All the President's Men tells a story that ultimately results in the downfall of the democratically elected leader of the free world. Such a story should by any definition of a thriller—which is what the book really aspires to be and succeeds in becoming—feature larger-than-life protagonists engaged in spine-tingling adventures in which lives hang in the balance. What is perhaps the most amazing thing about All the President’s Men is that even though the story it tells ultimately results in the toppling of the President of the United States, it is a book where more scenes than not are focused on the prosaic, mundane and even occasionally tedious details associated with the minutiae of being an investigative reporter whose most effective tools are not weapons and spy gadgets, but typewriter and phone.
The political dimension transforming the story told in this book into a genuine thriller is the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are two non-entities in the cutthroat world of Washington D.C. politics and so quickly are positioned as the very definition of an underdog trying to buck the system. The story begins as a surprisingly bungled burglary inside the glamorous Watergate complex. As it becomes clear that it was the National Democratic Headquarters that being burglarized and that the bumbling burglars were well-dressed middle-aged men with an unusual amount of cash in their possession, the focus quickly shifts from the break-in itself to the vortex of political corruption that Woodward and Bernstein rapidly realize is swirling around it. The thing that makes their investigation the stuff of political potboilers is that nobody takes their obsession with digging deeper into the cesspool behind the burglary very seriously. All the President’s Men is a classic tale of the underestimated coming up against the overestimated. It is a story that would likely never have been told without the constitutional guarantee of Freedom of the Press but, even more so, it is a story that would never have been told without the unblinking assumption on the part of two unknown reporters that that such a theoretical freedom would not be compromised by the actual practice of political power in the United States at its highest level. Such a David v. Goliath story has too often turned out in the big guy’s favor in American history and that is what makes Woodward and Bernstein’s account a political thriller.
The underlying theme which All the President’s Men explores through its New Journalism co-opting of a third-person perspective is how Freedom of the Press is not just a legal protection afforded by a piece of paper, but an essential function of democracy without which it cannot possibly survive. Down beneath that rather lofty ideal, the book is also a testament to the fact such a function is only as strong as the people who believe in it. The real lasting legacy of the investigative reporting conducted by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein has turned out not to be how powerful the media is in maintaining democracy in America, but how soon after its bright, shining moment it lost so much of that power and became so much weaker.
The potency of All the President’s Men as a history book lies in the way it can so easily remind readers who did not live through the Watergate scandal that it was, after all, a bungled burglary that should absolutely never even have been planned which directly led to the most powerful figure in democratic politics resigning in disgrace. While investigative journalism may be just as alive and well on the fringes of the media today, the very fact that such a reality is coming very close to seeming like utter fiction points to how far away from the ideal presented in All the President’s Men the mainstream news industry has fallen. Just the fact that news is today considered an industry rather than an essential function of democracy and that becoming a reporter is considered a career choice rather than a calling points to transformation that has taken place since Bob Woodward was shook out of opportunity to sleep late on a Saturday morning by that phone call from his city editor.
One of the ways in which All the President’s Men has transformed into a history book in the decades following its initial publication is the perhaps shocking—possibly even startling—glimpse into the meticulous techniques required by Woodward and Bernstein to get from an early Saturday morning phone call about a break-in at a local landmark to the toppling of a President. If the concept of making that leap carries all the hallmarks of fiction to sophisticated political junkies of today, imagine the disconnect felt among those in the age of Facebook and Twitter over investigative techniques such that requiring Carl Bernstein to fly from Washington, D.C. to Miami to make Xerox copies of a cashier’s check mixed in with checks drawn from a bank in Mexico. The bulk of the reportorial work done by both Woodward and Bernstein—separately or together—involves conversations taking place over rotary dial phones, notes of face to face interviews taken with pen and paper, tracking down second and third sources to confirm information initially supplied by a completely separate source…all of which is put together in final publishable form on a typewriter. If there is one thing that All the President’s Men cannot possibly be accused of it, it is glamorizing the work of an investigative reporter working for a metropolitan newspaper in the early 1970s.
The account offered by Woodward and Bernstein also does not seem to connect in any serviceable way to how mainstream journalism is conducted in early 21st century America. In those decades since All the President’s Men improbably turned the newspaper business into a glamour job, hundreds of big city newspapers have gone out of business. Cities that used to feature two or more successful newspapers competing for the subscriptions of millions now have just one and in many cases that one is on wobbly legs. Media conglomeration has put the power of mainstream journalism into the hands of a very select few global corporations with far too many interests in far too many areas to create an atmosphere where digging too deeply for dirt is viewed as a positive development. The narrative that leads the reader of All the President’s Men from Bob Woodward’s tiny apartment on June 17, 1972 to its ironic concluding words from Richard Nixon vowing that he will never walk away from the job he was elected to do features appearances and references to a staggering number of some of the most powerful and influential people planet at the time. The key characters that lead the narrative from Woodward’s bedroom to the indictment of most of those power and influential people are bookkeepers and secretaries and receptionists and librarians and small-time lawyers and other reporters. In other words, those people upon whom Freedom of the Press depends as an absolute, but who may not necessarily make for great TV or be inclined to putting their careers on the line for the sake of a blog or whose lives are just a little too complicated to withstand the full frontal assault of those media conglomerates with an agenda that runs counter to the facts they are presenting as truth.
Finally, as the historical document that All the President’s Men has inevitably become, the book can also be enjoyed as a winsome bit of nostalgia. As a wistful peek into the past that has more in common with A Christmas Story than a political thriller, All the President’s Men offers up a nutritious and delicious slice of American pie with a flavor capable of reminding readers that once upon a time—and not that long ago—journalism in America was about exposing actually impeachable offenses of corrupt politicians rather than the chemical intoxication of the non-existent “purity” of athletics, the sexual peccadilloes of pseudo-celebrities only famous because they are famous and the seemingly endless capacity of news anchors to to seek objective political analysis while pretending not to notice that the analysts answering the questions are subjective spokespersons being paid by the very political party they are being asked to objectively analyze.