The Lines of Power

All the President's Men (1976) | art by Brianna Ashby

I’ve been a holdout against smartphones for some time. I don’t like replacing an old tool when it still works. My Pantech, a dumbphone I got for free nearly four years ago, has continued texting for years even through water and wear. I’d admit to my frustrated friends, “Yeah, I’ll get an iPhone once the Pantech goes kaput”—and so it thus refused to die, almost as if to spite them. I even managed to hold out against my own vanity, when my lack of device meant that I couldn’t read my own essays on this fine publication. (I eventually borrowed my boyfriend’s iPhone.) But I have a trip to Pittsburgh coming up soon and, when I imagined carrying a handful of Google Maps printouts with me on the bus, then calling my boyfriend at work to ask, “Hey, could you pull up a map and tell me if I need to turn right or left to get to the Carnegie,” I finally balked.

Though I’m obstinate, I’m no Luddite. I need the power of a device that will tell me exactly where I am and where I need to go in a city strange to me. I want something that will show my dearest: Look, this is what I see. This is where I am. This is what I’m doing there.


All the President’s Men evokes a quiet, pervasive anguish. It pulses like the buzzing of high-tension wires in a low-rent neighborhood. A person can live in such a place for years and never notice that electric whine, until one day their head aches and their nose bleeds and their flesh rebels into cancer. They can sue the power company or even move, but ultimately others will accept the noise. New leases are signed. The power stays on. Work must be done.

As journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein underline this tonal unease not by what they say or do, but by whom they encourage to speak. Both actors (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, respectively) are famously gifted at understatement, but in President’s, their characters are almost totally blank. In order to deduce anything remotely personal about either one of them, I had to act almost like a journalist myself, employing careful observation. Bernstein lugs his bicycle’s front wheel into the newsroom every morning. Woodward doodles a surprisingly accurate cartoon of a man’s face on a memo pad during a phone call. As the two grow closer during their investigation of the Watergate incident, they fall into a vaguely good cop/bad cop relationship: slier, shadier Bernstein prying ever deeper while Woodward, always forthright, promises anonymity to every reluctant source.

Yet Bernstein and Woodward’s differences are relative and small. Alan Pakula’s camera often shows them as insignificant figures in massive indoor landscapes. We see them toil in The Washington Post’s newsroom, a vast checkerboard of fluorescent lights casting a migraine tinge over their desks. As they spend a day digging through library records, the camera recedes higher and higher into the library’s rotunda, revealing them as tiny cogs in a mechanism whose ultimate purpose they are only beginning to divine. Their coworkers call them “Woodstein”; they are two, but their work becomes one. Their search for answers frames the unassuming faces of those who work directly below the high-tension wire that is the Nixon administration.

That parade of pained faces is the most memorable thing about President’s. Woodward and Bernstein watch as restless hands grip doorknobs in spasms of anxiety. The two listen to halting confessions of Constitutional violations, of evidence shredded and thrown out with the daily trash. Though there are many who open their doors to the reporters, one in particular, known only as the Bookkeeper (Jane Alexander), stands out from the rest—and in so doing, stands for them all.

Alexander imbues the Bookkeeper with a wry dignity that steadies her gaze even as her face threatens to run away from her. Her superiors and the insistent reporter drinking her coffee have split her between two mutually opposing demands: security and accountability. Her desire to tell the truth—to hold herself to account—is so strong that it impels her to speak, though her every other word to Bernstein is “No.” Yet her allegiance to the rule of Cover Your Ass, that merciless god of all bureaucracy, forces her to answer in code. She and Bernstein dance in a minefield of the implied. The cost of one straight word from her is her livelihood, maybe even her life. An unseen gaze bores into her. Her face shines with the sweat born of fear.


