The Myth of Bob Woodward

Article excerpt

Byline: Max Holland

Why is this man an American icon?

For the past week Washington has found itself debating Bob Woodward. The occasion: his very public argument with White House senior official Gene Sperling, in which Woodward left the impression that Sperling had somehow tried to intimidate him--only to see this accusation undermined by the release of an email exchange in which the pair sounded rather conciliatory.

Almost all the commentary about this flap fits neatly under the heading, "What the Hell Happened to Bob Woodward?" But posing that question, as New York magazine did last week, implies a transformation that never occurred. Woodward is the same now as he ever was. His misrepresentation of his interaction with Sperling is only the latest in a long string of questionable journalistic episodes.

To understand how this started, one has to begin near the beginning: Woodward and Carl Bernstein's book about their Watergate exploits, All the President's Men. The authors enjoyed titanic-sized credibility when the book appeared in the spring of 1974; not too many reporters could point to having received a public apology attesting to the veracity of their work from a press secretary to the president of the United States. ("I would apologize to the Post, and I would apologize to Mr. Woodward and Mr. Bernstein," Ron Ziegler had said on May 1, 1973, retracting his earlier criticism of the newspaper's articles on Watergate.) The natural assumption was that Woodstein's book would meet that same high standard. Why would their nonfiction for The Washington Post differ from nonfiction written for Simon and Schuster?

Yet there was a vast difference that went all but unnoticed at the time. For the Post they had written about the president's men; in the book they were writing about themselves and their sources. Simultaneously, they adopted a style that was all the rage at the time--the so-called New Journalism, a technique that employed literary devices normally considered the domain of novels. In the hands of an apostle like Tom Wolfe or Norman Mailer, the result might be categorized as literature. But the critic Dwight MacDonald argued it was actually a bastard form that tried to have it both ways: "exploiting the factual authority of journalism and the atmospheric license of fiction."

Woodward and Bernstein apparently exploited the liberties of the form to the hilt. "Some of their writing is not true," Post Watergate editor Barry Sussman told Alan Pakula, director of the eponymous 1976 movie. (Pakula interviewed nearly everyone involved in the Post's Watergate coverage in 1975, and the late director's papers were opened in 2003.) "They're wrong often on detail" about what happened inside the newsroom, Sussman said, and they "sentimentalize" the story. (Sussman had a bitter falling out with the reporters, which has sometimes led to his perspective being discounted.)

One untruth Sussman said he knew of--it had apparently been his idea in the first place--involved the reporters' effort to interview members of the Watergate grand jury in December 1972. According to the book, "Woodward and Bernstein"--writing about yourself in the third person was a New Journalism signature--"attempted the clumsy charade with about half a dozen members of the grand jury. They returned with no information." Yet Sussman told Pakula that the reporting duo "did get information from one person" who was a grand juror--and indeed, All the President's Men, a few paragraphs after denying that Woodstein got anything from any grand juror, proceeded to describe the information they got from the grand juror, whom they code-named "Z."

How do we know Z was a grand juror? Because Jeff Himmelman--author of Yours in Truth, a biography of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee released last year--found Bernstein's notes from his interview with Z. Woodward and Bernstein's explanation: that Bernstein did not know she was a grand juror when he talked to her. …