As I featured last week, All the President’s Men (1976) is one of the few films featuring reel librarians that have been nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. It also seemed timely to revisit this classic film, which follows the Watergate scandal uncovered by Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) and Bob Woodward (Robert Redford), the scandal that eventually brought down President Nixon. The film closely follows its source material, Bernstein’s and Woodward’s book of the same title, published just two years earlier in 1974.
When I first watched this film, I noted four reel librarian characters. After carefully rewatching it recently, I realized I was mistaken — there are actually FIVE reel librarians.
Let’s count ’em down, shall we?
Reel Librarian #1:
Almost 25 minutes into the film, Bernstein
flirts with interviews a former assistant to a Nixon administration staffer, who was paranoid about Ted Kennedy. The assistant reveals, “I remember seeing a book about Chappaquiddick on his desk. He was always getting material out of the White House Library and the Library of Congress. Anything he could find.“
Cue the next scene, Bernstein on the phone to the White House library. This reel librarian is never seen, only heard, a female voice on the other end of the line. Let’s listen in to their conversation:
Bernstein: This is Carl Bernstein, from the Washington Post. I was wondering if you can remember any books that a Howard Hunt checked out on Senator Kennedy?
White House librarian: Howard Hunt? … Yes, I think I do remember. He took out a whole lot of material. Why don’t you hold on and I’ll see?
Bernstein: I sure will. Thank you very much.
White House librarian: Mr. Bernstein?
Bernstein: Yes, ma’am?
White House librarian: I was wrong. The truth is… I don’t have a card that says Mr. Hunt took any material. I, uh, I don’t remember getting material for… I do remember getting material for somebody, but it wasn’t Mr. Hunt. The truth is I didn’t have any requests at all from Mr. Hunt. The truth is, I don’t know any Mr. Hunt.
As seen in the collage above, Bernstein’s facial expressions reveal his investigative instincts, as his face goes from polite, distant interest to confusion to suspicion. He smells a rat. Why would a librarian lie?! Definitely something is up!
Bernstein immediately walks across the room to Woodward. This is how he describes the interaction: “I just got off the phone with the librarian. … Between the first and second quote there’s a complete contradiction… in a space of about five seconds.”
Woodward immediately calls the White House Communications office. While he’s waiting for a response, Woodward and Bernstein suss out the significance of what had just happened:
Woodward: This was all one conversation?
Bernstein: First, “I think I got a bunch of books for Hunt.” Five seconds later, she says, “I don’t even known a Mr. Hunt.” It’s obvious someone got to her.
Woodward: There’s not enough proof. If there was a piece of paper… that said Hunt was taking out books on Kennedy and Chappaquiddick. Like a library slip.
Bernstein: He also took out from the Library of Congress. But what’s more important, somebody got to her in that space of time.
Woodward: How do you know?
Bernstein: Because she said that Hunt… there was a lot of books that Hunt checked out. Then she comes back and doesn’t even know him.
The White House Communications officer than calls back, stating that the librarian “denies that the conversation with Mr. Bernstein ever took place.“
Bernstein’s succinct response? “Total bullshit.” AGREED.
Side note: I have not been able to find out much at all about the White House Library, mainly that the library was established by 1853 by First Lady Abigail Fillmore and that the collection was expanded in the early 1960s in order to reflect “a full spectrum of American thought and tradition for the use of the President.” Also, the page about the White House Library on the current White House website has been removed.
This scene in the film is very similar to how it’s described in the book, on pages 31-33 of the original 1976 hardback edition. The White House librarian has no name in the film — and doesn’t even get a screen credit! — but she is named (and therefore shamed?) in the book, Jane F. Schleicher.
This scene with the first reel librarian lasts about three minutes in total.
Reel librarians #2 and #3:
Immediately following the contradictory story from the White House press office, Woodward declares, “We’ve got to get something on paper.”
Next stop? The Library of Congress!
While at the iconic library building, the two reporters are immediately blocked by a sneering, dismissive, white Congress Library Clerk, played by James Murtaugh.
You want all the material requested by the White House? All White House transactions are confidential. Thank you very much, gentlemen.
The reporters, however, remain undeterred. As they walk down a side hallway of the Library of Congress filled with columns, the two continue to strategize.
We need a sympathetic face.
We’re not going to find one here.
I can understand their lack of confidence in librarians, based on the two encounters they’ve had thus far. But they DO end up finding a friendly face while at the Library of Congress! Notice the differences in facial expressions below:
Jaye Stewart plays a character billed simply as “Male Librarian,” with as much screen time and as many lines as the previous seen Library of Congress clerk.
