The reel Watergate

"All the President's Men" caught the moment in which America got wise to White House corruption -- but the more recent "Dick" captures the sheer exhilaration of unseating a president.

Published June 17, 2002 11:54PM (EDT)

In "All the President's Men" is a scene, little noticed at the time, that today seems charged with unintended irony. It's summer, 1972, and the setting is a Washington Post story meeting. Every editor is making a pitch, each claiming that his section has the day's top story. The mood is competitive, almost raucous, and, to anyone who has spent any time in a newsroom or around reporters, recognizably self-satisfied.

When Post editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) has made his selection, his city editor (Jack Warden) protests that they've ignored the importance of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's latest Watergate story. Another editor sums up the unspoken consensus in the room by responding, "Nobody cares." The editor relates a story about a Nixon staffer asking him, if Watergate is such an important story, "Who are Woodward and Bernstein?"

When "All the President's Men" was released in 1975, that scene was a moment of self-congratulation for the audience. We knew who Woodward and Bernstein were. They were our heroes, the men who had broken the story open, who kept it alive when nobody cared. In retrospect, the Post's decision to put two police reporters on the story of a burglary at the Democratic national headquarters was what Mary McCarthy called one of the providential accidents of Watergate. Had the burglars taped the door lock vertically instead of horizontally, security guard Frank Wills might not have noticed the tape and suspected a break-in. Had Alexander Butterfield not believed that his boss had already divulged the information, we might not have learned about Nixon's taping system.

So when that editor says that Woodstein (as they came to be known) should be taken off the case and replaced by an "experienced political reporter," we know that would have been the end of the Watergate story. That editor's worldly-wise voice is the voice of foregone conclusions -- a long way from the frank astonishment that would be heard a year later in the voice of NBC anchor John Chancellor, as he reported the Saturday Night Massacre and said, "In my career as a correspondent, I never thought I'd be reporting these things."

The voice of experience in that scene from "All the President's Men" belongs to another editor, played by John McMartin. McMartin is one of those character actors whose face you know even if you don't know his name. Bland and confident about the world and their place in it, the men he plays are the embodiment of anonymous authority. In his incarnation here, McMartin warns Ben Bradlee off the story, offering the conventional wisdom: McGovern is self-destructing, Nixon is ahead in the polls. "Why would he do it?" he asks. "It doesn't make sense." And then, finally, the coup de grace: "I don't believe it." The lord of politics has revealed his wisdom; listen, ye lesser mortals, and tremble.

The irony of the scene is no longer what it was in 1975: that the experienced reporters, perhaps afraid of jeopardizing their inside contacts by pushing too hard, weren't ready to believe the seriousness of Watergate. The irony now is that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein have, pod-like, become the men who once sought to take them off the story -- political insiders bent on preserving their access, satisfied with how things appear to be rather than the facts in front of their faces. In a cool, hard 1996 piece on Woodward in the New York Review of Books, Joan Didion suggested exactly how someone who helped bring down a presidency has become a favored confidant of those in power. "Those who talk to Mr. Woodward," she wrote, "can be confident that he will be civil ... that he will not feel impelled to make connections between what he is told and what is already known, that he will treat even the most patently self-serving account as if untainted by hindsight ... that he will be, above all, and herein can be found both Mr. Woodward's compass and the means by which he is set adrift, 'Fair.'"

"All the President's Men" might not seem so ironic now if we hadn't witnessed the same reluctance among the press to see the story in front of their faces all over again so recently in the coverage of Whitewater and the Lewinsky stories. It was present in the chumminess of Newsweek's Michael Isikoff with Linda Tripp and Lucianne Goldberg, and in the Candide-like willingness of reporters like the Post's Susan Schmidt to believe exactly what Ken Starr's office wanted the public to believe. And it was present in Woodward and Bernstein themselves as they appeared on various political talk shows playing dual roles: Respected professionals and, for the nostalgia crowd, the once-golden boys who had revived muckraking political journalism.

