The recent revelations about the man often seen as the “moral hero” of the Watergate scandal, the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, have the feel of an interment ceremony. Reading press accounts of how Woodward swallowed the first Plame leak for a mere two-plus years without a peep and then went out on the Larry-King circuit to dismiss the significance of Plamegate, what came to mind was the burial ceremony that, in “committing” a body to the ground, goes, in part, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” If there were a Watergate/Plamegate version of this, those two phrases might be replaced by “Nixon to Bush, Woodward to Woodward.”
It’s strange, isn’t it, that the two great constitutional crises of the last half century are “gated” because the first became public thanks to a two-bit break-in by political thieves at an apartment complex named Watergate. We’ve been gated ever since. It’s no less strange that Bob Woodward’s decision to protect a source bookends both crises — and, though a source may be a source, the differences between the two moments tell us much about the world we’ve traversed between Richard Nixon’s impeachment in 1973 and today.
In both moments, it would not be wrong to say that a small coterie of high officials, a “cabal” (to use the word of Colin Powell’s former Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson) took control of the government, intent on pursuing a foreign war (though in Nixon’s case, one initiated and escalated by Democratic presidents); intent as well on smearing and destroying presidential enemies, especially antiwar ones, on using “national security” to secure political power, and on removing the Constitutional fetters on the president’s ability to pursue any policies he may desire.
In the first of those gate-moments, Bob Woodward, an ambitious, young Washington Post reporter, with his associate Carl Bernstein, protected a source dubbed “Deep Throat” (now known to be FBI second-in-command Mark Felt) for dear life. In that case, what the two of them were protecting was the power of Felt’s information to potentially bring down a government deeply mired in every sort of misuse and abuse of power. In the Plamegate moment, Woodward, now a star reporter who has feasted off the Washington elite for decades and (on the theory that you are what you eat) has become one of them, is again protecting a source. We don’t know who, though one prime suspect is National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley.
In this case, after a three-decade arc that ended with the Bush administration absorbing parts of the media into its publicity and attack machinery (and cowing much of the rest), Woodward finds himself protecting one of the smearers, a member of the cabal, from exposure for potential misuses and abuses of power of every sort. While the issue — protecting a source — seems no different, the stance of the protector has changed radically. For the sake of a new book, Woodward has evidently been willing to protect the American public from various revelations about a government intent on destroying the republic. What a difference a few decades make.
Russ Baker put it this way at Tompaine.com:
“[T]he very definition of an investigative reporter,’ as Woodward is labeled these days ad nauseum , is a pretty elastic one. Meeting a source in a parking garage as a way of identifying abuses and high crimes by powerful insiders is one thing. Dining off that for the next three decades while chumming it up with well-placed insiders for their exclusive accounts’ is another.”
It’s no coincidence, nor a passing matter, that each of our great imperial East coast papers, the New York Times and the Washington Post, found itself in these last years promoting to the heights of news glory reporters whose main claim to fame was as stenographers to the powerful; it might be considered a kind of justice that, in the end, each paper, instead of being the manipulator, found itself manipulated by a “star” — Judy Miller in the case of the Times — whose primary focus was the worst sort of access-to-power journalism. The eloquent Boston Globe columnist James Carroll put the matter trenchantly when he wrote: “As Watergate was about the war in Vietnam, so the Valerie Plame affair is about the war in Iraq. Woodward turns out to have been just another embedded reporter, doing the war-work of the Bush administration while pretending to be independent of it.” The same could certainly be said of Judy Miller (with perhaps even less pretense to independence).
There’s a wonderful little ditty by a long-dead English poet, Humbert Wolfe — pointed out to me by a Tomdispatch reader — that seems to catch something of this journalistic moment:
You cannot hope to bribe or twist
Thank God! the British journalist
But seeing what the man will do
Unbribed, there’s no occasion to.