You want every request since when? [The answer is July of ’71] … I’m not sure you want ’em, but I’ve got ’em.
Cue the stacks of library card checkout slips!
As Bernstein and Woodward flip through seemingly endless checkout slips, director Alan J. Pakula cannot help but take advantage of the round Reading Room, slowly panning up so we can get a glorious bird’s-eye view of this iconic space.
Alas, all that work to go through the library checkout slips does not provide the information they want, to confirm if any White House staffer checked out books on Ted Kennedy.
Bernstein: Maybe they pulled the cards. Maybe they changed the names.
Woodward: Maybe there was a card there, and we missed it.
But not all is lost, as Woodward gets another idea for how to confirm the information.
Side note: As a librarian, I cringed a little during this scene. I had conflicting emotions. Although I was so glad that at least ONE librarian on screen had a face described as “friendly,” it’s sooooooo not ethical to give out checkout slips or records without a court order. We do have an obligation to protect the privacy rights of our patrons.
The two reporters then write up the article, and they take it to editor Ben Bradlee, played by Jason Robards in an Oscar-winning turn for Best Supporting Actor. He is unimpressed.
You haven’t got it. A librarian and a secretary saying Hunt looked at a book. That’s not good enough. […] Get some harder information next time.
The reporters, though disappointed, stay on the trail, which leads us next to two librarians at the Washington Post itself.
Reel librarian #4:
Ten minutes later, at 41 minutes into the film, Bernstein is looking up newspaper article archives in the Washington Post library. We can just spot a male Post Librarian in the background, played by Ron Menchine, chatting away at a table.
The takeaway? Bernstein’s doing all the work while the reel librarian idles in the background. Reel librarian FAIL.
Can the fifth and final reel librarian help restore some shine to the profession?
Reel librarian #5:
At 47 minutes into the film, Woodward is busy doing research in what appears to be the reference section of the Washington Post library. I spot several law books along the shelves.
A well-dressed woman walks into the frame, her back to the audience. We can see that she has long blonde hair and glasses resting on top of her head. Jamie Smith-Jackson plays the second Post Librarian seen in the film.
Post Librarian: You’re the one that wanted the articles on Dahlberg, Kenneth H. Dalberg? Couldn’t find anything in the clip file at all.
Woodward: Oh, wonderful. [sarcastic tone]
Post Librarian: I did find one picture, though, if it’s any help.
And lo and behold, it DOES help! What the female Post Librarian digs up in that picture provides a vital clue — a man’s name that they can directly connect to a check involved in the Watergate Hotel arrests — that leads to the unraveling of the scandal. This scandal turns out to be much bigger than anyone suspected at first.
I also loved that old-school research materials (phone books, newspaper clippings) and research methods (cross-checking indexes and noting proximity of page numbers) are key to solving the mystery. I was reminded of similar details and research highlighted in the Oscar-winning film Spotlight.
How important is the work that Bernstein and Woodward are doing? As their editor Bradlee states toward the end of the film, “Nothing’s riding on this except the First Amendment of the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters.“
The final score:
Ultimately, how do these reel librarians matter to this story and to this film? I enjoyed how the film — again, closely following the source book material — rolled back to the beginning. But the story was so layered and so huge that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had to decide where the beginning was. And the beginning point that mattered, that spurred all the resulting actions forward, went back to the research. Back to when their suspicions were first roused by a White House librarian who lied. Back to when they had to ask themselves, Who got to her? Why would a librarian lie about a book being checked out? After all, if a librarian was lying to them, WHO ELSE was lying to them? And that trail led all the way to the President of the United States.
The final tally for the 5 reel librarians from All the President’s Men? When it came to helpfulness to other characters, only 2 of the 5 librarians scored any points. But when it came to helpfulness to advancing the plot, 5 for 5. 🙂
For more about Ted Kennedy and the Nixon administration’s paranoia — and more details about which book Hunt did check out from the Library of Congress — check out this article from the Daily Beast, “How Kennedy Brought Down Nixon.”
- All the President’s Men. Dir. Alan J. Pakula. Perf. Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jason Robards, Jane Alexander. Warner Bros., 1976.
- “Interactive Tour: Library.” WhiteHouse.gov, n.d.
- “Library.” The White House Museum, n.d.
- Matthews, Chris. “How Kennedy Brought Down Nixon.” The Daily Beast, 13 Sept. 2009.