Literary License?

What Director Alan Pakula’s Papers Reveal About Watergate

Ben Bradlee isn’t the only one raising questions about All the President’s Men. Max Holland probes director Alan Pakula’s papers and finds more evidence of literary license. Plus, Howard Kurtz on the lessons of Watergate.

Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

The New Journalism wave was cresting when Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward published All the President’s Men in 1974. Yet the book, curiously, was not considered an outstanding exemplar. The two were hailed, rather, as New Muckrakers, befitting the emphasis on them as Washington Post reporters rather than Simon & Schuster authors.

Affixing ATPM in the New Journalism firmament however, even at this late date, explains a lot about the book and the controversy it still generates 40 years after the “third-rate burglary” that brought down a president. Just last month, the revelation (in Jeff Himmelman’s new biography) that Post executive editor Ben Bradlee harbored a “residual fear in [his] soul” about the accuracy of some Deep Throat–related details in ATPM provoked a major media flap.

The basis for evaluating ATPM against the backdrop of the New Journalism comes from an unimpeachable source: the Alan J. Pakula papers at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. This is mildly surprising because no one was more responsible than Pakula, director of the eponymous 1976 movie, for turning "Woodstein" into the heroes of a mythic Hollywood Western (albeit one set in Washington).

Yet Pakula also sought to inject well-researched verisimilitude in his film. He obtained a heretofore unseen copy of Woodstein’s typewritten notes from a September 1972 interview with a key Watergate source. He interviewed Woodstein in 1975, as well as Harry Rosenfeld and Barry Sussman, the editors who directly supervised their work, and many others. All this occurred well before memories had become distant or gauzy. The Watergate duo had yet to become icons. Their recollections, and recollections about them, were not yet fully scripted.

* * *

Before delving into the papers, it’s useful to recall what the New Journalism was all about. The technique employed literary devices that were normally considered the domain of novels and put them to work in essays and books that purported to be nonfiction. New Journalism apostle Tom Wolfe asserted the style was not only not fiction, but had “already proven itself more accurate than traditional journalism.”

Wolfe identified the four tools New Journalism practitioners used to such great effect:

  • Using scenes as much as possible to tell a story rather than a chronological narrative
  • Dialogue in full rather than the use of quotes or statements
  • A point of view (scenes always presented through the subjective eyes of a participant)
  • Attention to everyday details, such as habits, possessions, and friends or family.

Woodstein only had to be nudged to resort to these devices when they wrote ATPM (although they certainly hadn’t used them in their 1972 Watergate coverage for the newspaper). Woodward once aspired to be a novelist. He crafted an entire book before graduating from Yale, only to be devastated when a publisher responded with a boilerplate rejection. Bernstein, according to the 1976 book The New Muckrakers by Len Downie Jr. (Bradlee’s eventual successor), saw himself as “an unappreciated newspaper pioneer of the ‘new journalism,’ in which long, dramatic and somewhat subjective narrative recreations of events would replace terse, dry, just-the-facts reporting”—a form Bernstein regarded as mere “stenography.” After covering the 1967 march on the Pentagon, the subject matter of Norman Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Armies of the Night, Bernstein had been so “bowled over” by Mailer’s technique, according to Woodstein biographer Alicia Shepard, that he pushed for ATPM to use the same third-person voice in a firsthand account.

The New Journalism was not without its detractors. The critic Dwight MacDonald argued it was actually a bastard form—“parajournalism” he called it—for the style was trying to have it both ways: “exploiting the factual authority of journalism and the atmospheric license of fiction.” In the hands of a less-than-scrupulous writer, the shifting of gears could be so casual that a reader would have no way of knowing, at any given moment, which end was up.

If ATPM owes a debt to the New Journalism, what model of it did Woodstein embrace? Answering this question is where the Pakula papers come in particularly handy.

* * *

Pakula conducted one of his frankest interviews in 1975 with Barry Sussman, a city editor at the Post at the time of the break-in. He became the special Watergate editor in mid-July 1972, when managing editor Howard Simons decided to go after the story full-bore. Thus in reality, a troika—not a duo—was responsible for the summer/fall 1972 coverage that won the Post a Pulitzer Prize. Indeed, according to Pakula’s notes, Simons and metro editor Harry Rosenfeld thought Sussman himself should have been put up for a Pulitzer.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

According to Pakula’s notes, “Barry made acceptable the work of two junior reporters ... They didn’t understand what they had often and couldn’t write it.” Sussman’s role was to “interpret the significance [of what the duo gathered] and to structure it in terms of news articles [which necessitated] quite a bit of rewriting.” Sussman also played a larger role in guiding the reporters during the critical first months than was commonly understood.

