CJRColumbia Journalism Review

November/December 1991 | Contents



by Steve Weinberg
Weinberg, a CJR contributing editor, covered parts of Watergate while a Washington correspondent. He is former executive director of Investigative Reporters & Editors Inc., based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, in Columbia.

When Silent Coup appears earlier this year, controversy seemed inevitable. The authors, a political consultant and a journalist, were saying that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein got Watergate all wrong in their Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post coverage and in teir best-selling books, All the President's Men and The Final Days.

If the Colodny-Gettlin version of Watergate turns out to be correct, the implications for journalism are mindboggling: for nearly two decades, newspapers, television and radio newscasters, magazines, book publishers, and Hollywood studios -- following Woodstein's lead -- would have misinformed hundreds of millions of people about one of the most wrenching political scandals ever. And the reputation of Woodward, one of the authors' main targets, would be destroyed.

Indeed, as expected, controversy has swirled around the book since its May publication -- a veritable war of words. In print and broadcast features, book reviews, editorials, and op-ed pieces, vast amounts of space and time have been devoted to Silent Coup, which has climbed onto best-seller lists.

As the dust begins to settle, Woodward's reputation is in limbo; The Washington Post stands accused of trying to sabotage the book; The New York Times has apologized for its choice of reviewer; biographers of Richard Nixon, working from the same evidence, disagree about whether Silent Coup is the truth or trash; and news organizations with resources to examine the mess appear to have walked away from it.

If Gettlin and and Colodny indeed know more about Watergate than previous investigators, the truth looks like this:

* Richard Nixon played the role of dupe, rather than initiator. The number one villain was John Dean, Nixon's White House counsel, who was deeply involved in the Watergate office building break-in and coverup. Why did he get involved? Because the name of his girlfriend (and future wife) had turned up in a notebook linked to a prostitution ring in or near the Watergate. Dean allegedly never told Nixon about that, supposedly concocting lie after lie in a convincing manner to fool the president.

* The other leading schemer against Nixon was army general and later White House chief of staff Alexander Haig. His motivation? Concern about exposure of his role in a military network spying on Nixon and on his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger.

* Haig was Deep Throat, Woodward's special source. Woodward is portrayed not as the Robert Redford movie-version hero, but as a sleazy journalist covering up his past in military intelligence, including a working relationship with Haig. Colodny and Gettlin say that interviews with Admiral Thomas Moorer (former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman), Melvin Laird (former secretary of defense), and Jerry Friedheim (former Defense Department spokesman) prove that Woodward is lying about his relationship with Haig.

Can all this be true? Hard to say. The book mixes superb and shoddy research, sound reasoning with logical inconsistencies, clear writing with incomprehensible passages. The endnotes are skimpy and usually non-specific. Silent Coup cannot be dismissed out of hand, but it cannot stand on its own.

Because of the uncertainty, one hopes for a Diogenes to emerge -- a Diogenes who has read both Woodward-Bernstein books, as well as commentary on them at the time of publication, and the many 1970s books by Nixon administration insiders, prosecutors, a judge, and other journalists; who has read the first revisionist book, Secret Agenda: Watergate, Deep Throat and the CIA, by Jim Hougan, as well as the contemporary commentary spawned by it; and, of course, who has read what is probably the first book-length examination by a professional historian, The Wars of Watergate, by Stanley I. Kutler.

In the absence of such a persevering seeker of truth, it will almost surely take a Washington Post, a New York Times, a Los Angeles times, a committed magazine, a television network, a book publisher paying a large advance to rise to the challenge of Silent Coup. Maybe something is already afoot; I hope so. But here is the dismal story so far:

* Some Watergate figures support the thesis of Silent Coup, notably G. Gordon Liddy, even though it contradicts much of his memoir, Will, published in 1980, a memoir praised by Woodward. On the other hand, Woodward calls Silent Coup "untrue and pathetic," accusing the authors of practicing sensationalism to hype their book. Bernstein says it is a "lunatic" piece of work; he denies that Haig is Deep Throat, but asserts (in response to many doubters over the decades) that the secret source exists and is not a composite. Haig calls Silent Coup "a scandalous fabrication." Dean says it is "absolute garbage."

* The Washington Post runs a news feature the day of Silent Coup's publication. The story, by media beat writer Howard Kurtz, tends to discredit the book. It suggests that CBS's 60 Minutes dropped a segment based on the book because informed sources failed to endorse its veracity. It suggests that Time decided against excerpting Silent Coup because of its arcane nature. It says Moorer and Friedheim disavow telling the authors that Woodward briefed Haig while in the Navy. And it quotes Woodward, Haig, and Dean slamming the book.

