40th Anniversary Bash

06.11.12

Watergate Remembered Four Decades Later at Washington Post Party

From Woodward and Bernstein on down, some of the major players gathered Monday night at the scene of the crime for a look at the scandal that changed American history—and the press. Howard Kurtz on the lessons of Watergate.

It was a cultural event, a class reunion, a celebration—not just of the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, but of journalism itself, of that brief moment when newspapering was hailed as a noble profession.

So it was hardly surprising that The Washington Post, afflicted like most papers by declining circulation and shrinking staff, chose to put on a big bash Monday night at the Watergate office building, where the third-rate burglary took place in 1972. The former offices of the Democratic National Committee were part of the tour, festooned with 75 paintings of the players, from Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and Ben Bradlee to Frank Wills, the security guard who noticed that the tape on the door had been removed on that fateful night.

In an age when journalists wallow in a sea of mistrust, it was a chance to wallow in Watergate: not just the dogged metro reporters who knocked on doors, not just the swashbuckling editor and the shadowy FBI source made famous by the movie, but in a level of presidential mendacity that still retains the power to shock. Plumbers, hush money, enemies list, smoking-gun tape, the whole nine yards.

The duo at the center of the narrative still seem so very different. Woodward, lean, disciplined, and determined; Bernstein, stocky, impulsive, and passionate. And in a conversation with Charlie Rose, they divided on the fundamental question of how their work should be examined all these years later.

“If the purpose of revisionism is to merely discredit, merely debunk, I think there’s been an awful lot of that with Watergate,” Bernstein said. Responding to a question on whether there had been more than one Deep Throat, Bernstein said that “people couldn’t believe there was one for a long time” and that the period in history should “not be remembered in the landscape of partisan warfare and ideological conflict that goes on today.”

“He didn’t come in and waterboard us or hold us upside down,” Woodward said, though Bradlee did say, “Goddamn it…” “It was a lot more than that,” Bernstein interrupted.

Woodward quickly disagreed. “We should be accountable,” he said. “Carl got some private phone records from people. We need to acknowledge that. We should have no objection to people saying how many Deep Throats were there.”

Had FBI official Mark Felt not decided to “unmask himself” in 2005 before he died, “you would have had a lot more doubters,” Woodward said. In fact, Woodward had called Felt during the writing of All the President’s Men “and asked him, ‘How about coming clean?’ Click.”

The two journalists recalled their biggest mistake, reporting that a grand jury had been told that Richard Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, controlled a secret slush fund. The substance was true, but the grand jury had not heard the evidence. Bernstein recalled Bradlee, in classic Jason Robards fashion, saying “stand by the boys”—as “he typed out his own non-denial denial.” That was a phrase Post staffers used to describe the meaningless denials of the Nixon White House.

“He didn’t come in and waterboard us or hold us upside down,” Woodward said, though Bradlee did say, “Goddamn it…”

“It was a lot more than that,” Bernstein interrupted.

“We were happy that we weren’t fired,” said Woodward.

What we now call Watergate was such a sizzling stew of criminality, skullduggery, anti-Semitism, and plain old pettiness that long-forgotten details bring back a flood of memories for those old enough to have lived through it. Bernstein recalled Nixon insisting, “I want to crack that safe,” to steal files at the Brookings Institution that would enable him to blackmail Lyndon Johnson. Woodward reminded the audience of the 17 wiretaps of reporters and Nixon aides: “They tapped the phone of Bill Safire—they thought he was a national security threat.”

Former White House counsel John Dean described the moment when burglar G. Gordon Liddy “confesses the whole thing to me”—not just the involvement in Watergate but an attempt to bust into the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. The cavernous room was transported back to the days of men in suits with rubber gloves and wads of cash. Dean and another panelist, Egil “Bud” Krogh, went to jail in the coverup.

In retrospect it all unspooled like a Hollywood script, but at the time, Senate Republican counsel Fred Thompson recalled thinking when he learned that Nixon had taped himself: Is the old fox setting us up?

The echoes of that turbulent time were inescapable. Former Defense Secretary William Cohen, who voted for impeachment as a young Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said “we have a potential repetition of Watergate” because the reforms of that era have been “swept away.” After the Supreme Court abolished campaign finance restrictions in the Citizens United case, “the political system is being overwhelmed by money and a lack of accountability.”

Thompson, the former senator and Law & Order star, said Nixon and his team used a tide of anti-Vietnam War violence to justify their covert operations. But by falsely invoking national security, he said, they raised questions that resonate today about where “the line” between excessive secrecy and legitimate national concerns should be drawn—this as the Obama Justice Department has launched a probe of leaks to The New York Times and others.

Although some Republicans supported Nixon’s ouster, Watergate was hardly the bipartisan triumph of gauzy memory. When one Judiciary Committee member questioned the “theme” of an article of impeachment being debated, Cohen recalled, Democratic Rep. Jack Brooks snapped, “The theme of this article is we’re going to get that sumbitch outta there!”

It was hard to avoid being struck by the passage of time, especially for those of us who passed through the portals of The Washington Post. Ben Bradlee, his gait somewhat slowed, sat near the front as William Weld, the congressional Watergate investigator who later became Massachusetts governor, called him the true hero of Watergate. Katharine Graham’s voice was heard only on a promotional video, while her son, Don, the company’s chief executive, watched with rapt interest from the aisle.

But some things never change. Woodward, who is finishing his second book on the Obama administration, was pursuing a general who, he said, “just wouldn’t talk.” So he knocked on the officer’s door at 8:15 one night.

The general sized him up and said, “Are you still doing this shit?”

Then he let him in.