The Corrupt and Corrective Uses of Power: Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men, starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman

By Daniel Garrett

All the President’s Men
Directed by Alan J. Pakula
Warner, 1974

Contributions to the political campaign to win the second election of President Richard Nixon, a Republican, were given as compensation to burglars of the Watergate building, where the Democrats had an office. On the night of June 17, 1972, Frank Wills, the African-American security guard on duty, noticed a door that had been tampered with and notified the police; and what might have been another immoral event in politics became a local then national scandal. That criminal activity of burglars—five suited men wearing ties, four of them Cuban and one who had been affiliated with the Central Intelligence Agency, Republican operatives as burglars—was part of an ongoing strategy of surveillance and misinformation and sabotage undertaken by the Nixon administration, a strategy that involved the federal intelligence services as well as White House staff. One of the most important events in all of American history is the ending of the presidency of Richard Nixon, after the burglary was investigated by the Washington Post and the president was compelled to resign when the tapes Nixon kept gave evidence of his knowledge of criminality, the events presented in the film All the President’s Men.

Richard Milhous Nixon was a small town boy made good, a small town boy become bad: ambitious, smart, lonely, paranoid, ruthless; one of those people who imagine they have enemies and, from their own strategies and responses, create them. Richard Milhous Nixon had become a Congressional representative in 1946, a senator in 1950, and then Dwight Eisenhower’s national running mate, gaining the position of vice president in 1953. Although Richard Nixon lost the presidency to John F. Kennedy in 1960, the beginning of a tumultuous decade of domestic change and international tension, Nixon was elected president in 1968 and began to serve in 1969. Richard Nixon, once the most powerful man in the world, someone whose domestic and international policies—regarding civil rights and the environment and workplace safety and China and Russia, thanks to an activist Democratic Congress and his own initiatives—actually did some good, but he had an enemies list, an insane capitulation to his own paranoia. What can disapproval and opposition mean when you are president, if you are committed to doing good? Richard Nixon’s supposed enemies did not bring him down: his own actions did.

Alan J. Pakula’s film All the President’s Men, starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, is about the Washington Post’s investigation of the Watergate burglary. The motion picture is a portrait of a newspaper, of a scandal, and of a city. The view is grand, with the aerial and long-distance angles suggesting the epic, the objective, the surveilled. The expanse of Washington that we see, full of great architecture and lovely homes and big bland offices and busy streets, makes this a larger, more rooted film than it might otherwise be: the film appears to be built brick by brick, monument by monument, a logic of both stone and fact; and the scandal is revealed as both a natural outgrowth of power and a dangerous but passing thing, something dwarfed by a significant history of national accomplishment, a foundation of law and principle and a conscientious press and the public’s right to know. The motion picture All the President’s Men is almost foreign for its intimate view of power: it represents the kind of palace intrigue one imagines in old European capitals among kings and queens and their minions. It is a great reminder of what evil can happen here.

The intelligence and justice institutions of the country were threatened by the behavior of the president of the United States and his administration: contrary to his public declaration, he was a crook, by intent, design, and practice. In All the President’s Men Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman are good as ordinary working journalists who recognize the Watergate hotel burglary and its fundamental mystery as an opportunity to do important and interesting work, to use their detective instincts and social skills and writing talent. It is a national crisis, even a national tragedy, a betrayal of values, which gives them their distinguished careers. Robert Redford, dressed here often in tan, blue, and black, is a beautiful man, blond, blue-eyed, lean, not a perfect beauty (he does have a large nose and blemishes on the right side of his face) but a surpassing male beauty; and Redford is both cool and surprisingly grounded, but his intelligence is probably his most distinctive quality: aware, honest, personal, pragmatic, an intelligence that registers what is happening and what it means and does not lose a sense of what is decent. Redford works—speaks and moves—with a certain humility and directness rather than with vanity. Redford’s Woodward is an ambitious man who recognizes his own limitations and works to become better. Dustin Hoffman is the driven spirit who is not rated as highly by others as he hopes to be, someone whose tenacity is part of his intelligence and talent: he does not turn something he wants loose. Hoffman does not have Redford’s obviously winning looks, but Hoffman is attractive: earthy, intelligent, sensitive, tough, wily, the nervy Hoffman as Bernstein, dressed usually in beige, brown, and black and once in a stripped maroon shirt, is a long-haired, hip figure, a man of the contemporary changing moment. Hoffman as Bernstein, the more experienced journalist, has standards but also passion, and can be irritating and rebellious but his insistence gets him where he needs to go. Of course, they complement each other: and, while the actors perform with restraint, their restless characters dig and dig until they hit rock, the truth.

As the two journalists investigate, there are a few distractions about some of the president’s men, such as a repeat of a story about Gordon Liddy lighting a fire under his hand and having it burn and saying the trick is not minding—which seems a direct steal of bravado from Lawrence of Arabia. Follow the money, they are told by a mysterious informant known as Deep Throat, advice that has become a mantra of investigations; and here leads to discovery of a slush fund of hundreds of thousands of dollars held by a committee to return the president to office, money used to pay the burglars and for other dirty tricks. There is forced comedy involving Charles Colson, whom Woodward is shamed for not knowing is the special counsel to the president—and then Bernstein has two conversations about Colson—but, later, Bernstein asks about who Colson is in front of the editor who had shamed Woodward and is told he is a special consultant to the president. The journalists’ visits to the frightened employees of the involved campaign committee are both comic and sad. Yet, it is arguable that there is another truth beneath the one they found—the subterranean, rather than the top soil—and that is the crime’s beginning in the flaw of character.

Richard Nixon, a pragmatic conservative, a man of real and paranoid politics, was the kind of personality one either respects or feels sympathy for or grows to hate: he is the kind of complicated man that changes the atmosphere and casts a large dark shadow. I think that it was Senator Robert Dole, a stern and witty man and a lifelong admirer of Nixon, who once described Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Nixon as See No Evil, Speak No Evil, and Evil. Nixon wanted to manage men and message and his was an imperial presidency. Full of distrust, Richard Nixon, arrogant and insecure, believed in surveillance and control. If the decade before Nixon took office had cultivated doubt in authority, Nixon conformed to those doubts. Yet a residue of distinction clings to him; and that is less thanks to the weighty books Richard Nixon wrote to advance his reputation than to individual perception. You look at Nixon and listen to him and sense his ragged, rugged depths and how the high and the low met in him. Was it the diplomat Henry Kissinger who was supposed to have said, Imagine what he might have accomplished had Richard Nixon been loved? The Watergate burglary happened in June 1972; and the United States Senate committee began its investigation the next year, February 1973 (some of us recall a childhood getting home from school to find televised hearings and becoming accustomed to the rhythm of the names Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Dean). Richard Nixon was impeached by Congress in 1974, and announced his resignation on August 8, 1974, submitting his letter of resignation the next day to his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger. Gerald Ford, a Congressional house minority leader who had not been elected vice president (he replaced the disgraced Spiro Agnew) but selected by Nixon, became president; and President Ford, on September 8, 1974, pardoned Nixon. The rest of the world has not pardoned Richard Nixon. Yet, Bob Dole said something terrible and true: he was one of us.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.