Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate

By Bob Woodward

Simon & Schuster. 592 pp. $27.50

By Alan Wolfe, whose books include "Marginalized in the Middle."

None of the five presidents since Richard Nixon has been able to escape the curse of Watergate, argues Bob Woodward, assistant managing editor of The Washington Post, in his new book, "Shadow." Gerald Ford did not tell the straight truth about whether he discussed a pardon with Nixon chief of staff Alexander Haig while Nixon was still president. Jimmy Carter, determined to prove he was no Nixon, promised never to lie, a promise that, in the world of political intrigue, could not be kept. Ronald Reagan lied about the Iran-contra deal. George Bush, who comes off in this book as the most honest of the five, found himself unable to escape the legacy of Iran-contra, due in large part to the persistence of independent counsel Lawrence Walsh. And Bill Clinton's inability to tell the truth--Woodward twice mentions his cheating on golf scores--will long outlive any other legacy of this presidency.

Indeed, Woodward's treatment of Clinton, which takes up half the book, is devastating. His relentless piling up of the details of one mendacious act after another leaves the reader more outraged than any of the efforts by Clinton's conservative opponents to express their own outrage.

Woodward finds the legacy of Watergate everywhere. Nixon's fate should have told all these men that they would only harm themselves by lying on crucial issues. Each was told by a distinguished adviser to tell the truth. Those advisers turned out, for the most part, to be correct. Our presidents, according to Woodward, were responsible for their own troubles. No one forced Clinton to dissemble about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, nor was the script written in advance for the untruths told by the other presidents and recounted in this book. These five presidents represented different political parties, held different ideologies, and possessed different political skills. If they all failed, then surely something has gone fundamentally wrong with the institution in our lifetime.

Woodward is too busy telling the story of all these scandals, which he does in his usual gripping manner, to comment much on their meaning. Still, he offers brief suggestions at the end of his book. The presidency, he writes, has been diminished. No longer serving as the symbolic unifier of all Americans, lacking the sources of power available to a Lincoln or a Roosevelt, it leaves its occupants frustrated and angry. Presidential power is like a narcotic. But those who hold it cannot satisfy their habit so long as we live in the age of presidential minimalism. They rebel against their chains, lashing out with self-destructive acts that include the lies that ultimately diminish presidential power even further.

Woodward's theory is interesting, but it has one serious flaw. Presidents make mistakes, as we all do. Unlike those made by the rest of us, however, their mistakes are likely to be scrutinized by special prosecutors with unlimited powers. Those prosecutors, in turn, were a consequence of Watergate. And Watergate, in large part, stemmed from the investigation launched by Bob Woodward and his colleague Carl Bernstein. An alternative explanation for the failure of the modern presidency is that it cannot function so long as it is subject to the gaze of obsessed prosecutors and determined reporters.

"Shadow" is therefore not merely a dispassionate account of what five presidents did and did not do. It is also an intervention into an important national debate about what presidents ought to be able to do. In blaming presidents for their own lies, Woodward absolves presidential scrutinizers, including himself, of their relentlessness. Surely, in a democracy, presidents cannot escape the attention of a free press. But democracy also requires governance. If presidents lack that ability, it is due as much to the impossible conditions under which they carry out their jobs as it is to their own character flaws.

It would be wrong, therefore, to read "Shadow" as if there were the presidency with all its power on one side and words written by relatively powerless reporters on the other. To say that the presidency has become diminished is another way of saying that the media have become magnified. Reporters do not just cover power; they are power. Will they, like politicians, be tempted to lie to serve their cause?

Certainly Bob Woodward is not so tempted. His reporting, once one accepts his habit of quoting people at meetings he never attended, is honest. He has no partisan or ideological ax to grind. His frustration with President Clinton is genuine. Woodward remains the indefatigable, and indispensable, national resource he has been since "All the President's Men."

Yet in "Shadow," Woodward does tell a one-sided story, and the side that never gets enough scrutiny is his own. Like those who told the presidents whom they served to tell the truth, one wants to shout at him to treat the press with as much scrutiny as he treats the presidency. For the legacy of Watergate may someday be felt not only within the White House, but among those who write about it.