Woodward & Bernstein: It was always about Nixon
RALEIGH — “Perhaps the most influential piece of journalism in history.”
“Maybe the single greatest reporting effort of all time.”
The quotes in the program were not hyperbole. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters who broke the Watergate scandal, discussed their work Thursday evening in Raleigh at an event sponsored by the N.C. Museum of History Foundation and The News & Observer.
“An Evening with Woodward and Bernstein” took place before a sell-out crowd of 600 in the Fletcher Opera Theater of the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts.
The set-up was not unlike a program you’d see at Catawba College’s Keppel Auditorium: a large Oriental rug, three handsome chairs, N.C. and U.S. flags in the background and greenery flanking both sides of the stage.
The discussion was moderated by David Crabtree, a TV news anchor for WRAL-TV in Raleigh.
In his introductions, John Drescher, executive editor for The News & Observer, noted that Sen. Sam Ervin and the Senate Watergate Committee followed a path forged by Woodward and Bernstein, who at the time were two young and inexperienced but hungry reporters.
The Washington Post led the way with 200 stories about Watergate in six months, Drescher said. “Their work shaped the way Watergate unfolded.”
Now silver-haired and both approaching 70, Woodward and Bernstein — especially the latter — are still full of indignation about the scandal back then and government today.
Bernstein, always the rebel, sported pink socks to match his pink tie.
He described Nixon as “a criminal president who presided over a criminal presidency, not just a break-in, but a conspiracy to undermine the political process. This criminal campaign subverted the very process of free election.”
On the other hand, both men praised North Carolina’s Ervin, whom they called a brilliant constitutionalist.
Woodward said that Nixon had set out to destroy “the integrity of the process by which the president of the United States is nominated and elected.”
He said that Nixon declared “five wars” during Watergate: on anti-war involvement, on the press, on the Democratic Party, on the system of justice with the attempted cover-up, and on history.
The two men talked with Crabtree for about an hour before taking questions from the audience.
“How naďve were we as a country to think this would happen?” Crabtree asked.
“Carl was not surprised or shocked at any point,” Woodward said.
“I knew from growing up in a left-wing environment that the government did terrible things,” said Bernstein, whose parents were under surveillance during the McCarthy Era. “I actually was surprised Nixon was willing to go this far.”
Ten weeks after starting to report on Watergate, the duo learned that there was a secret fund for sabotage — and that John Mitchell controlled the fund. He was President Nixon’s attorney general.
“Mitchell was Nixon’s ‘brother,’” Woodward said. “For him to be involved meant Nixon had to know something.”
In the beginning, the two reporters were frustrated, because the public did not believe their stories. But they had the full backing of their editor, Ben Bradlee, and their publisher, Katharine Graham.
Bernstein eventually called Mitchell to confirm or deny his involvement with the fund for a story he was writing about the topic.
“Jeeeeeeesus,” Mitchell said more than once during the phone conversation.
But at the end, he said. “And when this campaign is over, we’re gonna do a story on you two boys.”
Bernstein said it was the most chilling moment of his life. He was 28 years old.
Telling sign: fear
A year older, Woodward had been at the Post for just a year. The two had a list of Nixon contacts, and started working the phones.
“Fear told us more than the information we were getting,” Bernstein said.
People were scared to talk.
Not Deep Throat.
That government official served as Woodward’s main source during the investigation. In 2005, he revealed himself to be Mark Felt, who during Watergate was the associate director at the FBI.
He kept telling Woodward, “Mitchell is at the center. Don’t go soft on Mitchell.”
The two were working on stories in October 1972, just a month before Nixon would be re-elected by a landslide. The stakes were high.
“No one really understood that this burglary was one part of a massive espionage,” Bernstein said.
How hard was it to keep pushing on the story, Crabtree wanted to know.
“We had a great editor,” Bernstein said. “Ben Bradlee was on our side.”
“We were producing,” Woodward said. “We were getting stories.”
The two laughed when recalling that Mitchell said Graham would get a certain part of her body caught in a wringer if the story on Mitchell’s involvement with the secret fund was published.
Soon after, Bernstein said, Graham stopped by his desk and asked, “Carl, do you have any more messages for me?”
“We had institutional support,” Bernstein said.
When Bernstein’s notes were subpoenaed, Graham said they were her notes, and they’d have to arrest her to get them.
“We had lunch with Katharine Graham,” Woodward said, “and it blew my mind what she knew about Watergate. But she was very hands-off. She asked, ‘When are we gonna find out the truth about Watergate?’ I said, ‘Never.’ She said, ‘Never? Don’t tell me never.’”
“I left that lunch highly motivated. It was not a threat. It was a statement of purpose.”
There were some irrational moments along the way, to be sure, Bernstein said, especially when Deep Throat warned them that “people’s lives are in danger, maybe your own.”
Always about Nixon
“That got our attention,” Bernstein said.
“What we were afraid of was making a mistake,” Woodward said.
When they listened to the Watergate tapes, Woodward said they heard the rage in Nixon’s voice.
“The real shocking thing was it was always about Nixon,” he said. “The dog that never barked was the question, what would be good for the country? Nixon had immense power. He was never using it to do a good thing. The tragedy was the smallness of Nixon.”
The two saw the final curtain come down on Watergate in September 1974. Bernstein called Woodward on a Sunday morning.
“He always had the fewest words and the most drama,” Woodward said. “He said, ‘The SOB pardoned the SOB.’ Even I got it.”
Woodward called President Ford’s full pardon of President Nixon “the final corruption.”
Ford later said he did it because the country needed to move beyond Watergate.
Woodward then called it “a gusty move and a true act of courage. What looked one way turned out to be the opposite.”
“Let somebody tell their story,” Bernstein said. “That’s how you learn. Let them tell you what they wanna tell you. Then go get more sources.”
Thursday’s crowd was full of contemporaries of Woodward and Bernstein, politicians, elected officials, even a journalist or two, according to Ned Cline.
“I thought it was really interesting and well done,” Cline said of the event. Cline, who lives in Burlington, was a reporter for the Salisbury Post form 1964 to 1969, retiring from the News & Record in 1997. He covered Watergate while at that newspaper.
Bernstein, Cline said on Friday morning, was always the rebel outsider. “I thought they made a great team last night.”
When asked if there would ever be another journalism investigation on the scale on Watergate, Cline said no. “It won’t happen. Everything now is hit and miss. I hope someone proves me wrong. But based on what I see now, it would just not happen.”
Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.