years after Iran-contra came to light.
Scandal buffs will find plenty in Shadow to hold their attention, while those looking for the father of Watergate to make sense of it all will be disappointed. Still, Presidential candidates should read this book--and consider themselves warned. Those who think the excesses of the Lewinsky affair mean that reporters will disregard politicians' private lives are only fooling themselves.