Magazine article Tikkun

Still in Watergate's Shadow

Magazine article Tikkun

Still in Watergate's Shadow

Article excerpt

Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate, by Bob Woodward. Simon and Schuster, 1999.

At first, it's surprising that one of America's preeminent newspapermen would "bury the lede." But after reading more than five hundred pages of Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate, it becomes clear that author Bob Woodward doesn't really have one. A quarter century since he, along with Carl Bernstein and their voluble source "Deep Throat," helped bring down the Nixon White Houseand about a quarter hour since Ken Starr and congressional Republicans failed to bring down the Clinton White House-Woodward appears ready to offer a little perspective. After all, it may be fine for daily news reporting to be merely "the first rough draft of history." But Woodward clearly promises something more: reflection, insight, context. Though rich in juicy details that may or may not be significant, his book delivers precious little of the above and, most remarkably, never really tries to.

Instead, Woodward plunges us headlong into a rigidly chronological roller-coaster ride through nearly three decades of Washington scandals, large and small. He starts by rehashing the conflicting memories of those who played a role in Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon. Did Alexander Haig propose a deal for Nixon's resignation?

Or was everyone simply struggling to understand the political and legal options in those tense final days? Woodward aptly assures us that either way, "a shadow of suspicion was cast over Ford."

We then breathlessly careen up and down political molehills-like the alleged cocaine sniffing at Studio 54 by Jimmy Carter's Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan or rumors about the sexual orientation of George Bush's Supreme Court nominee David Souter-as well as constitutional mountains like IranContra. There is little in the narrative to distinguish the significance of one set of stories from the next. Sometimes there's an independent counsel investigating potential legal wrongdoing. Sometimes, like the Clarence ThomasAnita Hill hearings or Bush's handling of Iraq, there are political questions of personal veracity involved.

Along the way, there are some vivid scenes, like Lawrence Walsh's achingly pointless deposition of Ronald Reagan about Iran-Contra just as a soon-to-bediagnosed Alzheimer's is taking grip over his memory, or burly Senator Warren Rudman physically restraining a diminutive David Souter from picking up the phone to pull the plug on his own Supreme Court nomination. Woodward also asks (but doesn't answer) some titillating questions. I was desperate to know more about the break-in and ransacking of Howard Baker's house a month after the Senate Watergate Committee uncovered the existence of the White House taping system. Woodward lays out the ominous facts like Oliver Stone, suggesting this was no robbery, but "a message." But who was behind the break-in? What was its real ramification? That, Woodward leaves unsaid.

Later, Woodward ends one of his Clinton chapters by referring to a Whitewater-related news story prepared by New York Times investigative reporter Jeff Gerth about Lippo Group payments to indicted Clinton associate Web Hubbell. "But Gerth did not write the story for nearly two years," Woodward concludes. Why not? Perhaps an explanation would provide some insight about how political reporters and editors handle such topics in today's Washington. But none is forthcoming.

Less than halfway into this five-hundred-plus page narrative, the scandal ride just about comes off the tracks with the thrills and chills of Bill and Hillary, Whitewater and the Rose Law Firm, the Travel Office and the FBI files, Vince Foster and Web Hubbell, Paula and Monica. Didn't we have enough fun getting nauseous on our first wild ride these past eight years? Is it really time to do it all again? Dear Lord, if we must relive the experience of Linda and Lucianne, Ken Starr and Henry Hyde, "distinguishing characteristics" and semen-stained dresses, shouldn't it be for a very, very good reason? …

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