The Inside Story

The Final Days by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein Simon and Schuster, 476 pp., $10.95

FOR SEVERAL YEARS NOW, I have counted myself among the "Nixon-haters," "the anti-Nixon crowd," and the "nattering nabobs of negativism," and even joined in the "Nixon death watch" during the hot, intense final days of the Nixon regime in the summer of 1974. After all, I considered it a source of pride and self-esteem to fight the man who fought the Vietnamese with such abandon.

So, when the brouhaha erupted over the new Woodward and Bernstein book I was ready. William F. Buckley, William Safire, even Time Magazine were all critical; some of the big leakers were running for cover; and The Boston Globe was splashing the sordid details on its front page. Nobody would comment. Editors and reporters pontificated and prevaricated. I was prepared for some serious wallowing: visions of Nixon entering the terminal throes of his own hysteria, Pat snitching bourbon from the liquor cabinet, Kissinger taping all his phone calls, Eddie Cox worrying that his father-in-law might kill himself rather than resign...

But excerpts do not a book make. It seems clear now, after a long, slow reading of the 456 pages of narrative, that almost nobody had actually taken the trouble to read the book before getting in on all the fuss. Here, several points seem in order:

I The charges levelled at the excerpts are essentially right: the portions printed in Time and Newsweek do amount to a lurid, distorted account of the last days of the Nixon White House. But they don't represent the book very well, either.

I The denials seem completely predictable--almost boring. The pattern is all too familiar: someone gets a call from a reporter and can't resist the urge to talk, only to regret it later. But the fact that the source panics and later issues a flat denial doesn't change the quote. Not one bit.

I The hue and cry over W&B;'s alleged invasion of the Nixon family's privacy doesn't seem to hold up either. In fact, Nixon, obviously not a source, lurks away from the center of action in The Final Days, like some offstage synthesis of Macbeth and Lear. But the fact of the matter is that Nixon. One of the most private men ever to live, was the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, and, as he himself reportedly told some of his advisers the day he announced his resignation, Nixon had "the little black box" in his control up to the moment of transition. If for no other reason, the safety and survival of the world made his business our business.

SO WHAT KIND OF BOOK is The Final Days? Essentially, it is a reportorial narrative, told by an "omniscient" observer. It is divided into two parts: the first covers late 1973 and early 1974, and the second bears down on the last 17 days before Nixon told the White House staff on August 9 that no one would ever write a book about his mother and then departed for exile in San Clemente. In contrast to All the President's Men, the earlier W&B; account of how they "broke" the original Watergate stories, the focus in The Final Days is on the facts and off the reporters and the Washington Post newsroom.

The real story in The Final Days--the one that no one seems to have noticed or care much about--is that Alexander Haig, the general Nixon brought into the White House after Haldeman and Erlichman "resigned," and Fred Buzhardt, one of Nixon's lawyers, (two men nobody ever voted for), actually ran the White House for about six months in 1974. They--along with lawyer James St. Clair, speechwriter Pat Buchanan, and press hack Ron Ziegler--were the men who became the "palace guard" and executed the Nixon defense, such as it was. They were also responsible, Woodward and Bernstein imply, for removing Nixon from the Oval Office.

Nixon's story thus becomes their story, and their story is Woodward and Bernstein's story. It seems clear that all of them talked--except St. Clair, who, as a result, comes across as a pain in the neck and only a second-rate hot-shot. Haig, who now denies everything, was the real motive force: he was the chief of staff and so controlled the flow of paper and visitors, he was a crucial link to Kissinger, he was the only person who seemed to know what everyone else was supposed to be doing when the crunch came.

The narrative focuses on how he and the other top advisers, aided and abetted by speechwriters and lawyers, handled the special prosecuters, the House Judiciary Committee, Judge Sirica, and the press. The Congressional leadership, Kissinger, the Nixon family, and, yes, Bebe Rebozo, all have their parts, but since the book is mostly written from the perspective of the inner circle they are treated most often as "problems." As it turns out, no one--not even Haig--knew from one minute to the next what to do. Nixon, with his boundless capacity for self-delusion, was in no position to direct his defense, and Haig and his team only functioned as crisis managers. W&B; make a good case that in fact there was no "Watergate strategy," just as there was no "peace plan."