Is it a harm to merely know with certainty that you are being monitored by the government? There’s certainly an argument that it is. People under surveillance act differently, experience a loss of autonomy, are less likely to engage in self exploration and reflection, and are less willing to engage in core expressive political activities such as dissenting speech and government criticism. Such interests are what [the] First and Fourth Amendment[s] seek to protect, so if they don’t count as harm in this context, what would?

Woodrow Hartzog, The Center for Internet & Society at Stanford Law School


I feel a special affinity for the Bookkeeper, for I am one, too. Like her, I maintain the financial records for my department, which is one of many in a large, complex bureaucracy. Like her, I can afford a cozy apartment in a cosmopolitan city.

Unlike her, I have never been caught in a conflict of interests, and I probably never will be, as my immediate superiors are decent people, and my department holds little power. Yet I, too, feel the wrath of Cover Your Ass looming over me. Notice that I haven’t been specific about where it is I work or for whom. Such coyness is for politeness’ sake, for I know full well that any reader who really wanted to could find out my workplace, my phone number, and even how much I’m paid per year with a bit of judicious Googling. I live in peace because no one has ever wanted to seek me out—not yet, anyway.

What amazes me about All the President’s Men is my own amazement. This film is practically a documentary on investigative journalism before the Internet, and that is one tedious world that I am glad we do not live in anymore. (Not that any serious investigation is free of tedium nowadays, but the Internet definitely helps.) The sheer amount of dead ends, repetitive phone calls, and slavish searching of analog sources that Woodward and Bernstein suffer is astounding. The two climb mountains of paper. I’m similarly shocked by a scene in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, where the camera focuses on a photographer who carefully prints and enlarges a photograph in real time, a process that takes nearly twenty minutes (an eternity in movie time). All that work for a single picture! Though we might not yet live in the fantasy future of CSI—where simply barking “Enhance!” at one’s computer yields instantaneous results—we’re closer to that world than we realize.

I am also surprised by the Bookkeeper’s paranoia, which soon spreads to Bernstein and Woodward as they get closer to the men chosen by Richard Nixon to manipulate his way into a second presidential term. Woodward feels compelled to blast Rachmaninoff during visits to Bernstein’s apartment. (They’re listening.) Bernstein feels the eyes of photographers on him while he questions a source on Pennsylvania Avenue. (They’re watching.) In the famous scene where Woodward descends into the echoing concrete hell of a 2 a.m. parking garage to meet his Virgil, the sepulchral Deep Throat (Hall Holbrook), I leaned in to watch with great interest. Here was the scene that inspired my favorite show during my teenage years, The X-Files. And then I paled. The X-Files was a story. This…happened. And even Deep Throat was afraid.

Woodward and Bernstein’s paranoia shocks me because their fear seems so innocent. It is a forgone conclusion to me that those in power were (and are) willing to do most anything to further their cause—how could the journalists act so surprised? And even more naive, now, is the sense of victory that hangs over the film’s end, as Woodward and Bernstein’s articles eventually lead to President Nixon’s resignation. They sued the power company and won—but others moved in, and more power lines had to be built.


I live in a state where several representatives used underhanded bureaucratic tactics to pass a bill that violates my bodily safety and integrity. I live in a country whose security administration can look in on my calls and emails at any time. Though I highly doubt the NSA will ever turn its eyes on me—my life is lived well within the bounds of the law, at least for now—the possibility is there. When I read recently that Edward Snowden had been offered asylum in Venezuela, the first thing I thought of was my Venezuelan friend on Facebook, and how he had suddenly become a node that PRISM could see and use. (I also thought about a skirt I admired on Zappos yesterday, and then how an ad for that skirt followed me onto Facebook, and then onto The Huffington Post.)

The news angers me, though not as much as it should. I was born under the whine of these power lines. Perhaps I have grown too used to their sound. I can easily drown it out with the minor everyday worries of work, love, and leisure. Yet my head aches these days. I am unexpectedly tired.

I do not fear power. I fear the morning I will wake to find that cynicism has metastasized, turning my bones to fire and my eyes to lead.