Commentary Magazine


Shadow by Bob Woodward

Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate
by Bob Woodward
Simon & Schuster. 592 pp. $27.50

In the beginning was All the President’s Men (1974). It would be difficult to overestimate the impact of that monumentally best-selling account of the role played by the Washington Post in uncovering the Watergate conspiracy. The book helped reinvent journalism: no longer were reporters mere conduits for the news, they were investigative journalists, and their main job was to ferret out the truths hidden behind the lies and obfuscations that, it was henceforth widely assumed, were the lingua franca of the political establishment. The cynical populism fed by the new journalism was not itself new, but its flowering in the post-Watergate era injected a pervasively sour note into American political culture.

Meanwhile, the authors of All the President’s Men, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein—dashingly portrayed by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in the popular movie made from the book—became journalistic superstars overnight, and their careers moved from strength to strength. Woodward has since been the author or co-author of an extended string of number-one best-sellers, including The Final Days (1976), The Brethren (1979), Veil (1987), The Commanders (1991), and The Agenda (1994). None of these books, however, exhibited much of the anti-establishment, neomuckraking spirit of their illustrious predecessor. They were, for the most part, highly respectful accounts of serious and important people dealing with serious and important events. They dug behind the scenes but not under rocks, and increasingly their success depended not on the scandals they unearthed but on the access to the high and mighty their author—now himself securely part of the establishment—had managed to obtain.

Now, 25 years after the publication of All the President’s Men, Woodward returns to where he started. In Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate, he examines the lingering effects of the original scandal on the men who succeeded Richard Nixon in the White House, all of whom found themselves dogged by stringent ethics laws, a newly assertive Congress, and a media determined to suspect the worst of their every action. It is hardly surprising that the story that emerges is a dispiriting one. What is surprising is that a book heavily based on personal accounts of dramatic events should be so lifeless and dull.

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In his opening section, on Gerald Ford, Woodward focuses on whether the then-Vice President did or did not guarantee a pardon to Richard Nixon prior to the latter’s resignation from office. On this matter as on others, Woodward avoids summary judgments, but he leaves the impression that, while making no explicit deal, Ford did manage to convey to Nixon that he would not leave him to the mercy of prosecutors and courts.

In his treatment of Jimmy Carter, Woodward emphasizes the investigations into charges of financial impropriety against the President’s budget director, Bert Lance, and of drug use against his chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan. Neither inquiry uncovered illegal behavior, although Lance was forced to resign by the scandal. Carter is clearly the least favorite of Woodward’s subjects, and the picture that emerges of him in these pages—remote, cold, self-righteous—is one we have seen before.

The great Watergate-style drama of the Reagan administration arose, of course, over the Iran-contra affair. This is a more than twice-told tale, and those acquainted with what has already been written about it will find little new here. Was Reagan aware of the diversion of funds from arms sales in Iran to aid the anti-Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua? Reagan himself always insisted that he was not, and the protracted investigation by independent counsel Lawrence Walsh—an inquiry at once meandering and obsessive—came up with no hard evidence to the contrary. Woodward’s interviews with White House insiders only further support Reagan’s version.

Still, if Walsh could not “get” Reagan, he managed to cloud the presidency of Reagan’s successor George Bush by persistent attempts to implicate him and many of his associates in Iran-contra. The culture of scandal, Woodward makes clear, wore Bush down as he veered between outrage and depression over the series of accusations against people close to him: his nominee for secretary of defense, John Tower; his Supreme Court nominees David Souter and (especially) Clarence Thomas; and his son Neil, who was caught up in the savings-and-loan debacle of those years. Declining to be interviewed by Woodward for this book, Bush sent him instead a pointed letter:

Watergate was your watershed. For you it was an earthshaking event that made you. . . . I think Watergate and the Vietnam war are the two things that moved Beltway journalism into this aggressive, intrusive, “take no prisoners” kind of reporting that I can now say I find offensive. . . . The new young cynical breed wants to emulate you. But many of them [in order] to do that question the word and the integrity of all in politics.

Inevitably, Woodward devotes over half of this book to the part of the story we know best of all: the Clinton imbroglio. None of the major figures in the Clinton scandal emerges from his account in heroic outline. Worst of all, of course, is the President himself, a man of extraordinary gifts but with a gaping hole where his character ought to be. In the Lewinsky affair, Clinton acted shoddily and then lied—insistently, repeatedly, adamantly—to everyone: his family, his friends, his associates, court officials, the public, his lawyers (“I’m retired,” he assured Robert Bennett when pressed about rumors concerning his womanizing). He was no more to be trusted on small matters than on large: Woodward’s sources confirm earlier reports that Clinton cheats at golf.

If the President is in a class by himself, the scandal, in Woodward’s telling, brought out the best in no one. Hillary Rodham Clinton alternated between despairing self-pity (“How can I go on?”) and angry imaginings of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” out to do her husband in. Kenneth Starr comes across as earnest and high-minded, but also as self-righteous and overly zealous. The President’s lawyers, as presented here, were a mixed bag, but to one degree or another every one of them willed himself into attack-dog mode in defense of a man whose behavior was indefensible.

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As this summary suggests, most of the material in Shadow is painfully familiar. We have heard virtually ail the stories-within-the-story before, and while Woodward fills in endless details, he does not add much that is substantively new. Where his earlier books were studded with often astonishing revelations, here, despite his hundreds of interviews, he has come up with little more than a series of gossipy footnotes to history.

Shadow is no less disappointing when it comes to Woodward’s attempts at summing up. He has always been primarily a storyteller, not an analyst, and this book is no exception. Still, the meager analysis it does provide is murky, even peculiar. In brief, Woodward argues that the reason post-Watergate Presidents became caught up in scandals is that

they did not fully comprehend the depth of distrust left by Nixon. . . . The habit of deception and hedging practiced by Presidents would no longer be acceptable. . . . These Presidents were inhabiting a new world, but they often seemed not to recognize it.

This will hardly do. Each of these Presidents understood perfectly well the “new world” he inhabited, as is clearly indicated by Woodward’s own depictions of their angry and frustrated reactions to the pervasive climate of scandal in which they were enveloped. Clinton aside, they got into trouble not so much, or at least not only, because of what they did, but because a culture of mistrust, created in large part by newsmen like Bob Woodward, made even their innocent actions appear sinister. Beyond that, it is nothing short of bizarre to suggest, as Woodward seems to do, that any President could, if he so desired, conduct his office in perfect political transparency.

In the end, we are left with a series of mostly unoriginal stories recounted in pedestrian fashion with an obtuse and self-serving moral attached. Perhaps Woodward’s editors should have been more mindful of the classic injunction, “Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.” On the other hand, maybe they knew better: once again he has produced a number-one best-seller.

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About the Author

James Nuechterlein, a former professor of American studies and political thought at Valparaiso University, is a senior fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life.




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