* Two days later, Washington Times reporters Michael Hedges and Jerry Seper produce a news feature generally refuting the Post piece. In the Hedges-Seper version, a 60 Minutes spokesman says the decision against airing a segment has nothing to do with the book's veracity. A Time spokesman says the decision there was based on space considerations only. Hedges and Seper point out that transcripts of taped interviews provided by the authors show Moorer and Friedheim identifying Woodward as a Navy briefer. Hedges and Seper also say Kurtz's story originally included praise for the book from Roger Morris, a Nixon biographer and former aide to Henry Kissinger. The Morris sections were eliminated by Post editors, leaving nobody speaking positively about Silent Coup.

* Tom McCormack, chairman of St Martin's Press, accuses the Post of sabotaging the book. Doug Ireland, media columnist for The Village Voice, supports McCormack's contention.

* The Post remains silent until five weeks later, when its Sunday book section runs a savage review by history professor William L. O'Neill. Among his criticisms: "Woodward and Bernstein's All the President's Men is represented as a tissue of lies, except when something in it can be made to support Silent Coup's theories, at which point it becomes an important source. . . . Most of the 'new' material is based upon interviews during which informants seized every opportunity to make themselves look good while contradicting their own past statements, each other, and the known facts. When all else fails the authors fall back upon supposition, innuendo, and guesswork. Their documentation is pathetic."

* The New York Times Sunday book section chooses historian Stephen E. Ambrose, a Nixon biographer, as its reviewer. Ambrose's review is as negative as O'Neill's in the Post. Two weeks later, the Times publishes an editors' note explaining that they never would have assigned the review to Ambrose if they had known of an unpleasant exchange in 1989 between him and the authors. Another historian/Nixon biographer, Herbert S. Parmet, gives Silent Coup a favorable write-up in the National Review.

* Other reviews cancel each other out. For example, Robert Scheer, national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, offers praise in his newspaper's book section; Christopher Hitchens in Newsday, a sister newspaper of the Times, is critical. And so it goes.

* Few of the reviews delve into the implications for Woodward, Bernstein, and The Washington Post in particular and the media in general. An exception is long-time investigative reporter Robert Sherrill's op-ed piece in the Charleston, West Virginia, Sunday Gazette-Mail. In addition to summarizing Silent Coup's evidence against Woodward, Sherrill raises previous challenges to his credibility, especially the hospital scene with CIA director William Casey in Veil. Sherrill's piece could have been even more compelling if he had mentioned what is probably the most devasting criticism ever of Woodward's work -- New York Times reporter Anthony Lewis's debunking of the The Brethren in The New York Review of Books. None of the reviews adequately explain how, despite the attacks, all six of Woodward's blockbuster books have survived as oft-cited contemporary history.

* With a few notable exceptions, the reviewers are ignoring questions that should be asked, whatever their views about the veracity of Silent Coup. For example: Why do Colodny and Gettlin implicitly reject so much of Hougan's Secret Agenda, while at the same time acknowledging their huge debt to his trailblazing book? Did the separate, personal negative experiences Colodny and Gettlin had with Woodward before writing Silent Coup affect their handling of the evidence? What do the authors think about the thirty-odd Deep Throat candidates other than Haig -- including Bobby Ray Inman, Leonard Garment, Mark Felt, David Gergen -- for whom plausible cases have bee made? Why haven't major news organizations devoted meaningful resources to a reexamination of Watergate in the wake of the Hougan, Kutler, and Colodny-Gettlin books?

More than a year after Secret Agenda's publication, free-lancer Phil Stanford wrote an article for the Columbia Journalism Review (March/April 1986) titled "Watergate Revisited." Stanford wrote that "no one from any of the major news organizations has made an effort to test any of Hougan's findings. This seems odd, if only because the Watergate affair is one of the most important political and journalistic events of our time, and because, if Hougan is right, our knowledge of it is seriously flawed."

To their credit, Colodny and Gettlin took up Stanford's challenge. Now it is time for other journalists to follow up on Secret Agenda: The Wars of Watergate, and Silent Coup. Maybe Haig's forthcoming memoir will clear up some of the confusion. Maybe Woodward and Bernstein will write a reprise, finally revealing their sources and evaluating the new evidence. Or maybe not.

There may never be an epiphany. The next effort, and the effort after that, may advance the truth only incrementally, or muddy it further. But it is too soon to quit.