Losing the plot

Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate

Bob Woodward <em>Simon & Schuster, 592pp, £20<

Bob Woodward, with his then colleague Carl Bernstein, gave birth to contemporary journalism in America with their reporting on Watergate. Now, 25 years after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency and only a few months after Bill Clinton refused to do so, he must feel a tinge of regret at how much of an empty bully his child has become. Yet he doesn't let on. He's too busy blaming others, particularly special prosecutors.

Woodward and his partner operated under a pair of simple rules. The first required two independent sources for every story. No need to name the sources, and no need to quibble about the sources' source. If the same second-hand dealer has passed the same information to two different third-hand dealers, don't follow the branch back up to its fork. Just snip the two twigs.

The second guideline, the root-of-all-evil rule, suggested that wrongdoing could usually be traced. "Follow the money," Deep Throat instructed. That worked well in Watergate, because the White House plumbers needed operating capital and hush money. Unfortunately the coin of the realm now is information, which floats on the electronic wind, leaving no fingerprints.

The Woodward-Bernstein tale about Watergate, All the President's Men, became the manual for the thousands of young journalists who poured into the profession, seeking truth and honour, glamour and fame. Bernstein soon left the Washington Post for television; Woodward remained, producing books on the US Supreme Court, the CIA and other American political institutions while also reporting for the Post.

In the outside world, in response to Nixon's deceptions, local, state and national governments adopted new rules to monitor those in power. Freedom-of-information laws opened virtually all records and meetings. Independent counsel laws created "special prosecutors" to investigate allegations of wrongdoing with the latitude to set their own budgets, time limits and fields of play.

Candidates, too, joined the parade. They stripped themselves of any shred of privacy, releasing to news organisations their tax returns and medical records. Gary Hart, a presidential candidate, even challenged the press to follow him to see if he was having an affair. They did. He was. He quit the race. In such an exhibitionist environment, journalists proved unable to restrain themselves. Every relationship, whether blood, financial or religious, became an object of prurience. Woodward himself came to insist that he no longer recognised any boundary of privacy for a public official. "I want to know everything," he said, having gained the tools to accomplish just that. "Then I'll judge what to publish."

Woodward and Bernstein had served as gumshoes in Watergate, because government, the normal investigator, was busy covering itself up. By the late 1970s investigators were everywhere. Reporters no longer had to beat the pavement themselves. They could await the phone calls - from the disgruntled bureaucrat pushed aside in a reshuffle, from the opponent with a good negative research team, from the self-promoting prosecutor eager to flush out new witnesses. Exclusives began to arrive in the morning mail or appear, pre-written and -sourced, on the fax machine. Public relations consultants and government press officers became the new editors, conceptualising stories, delivering the sources, organising the documentary evidence.

We might have expected the father of contemporary journalism to offer some insight into the role of the press in this unhappy evolution. Instead he argues that the presidency has become dysfunctional because the rules devised to prevent abuse have become grossly abused or abusive. He focuses almost entirely on the several lawyers who have served as special prosecutors. The executive no longer operates efficiently, he writes, because the president must spend much of his energy either investigating himself or being investigated by outsiders, often on the most innocent political decision or the most vague financial claim. A suspicion of absolute corruption surrounds "the most powerful man in the world", whoever he may be.

Surely that is only one legacy of Watergate. A prurient, more invasive press must be another. Woodward observes again and again how prosecutors and the White House jostle for position with the press, yet he describes the press as only a passenger, not a driver - a rather precious and self-serving view. Thanks to Heisenberg, we now understand that observation does indeed change the course of events. Observation also lends credibility, which is why Woodward so often pretends to have been a witness to conversations he could never have heard. He frequently quotes verbatim, even though none of the participants has spoken to him and no written or taped record exists. He doesn't qualify his scenes with "according to" or "as reported by". Too awkward for his reader. Instead he pretends to be a fly on the wall, invited into the counsels of government. His 50 pages of reference notes indicate that he often uses second- or third-hand recollections of events that may have taken place 25 years earlier. So much for the two-source rule.

This is not the first draft of history, as journalism used to be called. It is not really journalism at all. It's more like contemporary history, dramatised, interpreted, simplified for convenience and then moralised. At times an air of self-righteousness wafts over the pages - the tone of a columnist or leader writer. At times it is fiction, representative of the truth we think we know but can never prove. At times it is Woodward revisiting his greatest moments. It may be at its best in its second half, the portion devoted to Clinton, where he sums up the six-year investigation that ended in acquittal earlier this year. To produce a thoughtful, analytical record so quickly after the events proves that Woodward can still write to deadlines; but it is missing the journalism that made All the President's Men so compelling. After all, he never covered the Clinton administration as a reporter. His journalistic days are behind him.