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.

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

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