Sourcery and Whichcraft

When Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein try to use the novelist’s tools, the result may be a good story but it’s not good history.

August 1976By Comments

The Final Days
by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
Simon and Schuster, $11.95

Like the events it chronicles, this book has become a topic of heated national debate, and like the personalities it dissects, its author have been transformed into public figures and should be subject in their turn to intense scrutiny. But now that their first book, All the President’s Men, has appeared in its movie version, with the beautiful Robert Redford as Woodward and the lovable Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein, it is difficult for a book reviewer to separate image from reality, Hollywood hype from substance, and trendy popularity from true merit. It is also difficult to resist reviewing the events and the personalities rather than the book itself.

But when one ignores the sideshow diversion, looks directly at The Final Days and reflects upon its style, structure, and technique, one comes away deeply troubled. Of course, Woodward and Bernstein are still very young—32 and 31 respectively—but surely they should have been able to write better prose; they should have lived up to more rigorous professional standards; or, at the very least, they should have subjected themselves to more stringent editing. But as it stands, The Final Days is a pedestrian piece of reportage about a monumentally important subject. To get a good idea of the disproportion between subject matter and execution, try to imagine Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as written by a couple of middling reporters who enjoyed liberal assistance from a gossip columnist.

This is not to say that The Final Days lacks all interest or that it doesn’t occasionally provide valuable information. It is instructive, for instance, to learn that the moral myopia of the Nixon administration was not limited to the upper echelons. There were plenty of people willing to do whatever was necessary to keep their man in office and, not incidentally, protect their own positions. Even after Haldeman and Ehrlichman left the White House, and the President’s own lawyer suspected he was lying, the charade continued that Nixon was innocent. Or at least the blind faith endured that enough senators could be cajoled into supporting him in an impeachment trial. Actually, it wasn’t always necessary to wheedle and cajole, since some senators, such as James O. Eastland of Mississippi, were unashamedly committed to back the President, come what may. As Eastland confided to Nixon, “I don’t care if you’re guilty or innocent, I’ll vote for you.”

Likewise, it is worth noting in this election year that virtually no one in Gerald Ford’s own party thought he had the experience, intelligence, or vision to be president. Of course, Democrats regarded Harry Truman the same way in April 1945. Many Republicans clung to Nixon until the very end, figuring it was better to have an idol with clay feet than one with a ceramic skull. It also appears that Ford, despite his denials, did in fact discuss a pardon for Nixon before the resignation.

So, to grant credit where it’s due, Woodward and Bernstein have done some essential paperwork, and no one can deny the conviction they showed as they pursued their story to a conclusion. But, while the authors’ accomplishments have been fulsomely and repeatedly praised, far too little has been said about their writing—in other words, about the book, as opposed to its raw material.

The Final Days is another hunk of instant history, a genre which attempts to compensate with immediacy for what it lacks in perspective. As the flap copy put it, the book is “brought vividly alive with the same novelistic detail and dialogue that made All the President’s Men a number one national bestseller.” But it is worth wondering whether the crossbreeding of “instant history” and “new journalism” hasn’t produced a hybrid which violates the normal standards of journalistic accuracy and credibility and ignores the most rudimentary expectations of literature.

To speak first of style, Woodward and Bernstein’s prose is serviceable at best, flat and lackluster much of the time. Frequently it sounds as if the author were attempting to emulate the graceless diction and puerile melodrama of Nixon’s speeches, and at its worst moments, the writing strains for a sense of urgency by stringing together punchless one-sentence paragraphs that read as if they had been written for a midnight deadline.

Whenever the authors try to set a scene or delineate a character through the use of “novelistic detail,” they inevitably focus on banal and predictable details. An early description of presidential attorney J. Fred Buzhardt reads, he “nervously tapped his hand on the armrest. His West Point class ring struck the metal. The ‘1946’ was nearly worn from the setting.” An article in Newsweek pointed out that since Woodward and Bernstein weren’t with Buzhardt at that moment, it raises the question of how they knew he was tapping his ring, how they could be sure it struck metal. As Newsweek said, this makes the whole scene read distractingly like fiction, but what wasn’t mentioned was that it reads like sophomoric fiction, the sort which draws a trite equation between nervousness and finger tapping. Then, in an attempt to capture the man’s character, there is the amateur zoom in on his college ring and graduation date, as if these will tell the reader something significant. This is the stock-in-trade of movies made for TV, not of quality prose.

Time after time, scenes are repeated from slightly different points of view which add no insight. Other scenes seem to have been included under the dubious assumption that anything that happens to an important man must also be important. Thus the reader is treated to a dramatic account of Nixon’s last haircut by the presidential barber. “ ‘The same as usual ,’ said Nixon.” Now there’s a comment for Bartlett’s quotations, but it can’t compare to the barber’s farewell. “ ‘Mr. President…it’s been a pleasure working for you, sir. I still have great confidence in you and I think you’ve been a great President. If I can ever be of any service to you in the future, it will always be my pleasure.’ ”

One supposes this is an example of the “novelistic dialogue” which was meant to bring the book “vividly alive.” But has there ever been a barber in history who spoke that way? Isn’t it much more likely that this is what the barber recalled having said? Or wished he had said?

