Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate by, Bob Woodard.

The American presidency has no doubt changed since the resignation of Richard Nixon in August 1974.  Cynicism of and distrust toward government and politicians are high.  Political opponents and reporters are constantly on their toes, ready to pounce if a President does, or appears to do, something wrong. Rightly or wrongly, Presidents no longer have as much power to enact a sweeping agenda like FDR or LBJ did. Shadow chronicles the five presidencies immediately following Watergate.  Using presidential documents, diaries, and hundreds of interviews with firsthand witnesses, Woodard attempts to show how each president discovered the Presidency had been altered, but his attempts ultimately fall short.

The book is broken into five sections - one for each President.  The first four sections focus more on the office of Independent Council that was created in the aftermath of Watergate.  The largest section of the book is a point-by-point account of Ken Starr's investigation into Bill Clinton.

Clinton comes off the best of all the Presidents portrayed in the book, while the others are reduced to the common caricatures of them.  Woodward paints Gerald Ford as a good guy, but ill-equipped to be President. Jimmy Carter is two-faced and preachy.  Ronald Reagan is unengaged and moody, while Nancy rules the White House by astrology.  George Bush is a wimp who wanted a war with Iraq to prove his tough-guy credentials.  Bill Clinton is a good-old boy who was persecuted by nasty Ken Starr.  The only person who comes off as more sympathetic is Hillary.

Woodward merely used Watergate and Nixon as a hook to get readers to buy this book. He offers very little evidence that the subsequent presidents learned anything from Watergate.  The only president who appears to have thought of Watergate was Ronald Reagan, when he hired Howard Baker to conduct an internal investigation into Iran-Contra.

Shadow is ultimately a shallow book.  Woodward hardly does any analysis of the men and the problems they faced.  By hyper-focusing on the Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky scandals and dismissing Whitewater (not to mention spending three sentences on the White House Travel Office affair), the book reads as a defense of Bill Clinton and the first attempt at rehabilitating his reputation after impeachment.

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