In its review of Watergate: A New History, by Garrett M. Graff, the Washington Post notes that “half a century has passed” since the arrests of five men at the Democratic National Committee’s offices inside the Watergate office complex, raising the pertinent question: “During that time scores of books, totaling untold thousands of pages have been published about the scandal . . . Do we need still another Watergate book?”
The Post says, resoundingly, yes! And while it claims that Graff is not trying to “re-investigate” Watergate, it applauds Graff’s conclusion, seemingly without substantial evidence, that the motivation of Post source Deep Throat was churlish: “Graff appears to identify as [Mark] Felt’s motivation his loss in a rather unseemly competition to succeed J. Edgar Hoover as FBI Director.”
The Post also credits Graff’s “prodigious research,” while echoing his conclusion that “we’ll never know the full truth of Watergate” because “its remaining mysteries are spread among too many people, many of whom are dead.” Graff, the Post approvingly notes, can’t fathom who ordered the break-in and why. Graff finds multiple theories, exploring none in depth.
If observations like these are used to justify a new 679-page history, one may ask, why bother? Why read a book that throws up its hands and says, “Who knows?
One answer comes in Graff’s treatment of two seminal revisionist works, Jim Hougan’s 1984 Secret Agenda and Len Colodny’s 1991 Silent Coup. These two works, in fact, solve quite convincingly many of the mysteries Graff contends are still shrouded.
For instance, Hougan’s masterful outing of the CIA’s infiltration of the White House and specifying the targeted bordello of the pseudonymous “Tess,” provide satisfying answers. Silent Coup follows up on Secret Agenda, and exposes “Tess” as bordello madame Cathy Dieter, which has profound implications. More to the point, Colodny makes a powerful case of the centrality of White House Counsel John Dean as a promoter of the break-in, as well as a conflicted counsel who sucked his superiors into an idiotic coverup through advice that was less than candid.
And Mark Felt’s own writings explain well that his pro-FBI motivation was to keep the investigation free of “whitewash,” as he urged his boss Patrick Gray in their first post-arrest meeting. So, in answer to Graff, there, in fact, are a number of solid answers to the “mysteries” he (and the Post) wish to keep in the realm of unsolved questions.
After all, if the facts uncovered by Hougan and Colodny were available to the Post during the scandal then maybe, just maybe, the Post may have covered up more than it uncovered on its way to a Pulitzer Prize.
How does Graff treat the stunning revelations of Secret Agenda and Silent Coup? Well, Graff shows that a key critic has disdained each of these two works. Regarding Hougan’s brilliant work, the esteemed critic called it a collection of more “working hypotheses than proven conclusions.” That same critic called Silent Coup a “byzantine piece of revisionism” and one of “the most boring conspiracy books ever written” despite its “wild charges and vilifications.” Other than quoting this critic, the supposedly prodigious researcher Graff gives no specifics to support these parroted conclusions. And the allegedly thorough Graff does not quote the scores of mainstream critics who championed aspects of the two works they found highly credible.
Who was this authoritative critic upon the opinion of whom Graff simply disregards two treasure troves of evidence about Watergate? That esteemed critic is . . . the Washington Post.
We are not making this up.
So, contrary to the many approving reviews of these two works, the Post has for years, without solid proof, defensively urged their marginalization. Graff echoes the Post’s marginalizing comments, after which the Post favorably reviews Graff’s work. This is circular, bootstrapped reasoning at its finest.
Thus, rather than give us within his 679 pages a thoughtful analysis of the sensational “revisionist” takes on Watergate, Graff simply gives them the back of his authorial hand. Is this what passes for “prodigious research?”
Thus, the Post wants us to believe, using Graff as its megaphone, that Watergate is still in essence an unsolved case, in which the only thing clear is that the president and his men “covered up.” He spent 679 pages, then, telling us, in essence, that there was a presidential cover-up? Well, to be fair, he also confirms the bizarre theory that the Post’s iconic, gold-standard source, Deep Throat, was diabolical, likely because not all of Mark Felt’s investigative conclusions were reported by the paper—that is, those that contradicted the Post’s theme of pure Nixonian evil.
But what exactly did the president think he was covering up? Was John Dean’s advice why and how to cover up both conflicted and of selfish design? Was the CIA, as the FBI quickly concluded, likely behind the entire affair? And apart from the use of campaign cash, did the scandal have much to do with a bordello and not a campaign?
To Graff’s credit, he notes the consensus that campaign director John Mitchell did not likely order the burglary, even though, with Dean’s advice, the White House thought the former Attorney General was involved until late in the day. But if not Mitchell, who ordered the burglaries? Graff’s answer: someone did. Isn’t this a critical issue on which to punt?
Highly credible answers to these questions were available to Graff, who chose to throw up his hands and say, in essence, go figure. These mysteries, he concludes, are unsolvable.
This conclusion is just fine with the Washington Post. After all, if these mysteries were solvable, its journalists likely knew the answers during the scandal but did not choose to print them. One true mystery remaining is whether the Post commissioned this intellectually vapid work or whether Graff wrote it on his own initiative, knowing he would become the Post’s boy.
Graff thereby raises a corollary mystery of Watergate: Why do we need a 679-page work that says nothing can really be proven about this murky affair?
But like the other purportedly unsolvable mysteries of Watergate, there is a solid answer. The book’s review by the Post is noteworthy because it was not written, as is customary, by an independent reviewer. It was written by Leonard Downie, Jr., the former executive editor of the Washington Post who for years fought off compelling new revelations of facts the Post should have reported during Watergate.
So, we do have a good idea why this jejune book and equally unsatisfying review were written. Another mystery solved.