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The Movie that May Have Helped Change the Outcome of an Election: “All the Presidents Men”

When the movie Spotlight dramatized investigative journalism and won the Oscar for best picture this year, commentators in the media noted that the movie’s creators were inspired by story-telling techniques and cinematography applied in All the President’s Men. This spring marks the 40th anniversary of that film, one of Hollywood’s greatest political thrillers. The 1976 production effectively dramatized the tedious work of journalists at the Washington Post who investigated the Watergate break-in. All the President’s Men has received accolades as a brilliant artistic achievement, but it also deserves recognition as a significant commentary on history.

All the President’s Men begins by showing a security guard calling the police after he notices tape on a door at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. When five men are arrested in association with a break-in, two young reporters at the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) doggedly seek information about the incident. Sometimes their investigative efforts reach dead ends. They discover fragmentary evidence, but the Post’s tough editor requires additional sources. Fortunately for the reporters, a secret contact from inside the government offers valuable clues. Eventually Woodward’s and Bernstein’s articles produce details about extensive abuses in Richard Nixon’s administration. In the movie’s final scene the two journalists type their full story. A montage summarizes Richard Nixon’s declining fortunes, his resignation, and Vice President Gerald Ford’s ascension to the presidency.

Actor Robert Redford, who provided much of the inspiration for making All the President’s Men, had been suspicious of Richard Nixon long before news about the Watergate scandal broke. When Redford was thirteen years old, he received an athletic scholarship from then-senator Richard Nixon. Years later, Redford recalled that he “never believed a word [Nixon] said” during the ceremonies. When shaking Nixon’s hand, Redford felt “absolutely nothing . . . it was just empty.” As an adult Redford wondered why journalists did not recognize Nixon’s insincerity in their publications.

While on a train to promote his 1972 movie, The Candidate, Redford asked journalists why members of their profession were not investigating the Watergate break-in more aggressively. Reporters on the train said Watergate appeared to be business as usual in Washington. They thought Americans would never learn the truth. Redford was appalled by their cynicism. After reading articles by Woodward and Bernstein, Redford contacted the Post’s reporters. Robert Redford’s advice helped Woodward and Bernstein to improve a book they were writing about Watergate. Eventually the journalists and the movie star worked out an agreement for creation of a film that carried the same title as the book.

All the President’s Men (the movie) identified the enormity of Watergate crimes. That message is especially clear in two scenes that show Woodward meeting a secret contact in a Washington garage. Decades later the public learned this informant’s name. Mark Felt was a special agent at the FBI. Felt (played by Hal Holbrook) berates Woodward for getting bogged down in small details and missing the bigger picture. He says people associated with the White House were involved in bugged conversations, phony press releases, and faked letters. The conspirators canceled Democratic Party rallies, investigated the private lives of politicians, planted spies, and stole documents. The informant urges Woodward to look for culprits in high places. The crimes involve “the entire intelligence community” including “The FBI, CIA, Justice – it’s incredible.” He says “the cover-up had little to do with it. It was mainly to protect the covert operations.” In other words, the break-in at the Watergate office complex represented just the surface of a much deeper problem.

Americans needed to hear that message in 1976. Information conveyed by the secret contact challenged a claim that some of Nixon’s apologists promoted. While acknowledging that news about the Watergate scandal was disturbing, some of Nixon’s defenders tried to put his troublesome record in perspective. They maintained that other presidents committed errors that were as bad or worse. This viewpoint gained traction in subsequent years. The Roper organization reported in 1982 that more than 4 in 10 Americans believed Watergate was “just politics, the sort of thing that both parties do.” Some apologists tried to balance negative information about Nixon and Watergate with a positive view of the President’s achievements in foreign policy. They emphasized the Nixon Administration’s successes in improving relations with China and the Soviet Union. All the President’s Men questioned these charitable assessments of Richard Nixon’s leadership in Watergate matters.

The appearance of All the President’s Men in the spring of 1976 came at a bad time for Gerald Ford. He was the incumbent president because Richard Nixon had appointed him as Vice President after Spiro Agnew stepped away from the vice presidency in disgrace. After Nixon resigned and Gerald Ford became the nation’s Chief Executive, Ford pardoned Nixon unconditionally. Gerald Ford hoped to keep reminders of Watergate at a minimum when he sought a new term in the White House during the 1976 campaign. But the arrival of All the President’s Men in theaters across America made that task difficult. Democrats could hardly believe their good fortune when they saw advertisements for All the President’s Men in the spring of an election year. Basil Patterson, Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee, said there had been a national effort “to exclude from our consciousness the painful, unpleasant, unacceptable memories of the Watergate debacle.” All the President’s Men “revives all the recollections and the emotions.” William vander Heuvel, New York co-chair of Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign, believed “the movie will have a major impact on the 1976 campaign” because “it takes a subliminal issue and puts it back in the front ranks of people’s minds.”

The presidential race was so close that the film may have been a factor in the outcome. In the first months after All the President’s Men’s appearance Democrat Jimmy Carter, a little-known governor from Georgia, suddenly emerged as a popular contender. Carter presented himself in the primaries and in the general election as the right person to cleanse American politics after Watergate. “I will not lie to you,” promised the Washington outsider. By the fall, however, Carter was stumbling. His 30-point lead had disappeared. The race was so tight that Jimmy Carter did not know he had been elected President until 3:30 AM. Carter won the popular vote by only 50.8% to 48.2%, and he took the electoral vote by just 297 to 240.

In such a tight contest, the film may have influenced voters’ thinking, but the movie was only one among numerous factors that could have affected judgments. Other difficulties that Gerald Ford encountered during the 1976 campaign probably had a greater impact on voter sentiment. The Republican Party had been weakened during a bitter primary fight in which Gerald Ford had to fend off harsh criticism from candidate Ronald Reagan. Ford sought Reagan’s support after winning the GOP nomination, but during the campaign Reagan said very little publicly in Ford’s behalf. News on the economic front hurt Ford, too. By September, 1976 reports showed that business growth had stalled and unemployment and inflation were rising. During a televised debate in October, Ford mistakenly claimed “there is no Soviet domination in Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.” His statement contrasted sharply with the facts. And, of course, Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon upset many Americans. After President Ford announced that he would absolve Nixon in 1974, 53% of Americans surveyed opposed the decision. Only 38% agreed with it.

The movie, All the President’s Men, was one among many elements that may have contributed to Gerald Ford’s loss in 1976. Judgments about the movie’s impact must remain speculative.

With more confidence, however, we can conclude that All the President’s Men was more than just a fine work of cinema that featured strong storytelling, good acting, fine direction, and impressive cinematography. The movie delivered hard-hitting political commentary. It boldly addressed controversial issues. With greater courage than many other filmmakers of the Seventies, Robert Redford and the movie’s production team challenged audiences to recall serious threats to American democracy posed by the Watergate scandal.