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.