Their typical response to a crisis was to call a meeting, during which at least one of them must have been taking notes at all times, to hear W&B; tell it. The crises (the Saturday Night Massacre, the Judiciary Committee's impeachment vote, the subpoenas, the "smoking pistol") are the places in the narrative where W&B; are strongest, where their style best fits the content. That style, not surprisingly, is newspaper style: short sentences, short paragraphs, plenty of facts, active verbs. In these sections, W&B; are invincible--you find yourself damaging the pages from turning them so fast.

BUT A LONG NEWS STORY, even a great long news story, is not the same as a book. Like most reporters who land book contracts, W&B; don't seem to understand the difference or just can't find a style that can pull its own weight through several hundred pages. To begin with, The Final Days has no thesis and not even much of a definite focus. Some sections read as though they were stuck in only because W&B; had the dope. This approach is fine if you are trying, as in a newspaper, only to generate information, but a book needs more purpose to maintain a sense of itself. The result here is choppy construction and a feeling of aimlessness in the sections where the sequence of events doesn't provide unity. For this reason, day-to-day narrative in Part II is much tighter than the beginning of the book and makes for better reading.

A second major problem with The Final Days grows, oddly enough, out of W&B;'s phenomenal command of the details: they assume in passage after passage that the reader was as wired into the events of two years ago as they themselves were. In other places, though, they pile on facts as if Simon and Schuster were paying them by the word. We are told, for instance, that Peter Rodino rapped his gavel to open the House Judiciary hearings on impeachment at 1:08 p.m., but you have to flip pages to find out what day the hearings began on. This kind of inconsistency can get downright maddening.

But the biggest problem for contemporary readers and for those future historians Nixon was so concerned about is the handling of sources and documentation. While All the President's Men was devoted to this problem, The Final Days ignores it altogether. In an unfortunately cryptic foreword, the authors explain that The Final Days is based on interviews with 394 people. "Some persons spent dozens of hours with us and volunteered information freely; one person was interviewed seventeen times." They go on to say that "many supplied us with contemporaneous notes, memoranda, correspondence, logs, calendars, and diaries." So far, so good.

But then we find out that W&B; conducted all their interviews "on background," that is, they were free to print what their sources told them, but they couldn't identify sources. This technique often produces information people would otherwise keep to themselves, but there are two problems with it: sources talking "on background" sometimes lie since their identity is protected, and the anonymity makes the reader unable to judge independently the credibility of competing versions of the same event.

In this way, W&B;'s "omniscient observer" stance becomes a problem, because they certainly are not omniscient, and, worse, they often pass themselves off as observers of actions they only heard about second or third hand. In other circumstances, they would be called gossips. Their most annoying excesses are the passages where they reconstruct someone's thoughts--investigative reporting is one thing, but mind-reading is quite another.

Another problem with this technique--and perhaps the moral of the story--is that the insiders who clearly did talk receive the kindest treatment. Again from the foreword: "If we obtained two versions [of anything], we resolved disagreements through re-interviewing. If this proved impossible, we left out any material we could not confirm." In effect, they have already made all the judgment about who was telling the truth and have thrown out whatever they couldn't get two people to tell them. I can imagine the following scenario: Fred Buzhardt, an insider's insider, hears that W&B; are on the case. He remembers the job they did in All the President's Men and so figures they are bound to ferret out most of the facts. Then, remembering one or two incidents he would like to downplay and remembering what a shoddy performance St. Clair turned in, Buzhardt decides to talk and, shall we say, "shape" W&B;'s understanding of the final days. Because W&B; have made all the judgments, we have to take all of The Final Days on faith, never quite sure that the authors weren't themselves taken and never able to make sure.

But enough quibbling. The Final Days has its stylistic, journalistic, and historical flaws, but I've never gotten so wrapped up in a book where I knew the ending before I picked it up.