Book review of Watergate: A New History by Garrett M. Graff



Nearly half a century has passed since five men with burglary and eavesdropping equipment were arrested on June 17, 1972, inside the offices of the Democratic National Committee on the sixth floor of the Watergate office building. During that time, scores of books, totaling untold thousands of pages, have been published about the scandal, which resulted in the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Do we need still another Watergate book?

The answer turns out to be yes — this one: Garrett M. Graff’s”Watergate: A New History.” It is a remarkably rich narrative with compelling characters, who range from criminal and flawed to tragic and heroic. As someone who played a small role in the drama while I was editing many of The Washington Post’s Watergate stories, I found that Graff convincingly populates and re-creates an extraordinary time in the history of the country and this city.

To do so, Graff, a prolific journalist, historian and author, waded through scores of previous books, plus countless pages of oral histories, news stories and Nixon’s Oval Office tape transcripts, as well as the FBI, court and congressional records, among other documentation in various archives. “My goal was not to re-investigate,” Graff writes, explaining that he “purposefully chose not to conduct fresh interviews.” Instead, he decided “to tell the story based on the documentary archival record,” which has been steadily expanding over the decades.

His story encompasses not just the Watergate burglary and coverup, but “a dozen other distinct but related scandals” during the Nixon administration, including illegal wiretaps, campaign “dirty tricks,” possible treason, attempted misuse of the FBI and CIA, and the bribery conviction of Vice President Spiro Agnew, “plus a little bit of presidential tax fraud.” It makes for a challenging read at nearly 700 pages of text, detailing fast-paced, interlocking events over six years.

Yet, Graff succeeds in his stated mission to tell “a more human story, one not filled with giants, villains, and heroes, but with flawed everyday people worried about their families, their careers, and their legacies.” The book is filled with apt sketches of its many characters, major and minor, from all the president’s men, and some of their spouses, to interrogators, investigators, lawyers and members of Congress. It vividly re-creates all the key events, from Nixon’s overreaction to the revelation of the Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam War in June 1971 to his resignation in August 1974.

Graff surprisingly focuses often in the book on Mark Felt, the FBI’s No. 2 official at the time, who became a key unnamed source of information for several reporters, especially The Post’s Bob Woodward, who identified him only as Deep Throat until Felt was unmasked by his own family decades later. Graff appears to identify as Felt’s motivation for his loss in a rather unseemly competition to succeed J. Edgar Hoover as FBI director.

Graff sprinkles his book with readable anecdotes and asides, some of them in the many footnotes dotting the bottoms of pages. For example, when Nixon wanted someone to break into the Brookings Institution to find possibly embarrassing information about himself, Tony Ulasewicz, a former New York cop hired as a White House staff gumshoe, was assigned to the job. But he had to go to a public library to find what and where Brookings was. Eventually, that burglary plot was abandoned.

Graff writes that the $100 bills the burglars were carrying when they were arrested inside the Watergate were intended to bribe any building guards who might find and confront them. Instead, the guard on duty, Frank Wills, famously called the police when he twice found tape keeping a garage door open.

Each morning during the Senate Watergate hearings, chaired by Democrat Sam Ervin, the avuncular senator could be seen briefly studying a book held open in front of him by an aide. Graff notes that Ervin was perusing a Senate cafeteria menu placed inside the book, before he pointed to the sandwich he wanted to order for lunch.

Graff also seeks to correct conflicts, errors and evasions that he found in previous books, including many of “the more than thirty memoirs by key participants” in the scandals and the investigations of them. He credits Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and their editors at The Post for their investigative work on Watergate, but he also dwells on a few mistakes they made and discrepancies he believes he has found in their descriptions of their work. Graff also rightly credits significant Watergate scoops by a few of their competitors. And he expresses skepticism about some of the “cinematic drama” of the “All the President’s Men” movie, which frames much of people’s knowledge of Watergate today.

Interestingly, in his day-by-day narrative of the final week of Nixon’s presidency, Graff notes that “accounts and recollections get muddy; across the half-dozen central memoirs, including Nixon’s and [White House chief of staff Alexander] Haig’s, and the books that record this moment, like Woodward and Bernstein’s ‘The Final Days,’ there are conflicting accounts of who said what in which meeting.”

More important, after presenting all his prodigious research and analysis, Graff concludes that “we’ll never really know the full truth of Watergate” because its “remaining mysteries are spread among too many people, of whom are now dead, their secrets buried alongside them.” Who ultimately ordered the Watergate break-in and why? Just to bug the offices or phones of the Democratic National Committee? Or to find something embarrassing that could be used against the Democrats during the 1972 election? Or to discover whether the Democrats had dirt on the Nixon campaign? Graff finds multiple theories in the memoirs of the president’s men.

His book is weakest on the long-term impact of Watergate. Much of the ensuing campaign finance reforms and elections of “Watergate baby” reformers to Congress have gradually washed away over the last half-century. Perhaps the most lasting impact has been in the news media, where investigative reporting that holds power accountable in all walks of American life emerged from Watergate and has endured, even as the media is being reshaped in the digital age. Graff recognizes the change, but he also appears to disparage it and to minimize the importance of today’s investigative reporting as Watergate’s legacy. “After a generation of women that had probably trusted government too much,” he writes near the end of his book, “came a generation of women who seemed to believe that Watergates existed inside every government office and corporate headquarters.”

I’ve read a couple dozen books about Watergate, and I’ve written chapters about The Post’s Watergate investigation in two of my own books. I found “Watergate: A New History” to be engaging, informative and thought-provoking, more than earning its place on bookshelves alongside the old histories.

Leonard Downie Jr., a former executive editor of The Washington Post, is a journalism professor in DC at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School. His most recent book is “All About the Story: News, Power, Politics and The Washington Post.”

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