The Final Days by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
Review by Ryan
With the election season blasting around us I thought it would be a good time to get away from feeling gross about modern politics with an escape to feeling gross about politics from 45 years ago. The Final Days is Woodward and Bernstein’s follow up to their Pulitzer Prize winning journalism on the Watergate scandal in their first book,
“All the President’s Men” which is also a worthwhile read for some (like me) who didn’t grow up during the Watergate years and could use a good refresher.
In The Final Days, Watergate has happened and the fallout continues. The book tracks the Nixon Administration through it’s death spiral as the Watergate investigation in the Senate slowly creeps closer and closer to Nixon himself. The story is told from the perspective of Nixon’s closest aides tussed out after the fact in interviews, about what was going on at the time and just what everyone was thinking as it happened.
Although the reader never gets any real insight into the mind of Nixon from his own point of view, he is made more three-dimensional through the eyes of a wide cast of characters including Chief of Staff Alexander Haig, Press Secretary Ron Ziegler (probably the worst job in the world especially with a scandal), Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s lawyers, his children and their spouses, various congressmen from both sides of the aisle, and various bureaucrats and confidants.
As the story slowly unfolds, the reader is treated to rather uncharacteristic detail of the inner workings of the leadership of the United States, how decisions are made, where pressure comes from, and just who are these people? The torment and constant moral and patriotic pressure that engulfs them all serves to humanize the politicians that we all love to hate.
There is a truly Dickensian cast of characters to keep track of (this is the actual government after all) but there is a handy dossier at the front of the book to refer to and some of the obscure characters might be surprisingly familiar: Hey! It’s Montana Senator Mike Mansfield, and Ben Stein, I loved you in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Diane Sawyer is one of Nixon’s staff secretaries…wait is that the Diane Sawyer? Wikipedia confirms that it is!
You most likely remember Nixon as one of the most disgraceful presidents in our history. But in the end, after reading all those pages, he becomes almost…almost a sympathetic and even admirable character. It’s easy to forget that he was reelected in one of the most lopsided electoral triumphs of our modern system. And were it not for the scandal that eventually ended him, he might even be thought of as one of the most successful presidents with peace efforts in Vietnam and the Middle East, détente with the Soviet Union, reestablishment of relations with China, and hell he even created the EPA! But in the end, he was brought down by scandal. And one of the things that strikes me reading today is how mild Watergate really was as scandals go. I mean, it’s the reason we now use “gate” as a suffix to denote scandal, but really it wasn’t so awful for Nixon on it’s face, it simply seemed to hint at so much more and ultimately it was the cover up that was worse than the crime in many people’s eyes. But in the end, when all his public and political support had dried up (truly amazing that people’s opinions were so elastic once), Nixon and his aides slowly, agonizingly, and admirably made the decision to step aside rather than drag the country through the instability and uncertainty that an impeachment and trail would cause.
It’s hard to imagine a modern politician stepping aside so easily or (relatively) gracefully and hard to imagine the public even getting that worked up about so minor a scandal…or I should say getting so worked up about a scandal affecting their party’s head. Nixon believed that history would vindicate him and he would be remembered for the good he did. Today history is vindicating him in a different way…he doesn’t really seem so bad by comparison.