Watching one of the great heroes of American journalism on TV last week, I found myself wondering if I had tuned in to a remake of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.

Bob Woodward certainly appeared to be a changed man from thirty years ago when, along with Carl Bernstein, he broke the Watergate story. Those Watergate exposés and the resulting congressional investigations — which ultimately led to the resignation of U.S. president Richard Nixon — were among the high points of American democracy, showing that a vigilant press and Congress could effectively curb the excesses of presidential power.

So it was particularly striking to see this icon of journalism and press freedom on CNN’s Larry King Live reduced last week to a state of almost childlike wonder as he painted a picture of American President George Bush as a fearless, resolute, decisive, humanitarian leader.

Although Bush is notoriously unavailable to the press, Woodward, who was working on a book about Bush’s handling of the September 11 aftermath, was granted extensive access, including a 2 1/2 hour interview with Bush at his Texas ranch. That should have been Woodward’s first clue that Bush considered him harmless — nothing more than a useful vehicle for constructing a presidential image that the White House press office would have trouble concocting.

Journalists who get close to the powerful run the risk of being so flattered by the attention that they lose their skepticism, but Woodward seemed oblivious to this danger. He reported, as if it was just a cute story, that Bush actually came up with a nickname for him — “Woody.” (That could have been the second clue.)

Praising Bush for his openness, this fierce watchdog on presidential power proceeded to rip the lid off the fact that the president was motivated by a desire “to help people who are starving, who are being abused … It’s very personal, somewhat religious, and humanitarian.” (What politician wouldn’t offer up an earful about his humanitarian impulses, if journalists would just sit there, like “Woody,” and take it all down.)

Woodward’s transformation seems to be just one more example of the surprising acquiescence south of the border as the White House, exploiting fears created by September 11, actively goes about overturning the restraints on government power that were put in place in direct response to the abuses unveiled in the Watergate scandal.

Former Nixon adviser John Dean, who went to jail for his role in Watergate, but who also helped expose Nixon’s role in the cover-up, wrote in an open letter to White House political strategist Karl Rove how similar he finds the Bush administration to the Nixon administration when it comes to White House secrecy, and how Bush risks “repeating the mistakes of the Nixon presidency.”

The most stunning example of the undoing of post-Watergate reforms is the Homeland Security Act, a far-reaching bill approved by Congress earlier this month that creates a massive new government bureaucracy empowered to collect data probing every aspect of the lives of Americans. “Warrantless searches, forced vaccinations of whole communities, federal information databases and a sinister new ‘Information Awareness Office’ at the Pentagon that uses military intelligence to spy on domestic citizens are just a few of the troubling aspects of the new legislation.” That assessment, by the way, comes from an independent-minded Republican congressman from Texas, Ron Paul, who opposed the bill.

Apart from a few such dissenters — including conservative commentator William Safire who described the new agency as having the “power to snoop on every public and private act of every American” — the American public has been largely submissive in the face of this massive power grab by the state.

Many Canadians are appropriately shocked at what’s happening down there — a healthy response that suggests we Canadians, contrary to the reports, are actually less deferential to authority than Americans. (Imagine senior parliamentary reporters here — like Chantal Hébert, Lawrence Martin or Paul Wells — reporting that the Prime Minister was motivated by humanitarian impulses, or revelling in the fact that he’d nicknamed them Hébertsy, Martinsy or the Wellster.)

Some commentators here like to portray Canadian resistance to the transformation going on south of the border as anti-Americanism. But why is it anti-American to admire American democracy when it effectively checked presidential power, and to lament the drift today toward an imperial presidency with sweeping surveillance power over its own citizenry, or to admire American journalism when it produced the likes of Bob Woodward — not Woody, the president’s pal.

Linda McQuaig

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989...