Isn't That Correct, Mr. Rather?
"Contrary to received wisdom, Nixon's tapes did not reveal him "a manipulative, master politician overseeing every detail" (Washington Post), "the key figure in the cover-up conspiracy" (Time) who "knew virtually everything about Watergate and the imposition of a cover-up, from the beginning" (historian Stanley Kutler). Rather, the tapes unmasked Nixon as an aging and confused politician, a hapless obstructer of justice invariably lost amid the welter of Watergate detail, uncertain who knew what and when, what each player had told the grand jury, whose testimony was direct, whose hearsay.
Why did the record of Watergate emerge so skewed? In part, it reflected the longstanding animus of the Eastern Establishment, then and now the official residence of the news media, against Nixon, the Orange Country striver. "I tell you," he mused to Dean on March 13, 1973, resignation still far from contemplation, "this is the last gasp of our hardest opponents . . . The Establishment is dying, and so they've got to show that the - despite the successes we have had in foreign policy and in the election, they've got to show that it is just wrong . . . They are trying to use this."
The conflict extended to all the president's men. Vice President Spiro Agnew, who found his own disgrace in garden variety corruption and pleaded nolo contendere to tax evasion charges before resigning in October 1973, had been the first national figure to raise the cry of media bias. (Few recall that when the ax was falling, in May 1973, Agnew extended an olive branch, of sorts, to reporters: "I do not apologize for the content of my early criticism, but I freely admit that it could have been stated less abrasively.")
The reportorial errors reflected the sloppiness found in the journalism of all eras and the haste new to this one, worse in later years, with all the sudden technological advances: instant analysis, satellite transmission, rushed-but-official-looking paperbacks like "The Pentagon Papers" or "The White House Transcripts." Released in the spring of 1974, "All the President's Men" was no valedictory statement, but it had the look, and effect, of one.
Even Richard Nixon had soul, Neil Young sang, and therefore even Richard Nixon, and his men, merited due process. Yet the news media in the Watergate era, drunk with newfound power and waist deep at what Henry Kissinger called the "orgy of recrimination," wantonly violated grand jury secrecy and seldom took care to distinguish leaks from plants, hearsay from eyewitness testimony, fact from fiction.
Thus when Mitchell became the first senior administration official to be indicted - on influence-peddling charges unrelated to Watergate and of which he was, a year later, fully acquitted - the cover of Newsweek showed Mitchell's bald head, enlarged to grotesque effect, with a single word - INDICTED - slapped across it. Time magazine, with equal gaiety, declared: THE INQUEST BEGINS.
A week later, the televised Senate hearings commenced, and 80 million Americans settled in for what Eric Sevareid hailed as "the biggest Washington spectacular since those McCarthy days."
James Rosen is a Fox News Washington correspondent and author of "The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate" (Doubleday).