Humpty Dumpty

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Yes, that’s the inspiration for this title.

I’m sure I saw this when it came out. I never recorded it on DVD, because it runs over two hours, and beyond two hours the recording quality was never that good. More recently I signed up for Amazon Prime Video, and watched it again. Images are from Amazon. Technical details are from the Wikipedia entry and also from the book.

It’s All the President’s Men, starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford. It’s based on the book of the same title by Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, played respectively by Hoffman and Redford. It’s about the blowup over the burglary of the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Washington, D.C., Watergate office complex. The episode has since come to be known simply as Watergate.

The book came out in 1974, the year President Nixon resigned from office. The movie came out in 1976, distributed by Warner Brothers. It opens with television imagery of the President addressing a Joint Session of the Congress on Return From Austria, the Soviet Union, Iran, and Poland, 1 June 1972, just days before the drama started to unfold.

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Seldom in such a striking manner have real events played out in such a Shakespearean manner as the Watergate affair. Except for Woodward’s meetings with his deep background source, events depicted in the movie were public knowledge by the time the movie hit the theaters. I, along with millions, was a witness. Here is a recap.

At the Watergate complex a guard, Frank Wills (portraying himself in the movie), discovers a door lock has been tampered with. Tape has been placed across the bolt to keep it the door from locking when closed. Police are called, and this is critical. Uniformed officers are not dispatched. An undercover detail is close by, and they come to investigate. Because of this, a lookout for the burglars fails to alert them, and they are caught inside the DNC offices, wearing gloves, and carrying radio communications equipment and bugging equipment. Five men in all. They have large sums of money in their possession, a large part in $100 bills, in sequence.

Post reporter Woodward receives a phone call that gets him out of bed that Saturday morning. He needs to get on down to cover the courthouse appearance of the five.

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Woodward is stunned. These burglars have been provided counselors by the court, but they already have a lawyer from a high-priced firm. Woodward questions an attorney watching the proceedings and only gets a vague response. The mystery deepens. What the shit is going on here?

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Woodward starts to dig. One of the men is James W. McCord, formerly with the Central Intelligence Agency. Woodward’s investigation draws ever closer to the current administration.

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History is made when Post reporter Bernstein is directed to work with Woodward. The irony is palpable. The Post had been at the point of firing Bernstein.

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Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation of the story would have gone nowhere were it not for Woodward’s deep background source, quickly tagged Deep Throat, after a porno movie of the time. Details of Woodward’s meeting with his source are the prime fiction of the film, since Woodward never made this information public. The shadowy figure is portrayed by Hal Holbrook.

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The killer evidence is obtained by Bernstein:

Bernstein then began phoning the local district attorneys in the Miami area. On the third call, he reached Richard E. Gerstein, the state’s attorney for Dade County— metropolitan Miami. His office had subpoenaed the records and was trying to determine if Florida law had been violated by persons involved in the break-in. Gerstein did not know what was in the records, but his chief investigator, Martin Dardis, would. Gerstein would instruct Dardis to cooperate if the Post would not reveal that it was dealing with his office. That evening, Bernstein received a phone call from Dardis.

Woodward, Bob; Bernstein, Carl (2007-11-01). All the President’s Men (Kindle Locations 511-515). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

What Bernstein found and obtained was a copy of a cashier’s check for $25,000 issued to Kenneth Dahlberg and deposited into the account of Bernard Barker, one of the Watergate burglars. Contacted by Woodward, Dahlberg says he had handed the check “to the Committee for the Re-Election of the President or to Maurice Stans.”

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Woodward and Bernstein begin to write their story. Things get edgy.

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People are reluctant to talk. Bernstein knocks on a door. The woman’s sister answers. The woman tells Bernstein he needs to leave. Instead, Bernstein bums a cigarette, then a light. He gets in the door. The woman appears from behind the banister of the stairs. Bernstein obtains damning information.

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The editors of the Post face the crucial decision about whether to run the story. Woodward becomes convinced, talking to Deep Throat, that White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman ordered the burglary.

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The reporters go with the story, typing it out while in the background a television set shows Richard Nixon being sworn in for his second term in office. This is followed by a sequence of such clips until the final one, telling of the President’s resignation.

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The full story is in the book, and it is a gripping read. What was so remarkable about the whole business is that no blood was spilled. Careers were ruined, high-level public officials, including Attorney General John Mitchell, went to jail, a president resigned from office. And nobody ordered the CIA to kill anybody. Nobody ordered the 82nd Airborne to shut down the Washington Post. Americans’ respect for the legal process is so ingrained, the mess was allowed to right itself, and the government was in due course returned to civility.

What is not brought out in the movie is the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew. A popular feature of Nixon’s administration and a despised firebrand opponent of liberal causes, Agnew was untouched by the Watergate scandal. His corrupt practices as governor of Maryland brought him down between the time of the Watergate burglary and Nixon’s resignation. As a result, Congressman Gerald Ford, also depicted in the movie, became the first unelected President of the United States.

The Watergate scandal marked one of the few times in my life I have been wrong, as I previously noted:

It was 40 years ago. Today. Look it up on your calendar.

It was Saturday, and I was leaving my contract work in Austin, in my Dodge pickup with the radio on. The man doing the news was telling me that some men had been arrested overnight for burglary. They had been caught breaking into the Democratic Party offices at the Watergate Building in Washington, DC. The implication was obvious, even to me.

“That’s it,” I proclaimed loudly and with self-assurance, only to myself. “Now he’s gone too far. There goes the election.”

About the movie: This is a first rate production, one you can watch again and again. I liken it to Seven Days in May, a work of fiction with hardly more drama. All the President’s Men has a solid cast. There is Jack Warden as Washington Post editor Harry Rosenfeld, Martin Balsam as Washington Post managing editor Howard Simons, and Jason Robards as Washington Post executive editor. Careful TV viewers will also spot Robert Walden as Republican political operative Donald Segretti. Segretti served a jail sentence for forging and distributing fake political campaign literature. You will remember Walden as newspaper reporter Joe Rossi In the Lou Grant series.

Deep Throat has in recent years been revealed as Mark Felt, Associate Director of the FBI.

The Watergate affair, for me, served to highlight the sterility of the American lexicon. Ever since, a scandal of any significance needs to have “-gate” appended to a name. I would like to say that originality died a slow death, but it was not all that slow. Nearly a hundred years ago when an illiterate president substituted the made up word “normalcy” for the English word “normality,” normality, along with originality, faded from the language. When people started saying “loan me some cash” instead of “lend me some cash,” I have no idea. I am sure it has been since the time Mark Anthony asked friends, Romans, and countrymen to lend him their ears.

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2 thoughts on “Humpty Dumpty

  1. Pingback: Death Spiral | Skeptical Analysis

  2. Pingback: Presidential | Skeptical Analysis

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