All the President's Men
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All the President’s Men (1974) is the story of the most famous American political scandal of the 20th century. Written by Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the book follows in exacting detail their investigation into the Watergate Hotel break-in and subsequent coverup of that crime. The case began with a story on an unusual burglary attempt at the Democratic National Headquarters in the summer of 1972. It eventually evolved into an investigation that would topple President Richard Nixon. The book is more than just a simple narrative of one of the greatest political crimes in American history. Through careful storytelling, Woodward and Bernstein show the reader each step they took in their investigation, explain every lead, and name many sources. Their examination of the philosophy and practice of investigative journalism is unprecedented in both thoroughness and candor.
The book sits on Time’s all-time 100 best nonfiction books list. For the reporting that is the subject of this book, the Washington Post won a Pulitzer Prize. In 1976, just two years after the book first hit store shelves, it was adapted into a movie starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. The first edition of the book was published before the Nixon resignation; subsequent editions, including the one used for this guide, were revised to include a 17th chapter that carries the narrative to Nixon’s final days.
The book is organized into 17 chapters of varying length and arranged in chronological order from the morning the burglary at the Watergate Hotel to Richard Nixon’s resignation on August 8, 1974. Each chapter is further subdivided into several sections of varying number and length. Most sections detail one lead that reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward worked and the short-term results of that investigation. Others detail the challenges writing stories and pitching theories to the Washington Post editorial team, and a few explore the impact of Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting on the White House and the Washington, DC, political scene.
Chapters 1-4 cover the basics of the Watergate break-in, initial reporting on the burglars and their handlers, and the burglars’ connection to the Committee to Reelect the President (CRP, also referred to as CREEP). Chapters 5-9 investigate CRP’s inner workings, the larger “dirty tricks” program CRP orchestrated, and potential connections between CRP and the White House. Chapters 10-13 return to investigating the lower-level perpetrators amidst significant resistance from both the White House and Watergate sources. Chapters 14-17 detail the tidal wave of information that came out as a result of the Senate Select Committee’s investigation of the break-in and attempts by various complicit officials in excusing or covering up their role in the espionage program. Chapter 17 is a short postscript that connects the final revelations of the Post’s reporting to the resignation of Richard Nixon.
Woodward and Bernstein based the book around their own reporting, meaning information appears in the first few chapters that does not come up again until the book’s end. This approach helps to highlight some of the challenges Woodward and Bernstein confronted, but for a modern reader who is not intimately familiar with the names, persons, and events detailed in each chapter, the book’s structure can be challenging. The following section is a rough chronology of the White House’s espionage program from its inception in 1969 to its termination in 1973.
Richard Nixon narrowly won the 1968 election, edging out Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey in what was probably the most bitter and unusual campaign of the Cold War period. Humphrey was universally regarded as a weak candidate, and many suspected that had Robert Kennedy, brother of the famous John Kennedy, not been assassinated he would have won. In January 1969 Nixon was given the oath of office and inaugurated 37th President of the United States. He nominated John Mitchell as his attorney general. J. Edgar Hoover, legendary FBI director, continued in his role.
Some time in 1969, a team within the White House was established to investigate administration officials who were suspected of leaking materials to reporters. The team relied heavily on electronic surveillance, including wire taps and phone call recording. It is believed as many as a dozen administration officials and a half-dozen reporters were investigated as a part of this program. In the spring of 1970, American and South Vietnamese forces crossed the border into Cambodia. Anti-war protests gripped the nation. The White House redirected its electronic surveillance group to track known members of the peace movement to better counter demonstrations. Also around this time, the CRP was formed; its first campaign office opened in 1971.
In June 1971 the New York Times published a series of documents known as the Pentagon Papers, which consisted of confidential Pentagon reports leaked to the paper by research consultant Daniel Ellsberg. Within a week the White House surveillance group was reorganized and placed under the leadership of newly hired operative Howard Hunt. From then on its members proudly called themselves “the Plumbers,” men who were in business fixing the White House’s leaks. Their first mission was to break into the office of Ellsberg’s Los Angeles psychiatrist and steal any confidential medical information that might embarrass or discredit Ellsberg. While the operation was a tactical failure—Ellsberg’s file was not in the office—it demonstrated the utility of the group. In the wake of the group’s reorganization, Nixon tried to Hoover into granting the group permission to conduct confidential wiretaps. Hoover resisted, and thanks to his fame and popularity within Congress, Nixon was forced to back off. Attorney General John Mitchell, on the other hand, was willing to work with Nixon on his clandestine operations and from this point forward began to use the Justice Department to support electronic surveillance activities.
At about the same time, Donald Segretti was hired by the newly reorganized group to begin a sabotage group working against the Democrats. Segretti spent most of the summer of 1971 constructing his own “dirty tricks” group, which likely went into operation sometime in the fall or winter. Howard Hunt shifted his own focus from leak plugging to investigating leading Democratic candidates. His early work focused on Ted Kennedy. In early 1972 both Segretti and Hunt forged the “Canuck letter,” which destroyed the campaign of Edmund Muskie. Around this time Hunt also forged diplomatic cables tarnishing the reputation of John Kennedy.