Clearly these lines of dialogue, like so many in the book, were not overheard by the authors. They were recounted to them long after the fact, or were resurrected from notes and memos. It scarcely seems proper to put quotation marks around them, since in addition to calling attention to their insipidness, this leaves the erroneous impression that Woodward and Bernstein can vouch for the authenticity of conversation which they heard at second, third, or fourth hand from people who may have been protecting or aggrandizing themselves.

The same objections, and more, must be raised by the authors’ incursions into the subconscious and unconscious minds of living men. To pretend to know what Haig or Buzhardt or David Eisenhower were thinking at a particular moment is not just presumptuous. It is nonsensical; it casts doubt on the accuracy of the rest of the book and spawns unanswerable question about Woodward and Bernstein’s judgment and discretion. Presumably these “thoughts” were revealed to the reporter by the thinkers themselves, or perhaps by people who claimed to have been privy to the thoughts of the thinkers. But only a fool would take such “thought “ at face value, since there is no way of double-checking them, no way of making sure they aren’t misrepresentations or outright lies. And the authors should have kept in mind that once a thought is uttered out loud, it becomes a statement, which is quite a different phenomenon altogether.

The authors are not the first chroniclers to use this novelistic technique; indeed, the approach is as old as history itself. Thucydides used it to reconstruct Pericles’ famous tribute to democracy in the statesman’s funeral oration for Athenian soldiers killed in the first year of the Peloponnesian War. The issue is not so much the legitimacy of the novelistic approach, but whether Woodward and Bernstein should have used it on something so recent and sensitive as the fall of Richard Nixon. They have put forth a concatenation of unattributed quotes, unidentified sources, and unsupported intrusions into people’s minds and have asked the public to accept their assurances that it is the unalloyed truth. Perhaps it is all true. But Woodward and Bernstein, if anybody, should perceive that a nation which has come to doubt the honesty of its highest officeholders has the right to hold both its journalists and its historians accountable to certain elementary professional standards.

Death Song
by John Edward Weems
Doubleday, $10.95

Death Song is a different sort of book altogether. Exhaustively researched, meticulously footnoted, this history of the last of the Indian wars acknowledges its sources, invents no dialogue or other quotations, and restricts itself to what can be proved to have been said at a particular time and place. Yet it never reads like a dry catalogue of places, names, and dates. Instead it is, in the words of Texas author John Edward Weems, “an attempt to tell the story of that long and sorrowful series of conflicts and to depict life style, color, drama, tragedy, and meaning mainly through the use of seven principal characters who participated in the war and who left behind written accounts.” Death Song may not be the best of his eight books—its structure is a little too loose; its focus occasionally wavers—but it bears most of the earmarks of his earlier work and amply demonstrates why Bruce Catton called Weems’ previous book, To Conquer a Peace, “the best general account of the Mexican War I have yet read. …Weems knows how to tell a story.”

Weems starts by exploring the attitudes of post-Civil War America and pointing out blatant ironies. While the Emancipation Proclamation freed black slaves, white settlers in what would become the states of New Mexico and Arizona still owned Indian slaves, and while the Civil Rights Act of 1866 granted citizenship to all persons born in the United States, and guaranteed the same rights and privileges for those fortunate persons included, the legislation specifically excluded Indians. Even sympathetic whites wanted the Indians safely removed from the path of western expansion. People with fewer scruples or more practical interests preferred to exterminate them. But both impulses seemed to lead to the same result—removal of Indians to reservations, broken treaties, transferal to more remote reservations, Indian resentment, raids, and savage white reprisal.

Though it is a familiar story and Weems tries to cover too much of it in one volume, it still has the power to appall a reader—especially since the author cites dozens of incidents which indicate that the massacres at Sand Creek and Wounded Knee, while they may not have been officially sanctioned, were indeed the natural culmination of the government’s Indian policy. Weems describes, for example, how Manga Coloradas was tricked into appearing for a peace talk only to be taken prisoner, tortured with heated bayonets, shot, and decapitated. After the flesh was boiled away from the chief’s head, his skull was sent to the Smithsonian Institution.

But Death Song is more than a one-sided condemnation of white viciousness. Weems takes care to show the humanity of many of the soldiers and the savagery of some of their opponents, who were also capable of breaking treaties, kidnapping, raping, and indiscriminate killing. Above all, this book conveys the moral ambiguity of that age and of the Indian campaigns which one participant described in terms that might easily have been applied to Viet Nam. It was “a warfare in which the soldier of the United States had no hope of honor if victorious, no hope of mercy if he fell; slow death by hideous torture if taken alive; sheer abuse from press and pulpit, if, as was inevitable, Indian squaw or child was killed.” Finally the Indians and soldiers both appear to have been the victims of a national policy which insisted on opening the West for settlers, yet rarely considered the original inhabitants and afterward did not care to remember the men who had the ugly task of removing them. It is a tribute to John Edward Weems that he makes a reader sympathize with both sides. 

Recommended Reading:
Passion’s Child: the Extraordinary Life of Jane Digby, by Texas author Margaret Fox Schmidt. Harper and Row, $12.50.

The Day the Laughter Stopped, by David Yallop, the true story of Fatty Arbuckle. St. Martin’s Press, $10.95.

Woman on the Edge of Time, a new novel by Marge Piercy. Knopf, $10. 

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