Another element that differed markedly from the book’s account concerned Bradlee’s role. According to Pakula’s notes from talking to Sussman, “Ben didn’t take a daily interest in the story” until the October 10 article that featured GOP saboteur/prankster Donald Segretti. This recollection was apparently seconded by Harry Rosenfeld. After talking with him, Pakula noted, “Woodward makes you feel it was Bradlee: it was Harry and Barry.” Meanwhile, Woodward himself was frank about his predilection to curry the favor of the top man. “Every time I was on a different ship [in the Navy], or at the Pentagon,” he told Pakula, “I established a Bradlee-like relationship. Not with [the] number two [man], but the number one. The captain.”

Sussman said that he had read ATPM hurriedly. He was critical, in general, of any book that stressed the reporters’ role; he had thought they were going to replicate their troika arrangement at the Post and write a Watergate exposé with real substance. The book Woodstein decided to write by themselves was “trivial in terms of what they said happened at the Post,” Sussman declared. “They’re wrong often on detail” and “sentimentalize” the story. Errors more often than not were favorable to him, Sussman observed, such as noting his presence at meetings he in fact didn’t attend. But “I’m not Talmudic or [a] Jeffersonian,’” he told the director, in reference to Woodstein’s observations that “In another age, [Sussman] might have been a Talmudic scholar,” and that his “hero is Jefferson.”

Overall, Sussman regarded the book as a “modified, limited hangout” of what had occurred at the Post—intentionally parroting Watergate co-conspirator John Ehrlichman’s infamous phrase. Sussman also warned that some substantive issues were treated inaccurately in ATPM, i.e., “some of their writing is not true.”

The section about trying to interview grand jurors in December 1972 was a “cop-out,” Sussman asserted, noting that Howard Simons privately agreed with him. “They did get information from one person” who was a grand juror, Sussman told Pakula, “and Carl planned to meet with that person again.” (Sussman’s assertion tracks, of course, with Bradlee biographer Jeff Himmelman’s discovery, in Bradlee’s papers, of the typewritten notes from Bernstein’s December 1972 interview with a grand juror).

Another indication that key facts were missing from the book came up during an interview with J. Alan Galbraith, a lawyer at the Williams, Connolly & Califano law firm. The book had perpetuated the claim, first made in 1972, that an impermeable Chinese wall separated the Post’s reporters from Williams, Connolly lawyers—despite the fact that the firm was simultaneously counsel to the newspaper and representing the Democratic National Committee in its civil suit against the Nixon reelection apparatus. Yet Galbraith disclosed that he was Bernstein’s source for an Oct. 6 story that touched upon the Watergate role of Robert D. Odle, Jr., the director of administration at the Committee for the Re-election of the President (CRP). This means that a Williams, Connolly lawyer was a source then in at least two Post stories, notwithstanding the denials made then and ever since. (In Leak, I reveal that Galbraith was also the tipster who first told Bernstein about Alfred C. Baldwin III, the “lookout” who fled the scene the night of the burglary.)

One document that found its way into the Pakula archive is especially intriguing because it isn’t among Woodward and Bernstein’s own papers housed at the Ransom Center in Austin, Texas. “Interview with X” consists of four pages of typewritten notes reflecting an interview Bernstein conducted on the evening of Sept. 14, 1972, with Judith Hoback. She was the CRP bookkeeper who was actively cooperating with the FBI, and, eventually, with Woodstein.

These notes illustrate that the embellishment of quotes in All the President’s Men was not limited to Woodward’s clandestine talks with Deep Throat. Juxtaposing the Hoback notes with the printed page shows similar alterations. In ATPM, Hoback is quoted as saying, “But Sally [Harmony, burglar Gordon Liddy’s secretary]—and others—lied.” In the notes, however, Harmony is cited twice; but in neither instance does Hoback assert Harmony (or anyone else at the CRP) flatly “lied.” (Nor would Hoback even have known that for certain, since the testimony of every witness before the grand jury was sealed). In a similar vein, Hoback is quoted in ATPM as saying about Robert Odle, in response to a question about his rumored involvement: “Certainly not in knowing anything about the bugging. He’s a glorified office boy, [deputy CRP director Jeb] Magruder’s runner.” In the notes, however, Hoback simply states there is “no reason to think Odle [is] involved”—without the pejorative characterization.

