By Bob Woodward

It was a constant source of regret to Theodore Roosevelt that he never had the opportunity to become a “great” president by steering the ship of state through a major crisis.

That same desire, which Bob Woodward refers to as the “myth of the big-time president,” has been the undoing of a number of lesser lights in the years since Watergate (a scandal to which Woodward’s name as reporter will forever be attached). The big-time president “is not only what these presidents hoped to see in themselves, it is what the public wants and what the press holds up as the standard against which they will be judged. But the post-Watergate conditions have made the emergence of such a leader increasingly unlikely, and the presidents, in frustration, have been in rebellion.”

It is an interesting observation, but doesn’t go far in explaining the history of presidential scandals. Could one imagine two men with less desire to be “big-time presidents” than Grant and Harding? For all of his frustrated ambition, did Teddy Roosevelt disgrace his office?

A better approach would be to judge the scandal rather than the man. Did it involve “high crimes and misdemeanors,” or was it manufactured by partisan attack dogs and an irresponsible press? Has the nature or quality of the presidency itself really changed over the years, or is scandal only the product of a changed political environment?

This book on the political legacy of Watergate provides some of the background necessary to answer these questions, without coming to any important conclusions. Instead of trying to write the history of scandal in the Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations, it focuses on “the most important moments, small and large, when the honesty and truthfulness of the presidents and those closest to them were challenged.”

In other words, it is a story concerned with the telling of lies. It was a young Richard Nixon, investigating Alger Hiss, who first observed that it is not the crime itself, but the cover-up that gets you.

As Woodward sees it, the shadow cast by Watergate has taken two forms. The first is the increase in media scrutiny. The second is the independent prosecutor law, passed in 1978.

It soon became apparent that the law had set the bar too low. The first investigation to be authorized was of a groundless accusation involving misdemeanor drug possession. An expensive investigation had to be undertaken in order to prove the trivial charges unsubstantiated. As would later be the case with the Starr investigation, millions were spent on a case that, under normal circumstances, would not have been prosecuted.

It was a lesson the press had already learned. In 1977, ex-Nixon speech writer William Safire helped frame the language of the post-Watergate era by dubbing a Carter administration embarrassment involving budget director Bert Lance, “Lancegate.” The suffix has been with us ever since. Other terms like “smoking gun” and “stonewalling” were also part of Safire’s attack. And yet, as with many of the special prosecutor investigations, there was more smoke than fire. Safire knew that “personal financial problems and piddling little controversies could absolutely kill a politician.” The hounds had been released.

In the long run, none of this increased attention is a bad thing. And, in retrospect, investigations of the White House misconduct have been more successful than one would have thought likely. After all, absent some kind of ridiculous break (a stain on a dress kept as a trophy, a self-incriminating set of tapes), most accusations are impossible to prove. One can speculate endlessly about what Reagan must (or should) have known about Iran-Contra, but the truth is likely to remain a secret.

Unfortunately, while a subject like this has an undeniable fascination, Shadow is not a particularly good book. Like most books written by journalists, it is well-researched and highly readable, but sloppily put together. For starters, over half of it is given over to a discussion of the Clinton administration, throwing any sense of balance out of the window. In addition, readers hoping to find a lucid exposition of the Whitewater-Paula Jones-Monica Lewinsky saga will be disappointed. Since the presentation is chronological and sticks to individual points of view (often accredited to anonymous sources), there is little chance to get a sense of the big picture.

What Woodward does provide is a number of brief but valuable glimpses into the strange workings of American politics. Of particular interest is his account of the backdoor discussions (initiated by Henry Hyde, no less!) aimed at averting a senate impeachment trial for Clinton by passing a censure motion in the House. It is a telling demonstration of the craven politics of evasion, and a lesson in how not to get things done in a democracy.

Is the blood sport of American politics now played out? There are grounds for hope. In the first place, the public seems genuinely tired of scandal. In addition, the independent prosecutor law has just been allowed to expire without renewal.

On the other hand, the heat of media scrutiny, stoked by the 24-hour news cycle and content-hungry Internet reportage, shows no sign of abating. There’s no denying that the rules have changed. As the sun sets on the American Empire, we can expect its shadows to lengthen on the ground.

Review first published September 4, 1999. Just after Shadow came out Woodward appeared on PBS’s NewsHour to take part in a panel discussion debating the use of “confidential sources.” I was genuinely surprised at his arrogance in rejecting any criticism of his work. Woodward should keep in mind that his reputation is largely the result of a historical accident. He is a poor writer and rarely capable of any profound analysis.


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