Around that time, reading Joe Conason and Gene Lyons' "The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton," I chastised myself for not having paid more attention to the facts the authors had dug up about the baselessness of the charges against the Clintons -- until I realized that most of the media had steadfastly ignored, dismissed or buried them. The press had smelled smoke and concluded there was a fire.

This is how a movie that was intended to celebrate the press has, 27 years later, become a cautionary tale about the inadequacy of the press -- about the inherent conflict between the reporter's imperative to find the truth and the determination to maintain the insider status he or she prizes. Substitute "reporting" for "literature" in Hazlitt's line about "the fine link which connects literature to the police," and you have a description of what hobbles so many professional political journalists.

To those who have no memory of Watergate, who didn't see "All the President's Men" when it was released in 1976, it may today look like nothing more than a sedate, well-made journalistic detective story. And in the age of seemingly instantaneous tell-all memoirs, of TV docudramas, of headlines being converted into "Law & Order" plots, it may be hard to convey the shock and the thrill of going to see the movie when it was released. Here was something that had never happened before: A president had been elected in a landslide three years earlier, then disgraced, and the story of his fall appeared on the big screen not much more than a year after he had resigned.

There was nothing chancy about what the movie was saying. The facts were in the open, and only diehards and fools believed that Nixon wasn't guilty. Nixon had already become a laughing stock on the screen. In 1975, "Shampoo" featured a clip from Nixon's 1968 victory speech promising to "bring us together." I'll never forget the bitter, derisive laughter that greeted that clip in theaters. People laughed because he had brought us together -- in our hatred of him. But movies lagged far behind history (Vietnam had still barely been dealt with on the screen at that point). It was almost unheard of for a movie to follow the events it depicted so quickly. And I think that rapidity was a reflection of how quickly public opinion changed, both about the importance of Watergate and about Richard Nixon.

Going to see "All the President's Men" was, in a way, going to see our own wising-up enacted for us on the screen. Watching Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Woodward and Bernstein putting the pieces of the story together became a metaphor for how Americans put the story together. Mary McCarthy wrote about people reading three or four newspapers, plus national newsweeklies, rearranging their schedules to watch the daily broadcast hearings of the Senate subcommittee headed by Senator Sam Ervin. She was describing the thrill of feeling yourself a participant in the fate of the republic. And that thrill was what allowed the movie to overcome its complete lack of dramatic surprise -- what excited everyone about a detective story whose solution we already knew.

The idea of Woodward and Bernstein as our stand-ins only goes so far, though. Spanning the period from June 1972 to January 20, 1973, the day of Nixon's second Inaugural, the movie operates on the tension of watching the reporters work in a vacuum with barely any support from other press and with the public not caring about Watergate. The movie constantly reminds us how easily the story might have fallen through the cracks. Alfred Hitchcock, with his Catholic sense of guilt, might have made the audience feel implicated in that complacency. Alan J. Pakula, allowing us to congratulate ourselves, doesn't press it. He does, however, show us the reporters' frustration, their conviction that there's something here though they can't yet grasp what it is or, like their doubting colleagues, how high it goes. Deep Throat (played by Hal Holbrook in shadowy nighttime shots) is less Woodward's damning source than his existential oracle, emanating from the shadows to prod him to do his job, providing more riddles than answers.

After "Klute" (1972) and "The Parallax View" (1975), "All the President's Men was the third in what came to be called Pakula's "paranoia trilogy." The moments when Pakula tries to ratchet up that paranoia -- Woodward certain he's being followed late at night; Deep Throat warning him that his and Bernstein's lives could be in danger -- feel flat and clumsy. The movie doesn't need those touches, because it takes place in an atmosphere where paranoia is the sensible response to events.