A reference to former Attorney General John Mitchell, who had stepped down as CRP director, reveals another kind of embroidery. In the book, Hoback is quoted as saying: “If you could get John Mitchell, it would be beautiful. But I just don’t have any real evidence that would stand up in court that he knew. Maybe his guys got carried away, the men close to him.”

According to the notes, Hoback actually used words that could have been interpreted as absolving Mitchell of prior knowledge about the break-in:

"If you could get [John Mitchell] it would be beautiful. I just don’t have any evidence I belive [sic] he knew. Maybe his guys got carried away, the men close to him."

Woodward told me earlier, with respect to the alterations in Deep Throat’s remarks, that as he reread his notes a year or so after the secret meetings occurred, his recollection of what Felt said became enhanced. That is what accounts for any discrepancies between the notes and how they are rendered in ATPM. Presumably the same explanation holds for the differences here between Woodstein’s notes and how the conversation with Hoback is presented. (Neither Bernstein nor Woodward responded when asked to comment.)

* * *

There is one piece of evidence in the Pakula papers that may be the most disconcerting of all, more so than any finding of augmented quotes, elided information, or rose-colored accounts. It concerns erroneous presumptions that Woodstein themselves harbored and infused into ATPM.

Deep Throat’s motive, of course, is the obvious example of an embedded misperception. In the end, such subjectivity was probably the New Journalism’s greatest weakness. If what matters most is one’s own judgments, as with Woodward’s perception of Mark Felt’s motive, it encourages a false omniscience that the old journalism is expressly designed to avoid.

But Woodward wasn’t the only half of the duo offering up illusions; Bernstein was propagating them in equal measure. Consider the interview in which Bernstein describes the Post’s approach to CRP employees:

“We started narrowing down the list to who would be the most valuable people to see, lower-level people, and we started going out at night and banging on doors. It was, I guess, the big difference between what we did and what the FBI did, and where the FBI was so unsuccessful was that they interviewed people only at the committee, and in the presence of committee lawyers, who were trying to get them to go with the cover story as it was. We saw them at home ... where there were, you know, not similar kinds of pressures.”

Every perception here about how the FBI went about its job is untrue. Months before the Post duo contacted CRP employees like Judith Hoback, the bureau had already interviewed them privately and repeatedly, away from CRP lawyers. FBI agents interrogated Hoback alone on six separate occasions, more so than any other CRP employee, and always out of earshot of CRP lawyers. From the moment bureau agents and federal prosecutors realized that CRP attorneys would insist on being present, they resolved to advance the investigation within the confines of the grand jury, where no defense lawyers were permitted.

Federal prosecutors and agents never truly learned anything germane from The Washington Post’s stories—although they were certainly mortified to see the fruits of their investigation appear in print. The FBI’s documents on Watergate, released as early as 1992, bear this out. The government was always ahead of the press in its investigation of Watergate; it just wasn’t publishing its findings.

* * *

What then, are we finally to make of ATPM on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in? It was not invented from whole cloth, as some of its severest detractors would maintain, and it would be unfair to characterize it as fiction. It remains an entertaining read and makes for a compelling story.

But the book is an exemplar of the problems often associated with the New Journalism, or more precisely, the literary license that some practitioners embraced in the service of “higher truth.” The result is that on everything from what truly motivated Mark Felt to leak to the press to the adequacy and integrity of the government’s investigation to the politico-legal clash that culminated in Nixon’s resignation, the book presents a legend rather than the facts. It is a fairy-tale version, even, apparently, with respect to events that occurred inside the Post’s newsroom.

The “residual fear in my soul” that Bradlee spoke of in 1990 was not unwarranted. And Woodward was hardly overreacting when he pleaded, cajoled, and otherwise tried to dissuade Jeff Himmelman from using that pregnant phrase. Woodward realized that airing Bradlee’s heretofore private misgivings not only undermined Woodstein’s journalistic stardom, but also confirmed an inconvenient yet essential truth: all of ATPM, and not just the Deep Throat portions, must be read with caution.