All the President's Men - Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

I knew approximately nothing about Watergate (approximately a botched break-in and 'No whitewash at the Whitehouse'), and this book is written by those who broke the story at the Washington Post. So, I thought I would read it. I didn't have particularly high hopes.

It was fantastic! The start was quite slow, but quickly demonstrated the sheer amount of legwork reporters do for their stories. The relentless detail builds up, and the pressures of reporting keep on coming. The White House tried to insulate itself from the initial break-in, but the fire-walls keep coming down, and it accelerates dramatically towards the end.

Part of it is that the story itself is almost unbelievable. The Watergate break-in was the loose thread that unravelled a complex tapestry of utterly nutty paranoia going all the way to the top. The book reads the way the stories broke, so it covers that sense of wonder.

I find it interesting that this was a 'proper' political scandal. They were doing it for power, and spending millions. The UK's scandals are dire. Cash for questions, cash for peerages, the expenses scandal... it's all about selling out for just a few thousand pounds. Utterly dire.

Anyway, I massively enjoyed this book. Ben Bradlee comes across as one of the best characters I've read in a book, fiction or not, for some time. To me, the book still raises a few questions. The reporters were investigating immoral investigative techniques used by the White House, but they themselves trod a very fine line sometimes, and over the course of the story both fingered innocent people and encouraged others to break the law. It's also not clear to me how things would have gone without the reporting - they spent a lot of time trying to extract information from officials performing investigations, so I have no idea if justice would have been done anyway without the press or not.

Finally, the book itself demonstrates the 'strike while the iron's hot' approach to journalism. It was published before Nixon's resignation, effectively telling an incomplete story. A very sudden, incomplete end!

Posted 2010-08-01.