‘All the President’s Men’: lessons on legacy


The 1976 film All the President’s Men is memorable for several reasons. Celebrated as the most factually accurate film ever made, it was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning two, despite its blatant refusal to be a Hollywood-style dramatisation of the true story of the Watergate scandal. There’s no romantic subplot, no villainous editor, no comic relief — cinematically simple, the film puts the story in the front seat. It is for this reason that the film is most remarkable: its message on accountability in politics takes prominence, and echoes loudly through time.

The film centres around two journalists at The Washington Post, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, and is based on their book of the same name. We follow their journey as they discover that a burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, in the Watergate building in Washington, was far from a rookie attempt to spy on the Democratic campaign.

Pulling at each loose thread, they uncover a conspiracy at the highest levels, reaching individuals in President Richard Nixon’s administration. The President’s men had created an elaborate scheme of spying and sabotage against the Democrats, issuing threats and destroying records to ensure its secrecy. That is, until the burglars are caught, Woodward is assigned the story, and after much persistent work from the pair, the threads all come undone.

The Watergate scandal was revealed to the public through Bernstein and Woodward’s faithful reporting. Though the White House issued denials at several stages, later investigations by the Justice Department, the House and the Senate revealed not only the fact of the matter, but that the President himself was complicit. Nixon had approved plans to inhibit the investigation and cover up his administration’s involvement, leading to his impeachment for obstruction of justice, abuse of power and contempt of Congress. His resignation followed on August 9 1974, making him the first and only U.S. President to have resigned from office. 

48 years later, the Trump administration has shown that President’s men are still at work

Contentiously, Nixon was pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford, less than one month later. The national reaction to this controversial act was to be expected: it was viewed as corrupt, and led to Ford’s electoral defeat in 1976. The pardon may have saved Nixon from indictment, but it failed to save his legacy, and indeed played a part in smearing Ford’s.

Watergate’s scandal was not swiftly forgotten, with new viewers discovering All the President’s Men and the unrelenting work these journalists did to hold their politicians accountable. Indeed, the parallels between the events showcased in the film and more recent scandals surrounding the Trump administration are blindingly obvious, forcing the realisation that the film is not confined to its historical significance. 

President Donald Trump’s administration, now no longer in the White House, was comparably mired with charges of corruption and fraud. Several of Trump’s advisors, campaign staff and aides were indicted for a variety of crimes, ranging from bank fraud to witness tampering. Trump himself was impeached twice, for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress in December 2019 (later acquitted by the Senate in February 2020) and for incitement of insurrection only one week before his term ended in January 2021.

Prior to leaving office, Trump issued over 140 pardons, many of which were to individuals connected to his administration. His campaign chairman, Paul Manafort; ex-aide, Steve Bannon; and foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos; were a few on the list. The reaction to these pardons was largely negative, with Republican senator Mitt Romney calling it ‘unprecedented, historic corruption’.

An investigation has been triggered in Congress to determine whether Roger Stone, his former adviser who was charged for making false statements to Congress, witness tampering, and for obstructing an official proceeding, was pardoned as a reward for protecting Trump. Somewhat unsurprisingly, Stone is known to have Nixon’s face tattooed on his back. 

All the President’s Men may sound anachronistic in 2021, when the cycle has grown so short and one scandal is hardly enough to cost a President his job. But, the film stands to remind us that we mustn’t let this be the case. The reporting it displays was determined, unwavering, and merciless, to expose the corruption that had diseased various parts of the U.S. government.

The Washington Post was in the minority in understanding these implications at the time, and thus despite Bernstein and Woodward’s reports, Nixon was successful in the 1972 election. Little media attention was given to Watergate until far further down the timeline. Nixon was eventually disgraced once the truth came out; his involvement in the cover-up is for what he is most remembered.

48 years later, the Trump administration has shown that President’s men are still at work, and self-serving manipulation of the truth still thrives in and around the highest office. All the President’s Men tells us that we must continue to be shocked and horrified by this, as it is the role of the public and the press to hold their elected officials to certain standards. Once they have left office, we must remember them for their crimes. 

Image: Craig Duffy via Flickr

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