Public scandals are America’s favorite parlor sport. Learning about the flaws and misdeeds of the rich and famous seems to satisfy our egalitarian yearnings. For all our recognition that competition produces distinctions among individuals, we remain attached to the belief that no one is–or should be–better than anyone else. Reflecting the national unease with celebrities and celebrity, Ralph Waldo Emerson declared, “Every hero becomes a bore at last.”
Bob Woodward’s Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate, a recounting of all the major post-Watergate scandals, will speak to the enduring public interest in news of our political malignancies and could well fly to the top of the bestseller charts. But then again, maybe not. At times, the country wearies of hearing about demoralizing political misdeeds and goes in search of new heroes who appeal to our better angels. Woodward’s book sales will be one small bit of evidence for future cultural historians trying to decipher the national mood at the end of the twentieth century.
If Shadow is a potential cultural artifact, how does it rank as a work of history, especially presidential history? As his reporting in Watergate demonstrated twenty-five years ago, Woodward is a highly effective investigative journalist. These skills are on full display in Shadow. His recounting of every major political controversy from Gerald Ford’s pardon of Nixon through the Bert Lance and Hamilton Jordan flaps under Carter to the Iran/contra scandal under Reagan and Bush will be useful reading for any historian assessing the Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush presidencies.
Shadow, however, is most interesting as a reconstruction of the many scandals that have troubled the Clinton Administration. More than half the book is devoted to the Clinton presidency. Although Clinton, understandably, refused to be interviewed for the book, Woodward has relied on numerous “knowledgeable sources” to piece together the complicated allegations and investigations that have consumed so much attention during Clinton’s seven years in office. As with his earlier books, questions can be raised about the authenticity of these sources. Unattributed quotes cannot and should not be taken at face value; verifiable endnotes are as essential in contemporary works of history as in later volumes of scholarship.
Despite this, however, much of what Woodward says about the Clintons rings true. Bill Clinton’s explosive anger and petulance in response to his many self-inflicted travails raise questions about the man’s judgment and trustworthiness. The portrait of Hillary Clinton is no more reassuring. Her paranoid style, in Woodward’s words, will surely be a topic of discussion in her expected run for a New York Senate seat. In time, of course, other books and articles will challenge and undoubtedly revise at least some of what Woodward describes. But his depiction of the first couple will be part of the first draft of Clinton’s presidential history.
Woodward’s explanations for why the country has passed through so many disconcerting scandals in the past twenty-five years does not match his talent for reconstructing them. He sees these national embarrassments as largely the legacy of Watergate. But he never connects the dots to show us how this worked. True, Nixon’s abuse of power generated an atmosphere of suspicion and inquiry that made it difficult for his successors to avoid scrutiny and debate over the slightest wrongdoing.
But why the Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations were so insensitive to the likelihood that journalists and special prosecutors–an institutional inheritance from Watergate–would aggressively assault a weakened presidency is a mystery he leaves unaddressed. Woodward’s book will more or less satisfy those who are content to read a good descriptive account of recent scandals; but it will leave readers eager for greater understanding frustrated and even annoyed at poring through so much familiar material with so little explanation of why things turned out as they did.
Woodward would have done well to explain that there were other forces at work in the post-Watergate scandals, some the product of special circumstances attaching to each of the past five administrations and some the consequence of our long-term historical experience. In time, with the opening of the vast body of presidential documents that remain largely closed to biographers and historians, we will learn a great deal more about the inner workings of these Presidents and their staffs and will see more clearly what, besides Watergate, caused these administrations to stumble into their various crises.
Until then, though, we can assume that our late-twentieth-century Presidents were vulnerable not only to the aftermath of Watergate, Vietnam and the individual traits and quirks of their respective administrations but also to the longstanding tradition of public distrust of political leaders and a democratic press determined to catch them out in any wrongdoing. From Washington, who complained of censures of the vilest kind, to Lincoln, who was pilloried as a half-witted usurper, to FDR, for whose administration the term boondoggle was popularized, US Presidents have always (for both merited and unmerited reasons) been subjected to public attacks. At the end of his life, Emerson feared for the future of the Republic: “Tis a wild democracy,” he complained, “the riot of mediocrities and dishonesties and fudges.”
Woodward’s catalogue of recent abuses of power gives current resonance to Emerson’s earlier concerns.