It wasn't the director's best film ("Klute" holds that distinction), but in "All the President's Men" Pakula had found his paranoid dream subject -- a better one than all the stories of nefarious power and conspiracy theories he had spun in the previous two films. The true chill-inducing moments here belong to the actors, Valerie Curtin as a CREEP (the unfortunate and entirely fitting acronym for the Committee to Re-elect the President) worker begging Woodward and Bernstein to get away from her door with the words "They'll see you," or Jane Alexander, in a fine performance of sustained tension, as a CREEP bookkeeper stubbornly giving out information to Bernstein in dribs and drabs while he does everything he can to keep her talking.

Though the movie doesn't do as much as it could with Woodward and Bernstein's uneasy Tom-and-Jerry alliance, and though Hoffman, chain-smoking and fidgeting with energy, is fun to watch, it's Redford who holds the movie together. (After "The Way We Were," "All the President's Men" is his best performance.) Redford seems to go through the movie in the manner of a man carefully guarding his reactions. His usual underplaying, which can seem too removed elsewhere, works beautifully here. His best moments come when, while working the phones, Woodward learns some piece of information that causes his eyes to open just a bit wider and to seem as if he's afraid to take a breath, lest the whole story slip away. Redford's performance is the embodiment of the movie's paranoid style.

As if to remind us of the press's and public's unwillingness to follow the early Watergate revelations through to their logical conclusion, Nixon barely figures in the movie. He appears twice, in news clips, both of them used ironically. At the movie's start he's seen at the high point of his presidency, on June 1, 1972, delivering a speech to Congress after returning from China, and, at the end, taking the oath of office on a newsroom TV set while Woodward and Bernstein sit writing one of the stories that will bring him down.

Nixon is at the heart of 1999's "Dick," a stronger, gutsier movie than "All the President's Men" and one that, unlike Pakula's, never found an audience. Adults assumed it was a teenage movie and teenagers, who had no knowledge of Watergate, stayed away. Directed by Andrew Fleming and written by Fleming and Sheryl Longin, "Dick" is one of the most sophisticated American political satires in years. The movie is a parody of "All the President's Men" and an alternate theory of how Tricky came crashing down, in which the part of Deep Throat is assigned to two outcast-teenage airheads, Betsy (Kirsten Dunst) and her best friend Arlene (Michelle Williams).

One of the first shots, a close-up of a typewriter waiting to strike blank paper, is lifted from the extreme close-up of the teletype that opens Pakula's movie -- only here, what's being written is Arlene's entry in Tiger Beat's "Win a Date with Bobby Sherman" contest. Sneaking out of Arlene's Watergate apartment at midnight to post the letter, the two run right into the break-in. (They overhear the codename "Operation Gemstone" and think they've happened upon a jewel heist.) During a White House field trip the next day, they're recognized by G. Gordon Liddy (Harry Shearer, as usual a bit too pleased with himself) who has Bob Haldeman (Dave Foley) drag them in for questioning ("When you think of the president, do you think [dramatic pause] friendly thoughts?"). Suspicious of what they might know, the president himself (Dan Hedaya) gives them the title of Official White House Dog Walkers and later Secret Youth Advisers to the President.

The movie's conceit is that Betsy and Arlene's access to the White House puts them in possession of all sorts of information. The gag is they don't realize it. When they stumble upon a room where agents in suits are shredding documents, Nixon (who has instructed them to call him Dick), explains it's for his papier-mâché hobby. When they find a list of names and amounts of money headed "CREEP List," Arlene says, "I guess all the people on that list are creeps."

Even when they put two and two together and decide to pass on the information to the Post reporters that Dick has referred to as "those radical muckraking bastards Woodward and Bernstein," they're more motivated by the nasty things they've overheard Dick saying about his dog, King Timahoe (whom he insists on calling Checkers), than by his comments about Jews and coverups.

