On April 18, Bob Woodward will reunite with his long-ago partner Carl Bernstein at a screening of the new documentary “All the President’s Men Revisited.” It’s a chance to relive, once again, the greatest triumph in journalism history. The story of the Watergate break-in brought down a president. It also created a legend, that of two Washington Post reporters who simply followed the facts — actually, a trail of illegal payments — to the door of the White House. Like Charles Lindbergh achieving at 25 a feat that had eluded the world’s greatest aviators, two 30-year-old journalists nailed the story that the mandarins of the Washington press corps had somehow missed.
Bernstein eventually tried, with limited success, to move on from Watergate; Woodward, however, practically moved in and set up shop for the next 40 years. His roughly biannual bestsellers — wooden in their prose, fascinating in their details — quickly became the definitive accounts of goings-on in the capital.
Until now. On the cusp of 70, Woodward is trying a new career as a columnist and pundit. Where once he would disclose a killer anecdote — say, CIA director George Tenet telling George W. Bush that the case against Iraq was “a slam dunk” — and more or less leave it alone, now he’s riffing about President Obama seemingly every chance he gets. On the fiscal cliff and sequester, Woodward has been Obama’s arch-critic, declaring that this president has failed to “work his will” on members of Congress, to play them as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton did.
Obama’s supporters have responded by getting tougher — on Woodward. When Woodward complained to Politico about a hostile e-mail from White House economic adviser Gene Sperling, the administration released the e-mail trail and made Woodward look petty. Suddenly, the knives were out even beyond the administration: A flurry of journalistic takedowns suggested that perhaps those 17 bestsellers weren’t as definitive as people thought. Or, as a writer who re-reported his one non-Washington book, about John Belushi, declared in Slate, Woodward rarely muffed a provable fact, but “like a funhouse mirror, Woodward’s prose distorts what it purports to reflect.”
Wunderkind, genius, exemplar; hack, exaggerator, naif — Woodward’s media notices have come full circle. By arousing Obama’s defenders, he may have altered his legacy. Watergate will always be his and Bernstein’s prize, but the rest of his career may end up looking less like an endless victory lap and more like a descent into, well, politics. His defenders insist that by challenging a liberal hero, Woodward is showing his evenhandedness. But those defenders should go home and watch a DVD of “All the President’s Men.” Woodward and Bernstein became heroes because they approached the craft of reporting with a childlike faith and innocence; while others in Washington were chatting amongst themselves, the two kids went out and did the digging. There’s some reporting behind Woodward’s critique of Obama, but the reporter is no longer just assembling the facts; he’s discussing them with Charlie Rose. Bob Woodward has committed that old sin of Jounalism 101: He’s made himself the story.
—PETER S. CANELLOS