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Watered Down-Gate

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Powerful mystery novels keep you reading right to the end to find out “whodunit.” But some end up disappointing; after all the twists and turns, it simply turns out “the butler did it.” That’s how Washington’s mystery of the century, Watergate, has turned out.

For decades, the work of Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward was held up as a paragon of journalism. Their work inspired generations of J-school students and spawned millions of admiring words in books, magazines and newspapers. Even as the 40th anniversary of what then-White House spokesman Ronald Ziegler called a “third-rate burglary” arrived this year, the superlatives kept pouring in.

“Investigative reporting in America did not begin with Watergate,” former Post executive editor Leonard Leonard Downie wrote recently. “But it became entrenched in American journalism -- and has been steadily spreading around the world -- largely because of Watergate.”

The real brilliance of Bernstein and, particularly, Woodward (who has done a much better job marketing himself as the man who literally wrote the book on inside-Washington powerbrokers) was that they kept their source secret for so long. The power of the story was in its mystery: Who is Deep Throat?

In their book and the movie it inspired, All the President’s Men , Bernstein and Woodward portrayed themselves as intrepid reporters engaged in cloak-and-dagger reporting in a search for the truth. “Communicating through copies of the The New York Times and a balcony flowerpot, they meet in a parking garage in the middle of the night. Deep Throat speaks in riddles and metaphors about the Watergate break-in, but advises Woodward to ‘follow the money,’” is how Wikipedia sums up the film.

Brilliant! And powerful. “For journalism, their Watergate stories and ‘All the President’s Men’ (the book and the movie) have had an enduring impact,” Downie adds. “Inspired by Watergate, generations of young journalists have entered the profession to become investigative reporters.”

But Downie’s laudatory piece is almost a decade out of date. The world has known since 2005 that Watergate was no triumph of investigative journalism, but was merely the revenge of a powerful civil servant.

In 2005, an FBI man named W. Mark Felt announced in Vanity Fair magazine that he’d been the source of the Watergate leaks. Felt’s story was sad, if predictable. He’d been passed over for promotion by Richard Nixon in 1972. He thought at the time that he deserved to head the FBI, but Nixon appointed L. Patrick Gray instead. Soon Felt was leaking information about the Bureau’s FBI investigation to the Post reporters.

Why did Felt finally decide to come forward after more than three decades of silence? Again, the answer is sad, if predictable. “I’ll arrange to write a book or something and collect all the money I can,” he told reporters. “Bob Woodward’s gonna get all the glory for this, but we could make at least enough money to pay some bills,” Felt’s daughter told Vanity Fair . Bernstein and Woodward, after all, had made untold millions of dollars from Watergate; why shouldn’t the man who made it all possible get a bit of largesse?

Clearly, leaking doesn’t pay as well as investigative journalism does.

Lost in all the hype about Watergate is that there’s plenty for journalists to investigate, if they wanted to. When’s the last time you read a newspaper report explaining why Congress is able to delegate its lawmaking power to unelected bureaucrats (as it’s done most recently in Dodd-Frank and ObamaCare). The constitutional answer is that it may not do so: only Congress may make law. But reporting on this issue would weaken the power of the bureaucracy, and that would weaken its power to leak (see Bernstein and Woodward, above). So it won’t happen.

Journalists could also make a full-time beat out of investigating fraud by federal employees? A 2008 Senate report “found that nearly half the purchase card transactions it examined were improper, either because they were not authorized correctly or because they did not meet requirements for the cards’ use,” the Post reported. But little happened after that. Real investigations could save taxpayers money and force bureaucratic reform.

Recently the Post ran a story mocking the fact that so many pseudoscandals have the word “gate” stuck on the end. That seems fitting, since the way the original Watergate has been played up is itself a joke. Forty years on it’s safe to say: don’t bother to see the movie; the butler did it.

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