The movie's daring lies in how offhand it is. Fleming and Longin treat Watergate in the same way that John Waters treated racial integration in "Hairspray," as the stuff of teen-problem movies. And they go the joke even better by making Betsy and Arlene no sillier or more childish than anyone else in Washington. The movie has a parade of gifted second bananas: Ana Gasteyer as Rosemary Woods, Saul Rubinek as a Katzenjammer version of Henry Kissinger, and Will Ferrell and Bruce McCulloch (flipping his Dustin Hoffman wig hilariously) as Woodward and Bernstein. Their scenes recast the pair as the journalistic hotshots they were waiting to become. The movie's prologue has them appearing on Larry King with undisguised contempt for each other and all the little fish whose pond they no longer inhabit. Asked to reveal the identity of Deep Throat, McCulloch smugly says, "I don't think we'd reveal it on a little tiny show like this."

Above all it has Dan Hedaya's Dick. Next to Philip Baker Hall's possessed impersonation of Nixon in Robert Altman's scurrilous and brilliant "Secret Honor," no performance has made it seem more possible to even consider feeling sympathy for Nixon. Hedaya plays Dick less as a schemer than as the craven social outcast he was. There's a sequence that cuts from Betsy and Arlene hanging out with nothing to do on a Friday night to Nixon, alone in the West Wing, eating a bowl of ice cream while he waits for "Love, American Style" to come on. Hedaya -- his lower lip outthrust, his jowls ready to waggle at any moment, his eyebrows threatening to levitate inches above his head -- keeps Nixon's beady eyes continually ready to pop. He's a great comic presence. Watching him try to "rap" with Betsy and Arlene is like watching a man with a clubfoot trying to do the twist.

Dick doesn't escape squaresville; Betsy and Arlene do. Throughout the movie, the girls move further and further away from their good-dooby nerd personas. They take to wearing bell-bottoms, ponchos and headbands, sticking a tentative toe in uncharted realms of (for them) hipness. In the movie's climax, on the day Nixon leaves the White House, the girls prepare a going-away message for Dick and, to deliver it, deck themselves out in halters and hip-huggers they've made out of an American flag. That scene holds the key to the thrill "Dick" offers, the thrill of hearing something forbidden being said aloud, something that no other account of Watergate has dared to acknowledge: the sheer exhilaration of it.

In the midst of Watergate, the Boston columnist George Frazier, an unreconstructed Nixon hater, nonetheless wrote a piece in which he said that you'd have to be wholly cynical to hope that Nixon was guilty. In Frazier's view, the possibility that our President would turn out to be just as bad as we imagined became the same as wishing tragedy on the nation.

But Watergate wasn't a tragedy. To qualify, there would have to have been someone at the center of it whose ascent and fall amounted to more than, as Norman Mailer so memorably put it, "the apocalyptic hour of Uriah Heep." Nixon, the most consistent of men, a man who found in Watergate the apotheosis of all he stood for, was not that man.

All the cynicism that followed his resignation and continues in politics to this day, all the talk of "post-Watergate morality," all of the unfortunate legacy of Woodward and Bernstein -- the media's inability to distinguish everyday, ordinary corruption from true corruption -- does nothing to diminish the fact that Nixon's fall was a triumph of the Republic, a triumph in which we were all allowed a role to play. It felt great when the bastard left. And if Betsy's comment on hearing about Dick's resignation, "They'll never lie to us again," is naive, it at least reflects the joy we felt at the time. At that moment, they didn't get away with lying to us.

The sunniness and high spirits of Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams's performances are less a reductio ad absurdum of the justifiable national pride we felt in bringing down Nixon than a pure distillation of the giddy joy of it. Like those people Mary McCarthy wrote about -- who felt perhaps more alive than ever as they followed the story, because suddenly they had a stake in the future of the country -- Betsy and Arlene discover the joy of being caught up in something bigger than themselves.

When Nixon departs the White House in "Dick" he does so to the accompaniment of a pop song, language that the girls can understand: Carly Simon's "You're So Vain." The fall of a president is joined to the joy of turning on the radio and hearing the perfect song at the perfect moment. The movie's freest, most exhilarating moment follows in the sequence that accompanies the end credits: Betsy and Arlene roller-discoing around a newly empty Oval Office to the tune of Abba's great "Dancing Queen." The party can begin. It's got to be real.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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