All the President’s Men

No Women in the White House


Howard Adelman

Last evening I stayed up with a friend to watch All the President’s Men, the 1976 Hollywood movie directed by Alan Pakula that starred Robert Redford as Bob Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein, the two young, inexperienced but hungry reporters in their late twenties working on the city desk of the Washington Post who, in the movie, were portrayed as exclusively responsible for breaking the Watergate scandal. That scandal was not simply about the break-in of the Democratic Party headquarters in Washington in June 1972. That was only the tip of the iceberg. The movie revealed a vast conspiracy involving the Department of Justice, the FBI, the CIA and eventually the White House involved in an organized covert effort to deliberately and illegally subvert democracy and undermine the core values of the constitution of the United States. What the movie does not reveal is that the Washington Post – and Hollywood – were part of a parallel conspiracy.

Near the end of the movie, journalists were portrayed as paranoid and in fear of their lives, though this may easily have been a matter more of William Goldman’s script and Pakula’s direction than reality. The movie is a paean to journalism in general and investigative journalism in particular. Near the end of the movie, the film portrays the Fifth Estate as transformed into the heroic saviour of democracy. Journalists are the gutsy source of the revelation of truths that others are too fearful to admit. So the heroic spin by the reporters themselves and their Hollywood hacks would have us believe.

The movie as a reverential portrayal of investigative journalism depicts the process of connecting the dots that lead to the initial discovery that the original Watergate break-in involved James W. McCord, a former CIA agent, and four Cuban-Americans with CIA ties connected with E. Howard Hunt, another former CIA man. Most surprising of all, those clues lead to Charles Colson, Richard Nixon’s own Special Counsel, who just happened to be having a romantic dalliance with a fellow reporter at the Washington Post. Following the dictum of Woodward’s Deep Throat to follow the money, clues lead to Nixon’s own Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP which became popularly known as CREEP), to former CREEP treasurer Hugh W. Sloan, Jr., and the chair himself, John Mitchell, Nixon’s Attorney General.

That revelation, in turn, led to H.R. (Bob) Haldeman, the second most powerful man in the U.S., Nixon’s Chief of Staff in the White House, and eventually Nixon himself, but this last link is mentioned only as a note at the end of the movie as was the impeachment proceedings against Nixon and his eventual resignation in disgrace. In addition, what is left out is the revelation in Haldeman’s own diaries, The Ends of Power, published after his death in 1993 (after refusing medical treatment for cancer as he was a Christian Scientist) that Nixon himself was the key initiator of the program of dirty tricks and the Watergate cover-up. The movie ends with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein typing up their blockbuster breakthrough just as Nixon is being inaugurated for his second term.

What is also left out, and what is arguably much more important, is that the Washington Post was part of an equally large conspiracy to subvert democracy. After all, Herbert Hoover as head of the FBI had been blackmailing presidents for decades to ensure that the FBI remained an autonomous power immune to democratic accountability. For Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and even Ben Bradlee – though the latter information is omitted in the film since Bradlee was a cooperative aid in developing the script – all knew that Deep Throat was, in fact, the Associate Director of the FBI and de facto real head of the FBI. Mark Felt was Deep Throat and admitted to this to John D. O’Connor for his 31 May 2005 Vanity Fair article on Deep Throat, an admission then confirmed by Ben Bradlee. Bob Woodward, who obviously had his manuscript prepared, during the summer published his account of his relationship with Mark Felt in The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate’s Deep Throat.

After J. Edgar Hoover died in May of 1972 (the Watergate break-in took place after his death, in August 1972), Clyde A. Tolson, Hoover’s heir-apparent and confidante for decades, who was also suspected of being his secret gay lover, was too ill then to assume control of the FBI. Mark Felt, third in line of command, became the de facto head. This was a role he continued to play even after Nixon failed to appoint him Director of the FBI but, instead, appointed L. Patrick Gray III as Acting Director the day after Tolson resigned because of his own ill health. Gray was never confirmed and in the short time her served, spent six weeks away from the office recuperating from an illness and much of the rest of the time touring regional offices to bolster the morale of the organization. Thus, even without the title. Felt ran the organization.

Nixon was not so much determined to get civilian control over the FBI as personal control. The secrets it held were too threatening to him. After all, the FBI under Hoover had been spying on elected democratic leaders for decades. Though Felt is now sometimes portrayed as the protector of democratic accountability, that depiction is both self-serving and hard to swallow. Felt himself was, following his retirement (it becomes clear why Hoover never wanted to retire), indicted and convicted of his own conspiracy to wiretap and break-in to the homes of civilians without any court orders. Felt, along with Edward S. Miller, was charged with authorizing FBI agents, without the benefit of a search warrant, to break into private homes on nine separate occasions in what were called “black bag jobs,” the same type of operation that the ex-CIA officer and his American-Cuban cohorts undertook in breaking into the Watergate headquarters of the Democratic Party.

Of course, Felt was in pursuit of the Weather Underground, relatively harmless minutia in the scheme of things; Nixon was in pursuit of political victory and power and targeted the Democrats when Edward Muskie was leading Nixon in the polls. However, the most continuing and arguably more serious conspiracy was the FBI’s continuing watch on the White House and its occupants long before the Watergate break-in.

