Watching famed Watergate reporters Woodward and Bernstein appear together on CNN discussing Trump’s possible impeachment cheers my heart and is a wonderful blast from the past. The two Watergate heroes who ceased sadly ceased writing together, are appearing jointly, almost like a Beatles reunion, raising the spectre that Trump can actually be stopped, as Nixon was. Maybe the ace duo, so well played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men, will rise again to find the ‘smoking gun’ that will force Trump to resign or even better, impeached and convicted, forced from office.
If you ever wonder where they were when Nixon resigned, I can tell you. I was there and watched the speech with them in a small editor’s office at the Washington Post, where I then worked. It sounds incredible—and still is to me—but it happened. I asked Post national editor Richard Harwood if I could watch the speech as my story, (“Americans react soberly”), was done. A man of few words, he motioned me in and, as the speech was starting, in walked the two reporters who had more to do with this event, with their dogged pursuit of Nixon’s crimes, than anyone. Officially speaking they were Metro or city reporters and their editor, Harry Rosenfeld, did not have a TV so they sought out Harwood’s. They strolled in and I was sitting there. The ultimate fly on the wall to history—or ‘history on the run,’ as the ex Post publisher Philip Graham described it.
There was some speculation that Nixon might not in fact step down. Some believed he might take an extreme step like circling the White House with Army tanks, “in the name of national security.” Accordingly, the Post, which had preprinted newspapers with the large boldface headline “NIXON RESIGNS” did not permit distribution until the President uttered those fateful words. The Post probably wished to avoid the Chicago Tribune’s fate in 1948’s infamous “Dewey Beats Truman” election. A smiling President Truman held up the paper with its incorrect results, enjoying it immensely. In the end, Tricky Dick did the right thing and stepped down, the first and probably the last to be forced from office. (Clinton, facing impeachment, risked a trial in the Senate and was not removed from office).
Finally, the momentous moment arrived. “I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow,” Nixon intoned and then went on to recap his time in office. Looking out in the newsroom, it was very sober; no instructions were issued but there was no celebration, cheering or high fives, despite the Post ultimately having been proven correct in its editorial judgment. The president had in fact conducted a criminal conspiracy and cover up; it was not a “third-rate burglary.” Turning back into the small office, there was a stillness in the air. Woodward said nothing and finally Bernstein commented, “Very classy.” It was over. And then shopping carts filled with the early editions were rolled in from the press room. History had been made.
I always had a soft spot for Bernstein. Hoffman was the perfect choice to portray him in the Watergate movie. He was streetwise, only a high school grad, and an elegant writer, strongly on display in his Hillary Clinton bio, A Woman in Charge. Sadly, he did not match Woodward’s later prodigious but horribly dull output. Similar to Lennon and McCartney, they were better composing together. Redford’s Woodward in the movie was very accurate; the Waspy, arrogant, Yale grad and Navy vet never said a word to me; I was too far low in the pecking order. By contrast, the unkempt, scrappy Bernstein extended himself to the lowlifes like the interns, copy boys and cub reporters. Once my bicycle had been stolen from the Post garage and he saw my note about it on the bulletin board. When he had left his on the White House lawn, the Secret Service had destroyed it. He sought me out and offered to help buy a new one, as he “had a few extra bucks these days.” I’ve never forgotten that; little did he know I had a car in my place in Friendship Heights and was a rich kid from the suburbs. He assumed I was a penniless, struggling junior, as he once had been.
Harwood, the legendarily tough, ex-Marine, World War II Iwo Jima veteran, was known as Robert F. Kennedy’s friend in the media. Apparently, in a touch football game during RFK’s doomed Presidential campaign, Kennedy broke the rules during a play involving Harwood and the journalist pushed back hard; RFK, my political idol, liked that and later brought the incorruptible Harwood into his inner circle. He had RFK’s photos behind his desk.
It was a high-water mark for investigative reporting; as detailed in All the President’s Men; shoe-leather journalism at its best. Knocking on doors. Poring over records and papers; checking and rechecking. At Chicago’s City News Bureau, where I cut my journalistic teeth, the motto was: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” No fact can go unchallenged. Woodward and Bernstein were masters of double verification, which if why their stories held up to Nixon’s withering counterattack. And then there was Deep Throat. The secret source, only known to the reporters and their legendary editor Ben Bradlee (see upcoming column) met Woodward deep in a dark underground garage and only would confirm facts and give hints and tips. Everyone in the journalism world knew it was Mark Felt, former No. 2 in the FBI, the only person who would have had access to certain information. When the secret came out, friends would say to me, the Deep Throat secret was revealed and I’d say, “Oh yeah, Mark Felt.” They’d say, “How did you know?” But everyone did.
And now Woodward and Bernstein are back, as I write this listening to the new Beatles channel on Sirius XM; good things persist and I am glad about that.