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Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

Former Miller Center Fellow Beverly Gage: Unanswered Questions About Watergate

President Nixon, with edited transcripts of Nixon White House Tape conversations during broadcast of his address to the Nation.

President Nixon, with edited transcripts of Nixon White House Tape conversations during broadcast of his address to the Nation. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration. PD.

Former Miller Center Fellow and Yale History Professor Beverly Gage reviews Robert Redford’s new documentary, which aired on the Discovery Channel last night, All the President’s Men Revisited, for Slate.com. The documentary was created to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Watergate. Gage argues that the film is “a reasonably adequate primer on Watergate mythology, and it’s certainly fun to watch. But it is also a missed opportunity for historical reflection—and one that, given the age of most Watergate participants, is unlikely to come around again.” For example, Redford fails to explore the implications of whether Mark Felt leaked information to Bob Woodward for his own purposes. As journalist Max Holland argues in his 2012 book, The Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat, Felt did so in his own interests to win a “war of succession” then underway at the FBI following J. Edgar Hoover’s death.

Gage also notes that forty years later, there still big political questions left unresolved:

How did a Republican Party on the verge of collapse in 1974 surge back six years later to launch the Age of Reagan? How much of the scandal was really about Nixon and his paranoia, and how much was about a broader set of institutional and political rivalries? Did the reforms put in place after the scandal—on presidential power, on intelligence prerogatives—effectively constrain the executive branch? To what degree did Watergate, once seen as a great Democratic triumph, help to fuel a conservative anti-government backlash?

Redford’s film, according to Gage, does offer a few tantalizing thoughts about today’s fractious political scene. According to Gage:

Rachel Maddow argues, for instance, that Obama’s fondness for drones and secret intelligence operations owes much to Nixon’s “imperial presidency.” Bernstein himself suggests that the Watergate era may look shockingly good when compared to today’s bitter partisan politics. In 1974, he notes, Republicans and Democrats finally joined together to serve the public interest by ousting the president.

Read the full review on Slate here. And be sure to check out the Miller Center’s Presidential Recording Program collection of transcripts related to Watergate here.