Felt had been sideswiped in failing to become director and used the same methods he had absorbed at the feet of J. Edgar Hoover to bring down Richard Nixon. There were several ironies in the whole story, none of them mentioned in the movie which is a morality fable rather than a serious work of fiction or an honest documentary. First, Mark Felt had been initially promoted to his high office as third in command by the White House. Secondly, as mentioned above, Felt was charged himself specifically with breaking into the homes of relatives of the Weather Underground, that is, with “willfully, and knowingly combine, conspire, confederate, and agree together and with each other to injure and oppress citizens of the United States who were relatives and acquaintances of the Weatherman fugitives, in the free exercise and enjoyments of certain rights and privileges secured to them by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America.”

Felt was convicted. However, as a third irony, on 29 October 1980, former President Richard Nixon, who had been brought down by the efforts of Mark Felt, in his first court appearance since Watergate, testified as a defense witness for Felt on his appeal and insisted that all presidents since FDR had initiated non-court-authorized break-ins to counter espionage and subversion. Nixon had even made a donation to Felt’s legal defence fund. Felt was eventually pardoned by President Ronald Reagan on the ostensible grounds that their actions were not motivated by criminal intent but were sincere efforts, “necessary to preserve the security interests of our country.”

Nixon and Felt were two peas in a pod. The Washington Post had not only been used by one to exact revenge on the other, but in themselves covered up their source and the motivations for the leaks, thus becoming part of a contending conspiracy. Robert Redford, wearing all his badges of liberal rights, then, in turn, even in his 2013 documentary, hung to the heroic portrait and never acknowledged the dubious role that Hollywood had played in partnership with the Washington Post.

The movie, both at the time and subsequently, was widely acclaimed and won several awards, William Goldman for his script and Jason Robards for his portrayal of Ben Bradlee, the Washington Post editor who, in the movie, kept insisting on verifying and corroborating “the facts” but, in the movie, hiding the fact that he knew who Deep Throat was all along. The year before last, in Sundance Productions, Robert Redford’s own film production company, the follow-up documentary, All the President’s Men Revisited, was broadcast on television. That second movie included the revelation that W. Mark Felt, (MF, My Friend, in Woodward’s notebooks), played by Hal Holbrook in the original movie, was the real Deep Throat. Felt until 2005 had adamantly denied that he had been Deep Throat in his own autobiography, but in preparation to profit from that disclosure after his own death for his own family, bought back the half rights of his biography from his ghost writer, Ralph T. Toledano, without telling him why and that he had lied about having no connection with Deep Throat. (Evidently, as early as 1976, the prosecutor in a grand jury investigation, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, J. Stanley Pottinger, learned that Felt was Deep Throat; the secrecy of the proceedings preserved the secret for another thirty years though there were wide suspicions that Mark Felt was Deep Throat.)

That second documentary movie never pointed out the implications for the moviemaker’s or the Washington Post’s parallel serious ethical failings. Bob Woodward had known Mark Felt since May of 1972 when Felt provided him with secret information gathered by the FBI for a story he wrote on Arthur H. Bremer, who shot George Wallace. Only a month later, Woodward became the sluice gate for releasing information that Felt wanted unveiled in his determination to bring the Nixon White House down, initially telling him that E. Howard Hunt’s telephone number in the White House was in one of the Watergate burglar’s address book.

However, what stands out for me in re-watching the movie is, as we are all aware, that the supposed heroic pinnacle of newspaper investigative journalism has been significantly decimated. Second, the sense of malevolence portrayed in the movie of a conspiratorial mentality and set of actions seem so arcane and relatively minor because those values were in some ways mirrored by the actual behaviour of the journalists and subsequently institutionalized and magnified in the George W. Bush White House. Third, that malevolence seems more like university fraternity high-jinks compared to what takes place today. Fourth, Haldeman may have been a Christian Scientist, but power then was clearly divorced from religion. The events and the movie took place at a time when religion was not only not connected with the quest for power, but when the connection was hard if not almost impossible to envision, though the Iranian or Islamic Revolution took place less than five years after Nixon’s resignation.

Finally, what may seem totally inconsequential, the title is worthy of note. No one today could make a movie about the contemporary White House as All the President’s Men; women now play such a crucial part of the presidential team. To me, the movie revealed how dumb and clumsy men are as dissemblers and conspirators. Women are far better. But you would never know that by watching this film in which women are all portrayed as dupes and fearful tools of manipulative men, including and foremost our two intrepid reporters, when, as we watch a film that portrays men as clever, focused and highly dedicated, thorough and organized, actually, on closer examination, reveal themselves as clumsy fools.

As George Friedman of Stratfor, an analyst of strategic intelligence on global business, economic, security and geopolitical affairs that was itself scandalized by a Wikipedia leak, wrote, “This was not a lone whistle-blower being protected by a courageous news organization; rather, it was a news organization being used by the FBI against the president, and a news organization that knew perfectly well that it was being used against the president. Protecting Deep Throat concealed not only an individual, but also the story of the FBI’s role in destroying Nixon. The three acknowledged a secret source, but they did not reveal that the secret source was in operational control of the FBI. They did not reveal that the FBI was passing on the fruits of surveillance of the White House. They did not reveal the genesis of the fall of Nixon. They accepted the accolades while withholding an extraordinarily important fact, elevating their own role in the episode while distorting the actual dynamic of Nixon’s fall.”

What is worse, the major federal police as a rogue operation, breaking into private homes without warrants, threatening private citizens and blackmailing democratically-elected politicians or the White House using a federal police agency as a personal adjunct of presidential power to undermine opponents?

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