What did Nixon really know about Watergate?

Ron Rosenbaum is always good for a rant.  For sheer lack of reserve, his screed against Billy Joel has long been a favorite of mine.  Referring to some lyrics in “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” in which Billy Joel takes the Oprah Winfrey tack of professing to feel excluded long after becoming rich and famous, Rosenbaum concludes with this little nugget:

He thinks people can’t stand him because he dresses wrong or doesn’t look right.

Billy Joel, they can’t stand you because of your music; because of your stupid, smug attitude; because of the way you ripped off your betters to produce music that rarely reaches the level even of mediocrity. You could dress completely au courant and people would still loathe your lame lyrics.

It’s not that they dislike anything exterior about you. They dislike you because of who you really are inside. They dislike you for being you. At a certain point, consistent, aggressive badness justifies profound hostility. They hate you just the way you are.

Rosenbaum hates a lot of people, thank God, and one of them is Richard Nixon.  In a recent post on Slate, Rosenbaum points out that Watergate is one of the most exhaustively discussed events in 20th-century American politics yet there is much still unknown about it.  He draws up a wishlist for Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who (famously) broke the original story of Watergate, in the documentary they announced they were making with Robert Redford, who (also famously) played Woodward in the film “All the President’s Men”:

Will they give us a definitive answer to the famous question they failed to answer in their original admirable but incomplete Washington Post investigations and subsequent best-sellers: What did Nixon know and when did he know it?

The scandalous truth is that two key mysteries of Watergate, the episode in American history that has become an iconic bedtime story about heroic journalists uncovering the sinister cover-up, about how the truth shall set us free etc., have never fully been revealed. Just this past week, the Times obituary for [Chuck] Colson put it plainly: “To this day, no one knows whether Nixon authorized the break-in or precisely what the burglars wanted.”

Woodward and Bernstein never proved who ordered the original break-in. They only showed us who sought to cover it up, allowing the media and journalists and even historians thereafter to complacently celebrate a hollow victory.

This is a good question, though I am not sure it is the exclusive responsibility of Woodward and Bernstein to answer it.  Presumably, if they knew the answer already they would have written about it by now.  They haven’t.  Someone should.


Update (11 June 2012): Now Woodward and Bernstein have written about it, sort of.  They take a look back at Watergate and conclude it was much worse than even they understood at the time they were reporting it.  We still don’t know who ordered the break in, however.


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