Museum of Watergate & the Credibility Gap

Wilder Perkins • HI339 Research Project • Fall 2022

Room 4: Reevaluating Watergate

The 1976 film All the President’s Men

Trailer for the film (on YouTube). The first 25 seconds just list out all the Academy Awards the movie was nominated for, so I set up the embed to skip them.

It should come as no surprise that after Watergate, many key figures and observers, from journalists to members of the Nixon administration, wrote books offering their takes on the scandal. And it should come as no surprise that perhaps the best-known book was written by the two Washington Post reporters who built their careers on Watergate: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. All the President’s Men was published in 1974 (before Nixon’s resignation) and covered their contributions to the Watergate story. The book became a bestseller, and it was soon adapted into the popular 1976 film of the same name, starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.

This artifact is important to include in order to consider its effect on public perceptions of journalists. The book contributed to the creation of the popular perception of Watergate as a story of two heroic journalists that took down the president. The film furthered this glamorization of journalism through its celebrity cast and the artistic liberties it took with the story for dramatic effect. For example, the phrase “follow the money,” which has become closely associated with Watergate and subsequent scandals, was coined by the film.

The narrative of journalists as heroes that the film encouraged obscured legitimate questions about the ethics of some of Woodward and Bernstein’s methods. This mythologization also ignores the unpredictable way in which the story unfolded. It’s safe to assume Alfred E. Lewis (remember him from room 2?) never expected that his story about a break-in at the Watergate complex would eventually lead to the president’s resignation.

(Sources: Perloff & Kumar, Morgan)

The Watergate exhibit at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library

Image source: Screenshot from YouTube

Using another museum’s exhibit as an artifact? This is an online museum, so why not?

When it opened in 1990 in Nixon’s birthplace of Yorba Linda, California, the Nixon presidential library was purely the work of Nixon and his camp, with no government involvement, which was unusual for a modern presidential library. Furthermore, the library didn’t have any documents from Nixon’s presidency, because the government had seized them in 1974. In the absence of this official backing, the library was Nixon’s chance to present the story of his presidency from his point of view (and his alone).

The exhibit downplayed Nixon’s central role in the coverup of the Watergate burglary, and blamed the press and public opinion for undoing his presidency. It portrayed Nixon’s fight against releasing the White House tapes as being motivated by the altruistic goal of protecting executive privilege, which is at odds with the reality that he was trying to hide his personal involvement in the Watergate cover-up.

The title of the original exhibition, “Watergate: The Final Campaign”, reflects Nixon’s view of Watergate as another political problem for Nixon to solve, as opposed to a wide-ranging political scandal that exposed many crimes committed at the highest levels of the Nixon administration. In 2007, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) took control of the Nixon library, and four years later, they opened a new version of the Watergate exhibit. However, the revised exhibit still reflected “competing narratives” between Nixon and NARA, according to historian Allison Prasch.

The Watergate exhibit shows that Nixon continued to battle with the press — and as time went on, the historical record — long after his presidency ended with disgrace. Even in a political landscape defined by the credibility gap, Nixon was still attempting to bring the American public over to his side.

(Source: Prasch)

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