Like America’s 45th president, Joe DiMaggio wasn’t a reader, so literary symbolism wasn’t his thing, and the allusion to him in the Simon & Garfunkel hit “Mrs. Robinson” initially irritated Joltin’ Joe. “What do they mean, ‘Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?’” he’d grouse to his pals at Toots Shor’s. “I’m still here. I haven’t gone anywhere.”
DiMaggio met Paul Simon at a restaurant years later and registered his complaint. The songwriter patiently explained that the line meant “Where are the great heroes now?” This mollified the Yankee Clipper, but the question implicit in that exchange is still salient 50 years later. Where are America’s heroes? I’m not talking baseball. I mean the heroes of U.S. politics and the law — and journalism.
Richard Nixon was elected the year that “Mrs. Robinson” topped the charts. He won re-election, too, in a landslide, but did not finish out his second term, resigning in disgrace at the height of the Watergate scandal. Although Watergate was a sordid and complex mess with a long list of villains, many Americans rose to the occasion, too. The heroes list started with 24-year-old Watergate security guard Frank Wills and encompassed a disparate cast of characters that included: U.S. District Court Judge John Sirica; Samuel Dash, chief counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee, along with its two ranking members, Democrat Sam Ervin and Republican Howard Baker, who employed the iconic phrase “What did the president know and when did he know it?” of committee witnesses.
On the House side, Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter Rodino did his patriotic duty, as did several Republicans who initially defended the president, but backed off as the evidence mounted. Inside the administration, Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy AG William Ruckelshaus refused Nixon’s order to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Meanwhile, FBI Deputy Director W. Mark Felt morphed into “Deep Throat,” the Washington Post’s secret source, who met late at night with a young Bob Woodward.
Ah, yes, the Post’s now-legendary investigative reporters. “Woodstein,” in Ben Bradlee’s irreverent formulation: Woodward and Carl Bernstein. It’s not accurate to say, although it has become convenient shorthand, that this duo and their paper brought down a president. But they did their jobs, and then some, while maintaining a neutrality in tone and a commitment to precision that seems quaint today. Quaint, but necessary. When President Trump stiffed the journalists who cover him daily by boycotting the 2017 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, the WHCA president turned the event into a celebration of the First Amendment. This was smart, although it would have been smarter to refrain from bashing Trump most of the night. But one decision was inspired: inviting Woodward and Bernstein to speak.
The “boys,” as Bradlee also called them, were superb. They are gray-haired septuagenarians now and even wiser than they were back in the day. The New York Post compared their appearance to a Simon & Garfunkel reunion, but I thought it was more as if Joe DiMaggio had decided to answer the question posed in “Mrs. Robinson” by donning pinstripes and going to Yankee Stadium to smack line drives and make shoestring catches in centerfield.
Bernstein began by recalling how he and Woodward once answered a long question about their reporting philosophy with a short phrase. What they were searching for was the “best obtainable version of the truth.” It’s a concept, he said, requiring enormous “effort, thinking, persistence, pushback, removal of ideological baggage, and sheer luck … not to mention some unnatural humility.”
Bernstein added that government secrecy is still “the enemy” and that whatever government officials are hiding is a pretty good indication of where the search for truth should lead. “Yes, follow the money,” he said, referencing the Watergate-era phrase, “but follow also the lies.”
Yet, it was what this self-confident journalist whom conservatives still consider a man of the left had to say about humility and ideological baggage that was more striking. “You never know what the real story is until you’ve done the reporting,” he said. “Our assumption of the big picture isn’t enough. Our preconceived notions of where the story might go are almost always different than the way the story comes out when we’ve done the reporting.”
Incremental reporting is crucial, he added, noting that he and Woodward wrote more than 200 Watergate stories, recalling that when he’d get impatient and say, “Let’s go for the big enchilada,” Woodward would counsel, “Here’s what we know now and are ready to put in the paper.”
“We’re reporters,” Bernstein concluded. “Not judges. Not legislators. What the government or citizens or judges do with the information we’ve developed is not our part of the process nor our objective.”
When Woodward took the dais, he admonished the absent Trump to take his favorite canard off the table. “Mr. President, the media is not fake news,” Woodward said. He also acknowledged the underbelly of modern journalism, noting how Bradlee and other Post editors gave reporters “the precious luxury of time” to pursue facts. “Now, in 2017, the impatience and speed of the internet and our own rush can disable and undermine the most important tool of journalism,” he said.
Although Woodward acknowledged that the mainstream media “needs to get both facts and tone right” — and sometimes fails to — he maintained that the effort to obtain the “best obtainable version of the truth” is largely made in good faith. I found myself hoping that this is true. I’m skeptical, however. I know Woodward and Bernstein personally — Bob better than Carl — and have familial connections to The Washington Post and to Ben Bradlee. I was proud of them during Watergate and I was proud of them the night of the 2017 White House Correspondents’ dinner. But the internet wasn’t around when Nixon was president. Neither was cable news.
James Comey was the third FBI director to be pushed out by a president. The first was acting FBI chief L. Patrick Gray III, whose forced resignation was one of the dubious signposts of Watergate. The second was when Bill Clinton replaced the Reagan-Bush holdover William Sessions. Which one was this more like? Neither, according to CNN talking head Jeffrey Toobin. This was Archibald Cox all over again, he asserted. “The FBI is running an investigation of Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia and apparently it’s getting too close for comfort,” said the CNN contributor, his voice rising in indignation. “That the only rational conclusion that you can draw from this firing.”
So only an irrational person — only a lunatic — would possibly disagree with this highly speculative opinion. That’s a far cry from “the best obtainable version of the truth.”
Meanwhile, CNN anchorman Jake Tapper was theatrically harrumphing at White House explanations for Comey’s firing, while a CNN guest columnist asserted, apparently sincerely, that a Time magazine report that Trump is served two scoops of ice cream while his White House guests get one is “proof” that the president is a child who should be immediately impeached. I almost hesitate to single out CNN; among cable networks it’s the least ideological. And that’s the problem.
Where have you gone, Woodstein? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
Carl M. Cannon is executive editor and Washington Bureau chief of RealClearPolitics.
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