During the spring and early summer, both Hunt and Segretti led various missions in support and defense of the President. Segretti’s group focused on pranks, tricks, subversion of political groups, and letter-stuffing campaigns. Hunt’s group conducted more sensitive and more clearly illegal operations, focusing on break-ins, forgeries, and planting politically incriminating evidence. The operations were not kept separate; there was considerable crossover in membership and activities. Both Hunt and Segretti also coordinated with each other. The men were paid from a slush fund kept in a safe at CRP headquarters in Washington, DC. The money was raised by Maurice Stans, who regularly sought out untraceable cash donations from wealthy anonymous backers. Payments to the two groups would either be made in cash from the safe or by check transfers via a bank in Mexico City. On March 1, 1972, Mitchell resigned as attorney general and took over CRP. On May 2, 1972, Hoover died. He was replaced at the FBI by Patrick Gray, an ambitious careerist willing to work with the President and his espionage program.
In the early morning hours of June 17, 1972, a group of five burglars under the direction of Hunt were caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters, located in the Watergate Hotel. They planned to plant listening devices across the office, taps on the phones, and photograph potentially incriminating documents. White House advisor John Ehrlichman, John Mitchell, and lawyer John Dean had all signed off on the operation planned by CRP lawyer G. Gordon Liddy. Among the items found on the burglars was an address book that contained a contact for Howard Hunt. Within hours the address book had been obtained by the White House and passed to FBI Acting Director Gray, who complied with an order to destroy the document. Six days later, in what would become known as the “smoking gun,” Nixon ordered the CIA, through his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, to scare the FBI off the investigation. In September 1972 the burglars were indicted by a grand jury. By January 1973 the men had been convicted and sentenced. At some point between September and the beginning of the trial in January, Hunt demanded the White House pay the burglars a collective sum of $1 million in exchange for their silence. The White House paid. At the trial, the slipshod nature of the FBI’s investigation was revealed. It became obvious that the Justice Department had no interest in investigating the architects of the break-in. Weeks later, the United States Senate picked up the standard and created a select committee to investigate the break-ins. In November 1972 Richard Nixon was reelected, defeating George McGovern in a landslide victory. McGovern won only one state, even losing South Dakota, the state he represented in the Senate. In January 1973 Richard Nixon was readministered his oath of office.
Through the first half of 1973, Nixon and his staff tried to subvert and undermine investigations into Watergate, discrediting reporters, planting false stories, defaming the media in press statements, and maliciously using the courts to obtain confidential information on press sources. None of this activity stopped the flow of reporting or the march of the Senate Select Committee. In March, burglar James McCord told the judge that he had been coerced into lying about his role and knowledge of the Watergate affair. In April, McCord testified in front of the Senate Committee, putting his views on record. Days later, Jeb Stuart Magruder told the Select Committee the same thing and included documents he had preserved on the inner workings of Hunt’s espionage team. On April 15, two days after Magruder’s testimony, John Dean confronted Nixon, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman. He told them that he, the two advisors, and Mitchell would soon have no choice but to reveal the entire operation to prosecutors. Instead, Nixon, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman decided to sacrifice Dean by painting him as an overzealous renegade. Their efforts were supported by the concurrent nomination hearings for acting FBI director Patrick Gray. Gray suggested that Dean had been the one to orchestrate early cover-up efforts. Realizing he was caught in a trap, Dean decided to go to prosecutors. On April 30, Nixon asked for the resignation of Haldeman and Ehrlichman. In a televised speech Nixon claimed he, along with the American people, had been deceived by overzealous members of his administration. He vowed to head up the future investigation personally.
In May, the investigation was delegated to independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox. In July, Alexander Butterfield testified that the White House had a voice recording device that had taped nearly every conversation the President had had. The Senate and Cox subpoenaed the tape. After failing to challenge the subpoena in court, on October 20, 1973, Nixon decided to fire Cox and asserted executive privilege to protect the tapes. On October 10, Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced to resign due to an unrelated bribery scandal. In the spring of 1974, public pressure backed up by legal challenges from the Senate that had reached the Supreme Court forced Nixon to release the transcripts of several tapes. He carefully selected seven that he felt would exonerate him. In the editing process it was decided to replace the President’s profuse vulgarity with the tag [expletive deleted]. People were incensed by the content and character of the transcripts. In July, the Supreme Court invalidated the President’s claim of executive privilege and compelled him to release the full tapes to the Senate Committee. In December 1974 it was reported that 18 1/2 minutes of one particularly damning conversation had been erased. However, before then, on August 5, the “smoking gun” conversation was revealed. In hours the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee announced it was preparing to draft articles of impeachment. Leading Republican senators told Nixon that they believed lacked the support to block the articles in the House and that his standing within the Senate had all but disappeared. Even if Nixon somehow escaped the high bar of indictment, his support in Congress and among Americans would be so low that his presidency would, in effect, still be over. Rather than drag out the Watergate investigation for another two years, Nixon resigned on August 7.