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Watergate—Woodward and Bernstein

Watergate—Woodward and Bernstein

by William H. Benson

May 2, 2019

     After police arrested five burglars in the Democratic Party’s national headquarters in a suite on the sixth floor of the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C. on June 17, 1972, the Washington Post‘s editor, Benjamin Bradlee assigned two young reporters, Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein, to investigate.

     Their names and the Post‘s have been tied together to the Watergate scandal ever since. 

     “The Post put Watergate stories on its front page seventy-nine times during the 1972 election, and from October 10 and on, began publishing a series of ‘investigative’ articles seeking to make the burglary a major moral issue.”

     Woodward and Bernstein did not know then that their investigation would lead to President Richard Nixon’s resignation on August 9, 1974, two years after his landslide re-election in November of 1972.

     Did they and the Post perform a valuable service to the country and to democracy, or did they create a hostile environment where government found it difficult to function, to conduct official business?

     One author, Rodger Streitmatter, wrote that Woodward and Bernstein “begged, lied, badgered sources, and on occasion, broke the law” in order to get leads and confirmations needed to run their stories. That said, “Few though would dispute the importance of their reporting.”

     Woodward relied upon a source, code named “Deep Throat,” an unidentified official in the Federal government. Woodward agreed to never identify this official, and to use his information only to confirm other sources’ information.

     Woodward and Bernstein mention this official on page 71 of their 1974 book All the President’s Men. On occasion, Woodward would move a potted plant to the rear of his balcony, a prearranged signal that Woodward needed to meet the official. At 2:00 a.m. that night, the two would meet in a hotel’s underground parking garage and discuss information.

     This was collusion between a high-ranking government official, charged with keeping national secrets, and a newspaper reporter, charged with divulging information.

     Woodward dared to call the official at least once. “The tone of the conversation that Sunday afternoon was ominous. When Deep Throat heard Woodward’s voice, there was a long pause. This would have to be their last telephone conversation, he said flatly. Both the FBI and the White House were determined to learn how the Post was getting its information and to put a stop to it.”

     Leaking secret government information does have certain consequences.

     The historian Paul Johnson wrote, “In Nixon’s first five months in office, twenty-one major leaks from classified National Security Council documents appeared in the New York Times and the Washington Post. It is not known how many US lives were lost as result of these leaks, but the damage was in some cases considerable.”

     When Daniel Ellsberg leaked to the press the Pentagon Papers, a secret history of the US military’s involvement in Vietnam, Nixon’s officials, including Robert Haldeman and John Erlichman, approved a Plumbers Gang, a clandestine group assigned to stop leaks, the same machinery that led to the break-in at the Watergate Hotel.

     Paul Johnson believed the media’s attack was unfair and unbalanced, over the top. He wrote,

     “The anti-Nixon campaign, especially in the Washington Post and the New York Times, was continual, venomous, unscrupulous, inventive, and sometimes unlawful.” It later reverted to “the hysteria usually associated with American witch hunts.”

     A question needs asked. What do we as Americans want? An Imperial Presidency? “Please give us a king!” or do we want an Imperial Congress?” or do we want an Imperial Media? Perhaps we should return to a balanced and just government that acts according to compromise and consensus.

     Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian, said, “Watergate inaugurated an era of politics by other means, where political opponents attempted, instead of defeating one another’s arguments, or winning elections, to oust each other from office by way of ethics investigations.”

     In the 1976 movie All the President’s Men, Robert Redford played Robert Woodward, Dustin Hoffman played Carl Bernstein, Jason Robards played Benjamin Bradlee, and Hal Holbrook played Deep Throat.

     On May 21, 2005, thirty-one years after Nixon’s resignation, an attorney came forward and identified the associate FBI director in 1973, W. Mark Felt, then suffering from dementia, as Deep Throat. Woodward and Bernstein confirmed the attorney’s information.