Governor Gerald Baliles, Carl Bernstein, and Bob Woodward laugh about how reporting has changed since 1972.
Woodward and Bernstein sign books at the Paramount.
photo by hawes spencer
Forty years after a bungled burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters brought the term "Watergate" into the national lexicon, the two men most responsible for taking down a presidency appeared at the Virginia Film Festival following a screening of the movie based on their book, All the President's Men.
Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward had "unparalleled impact" on the presidency, on journalism, and on "ourselves and our culture," said former Governor Gerald Baliles, now director of the Miller Center, the sponsor of the Festival's first Presidency in Film offering.
The two, who earned a 1973 Pulitizer Prize for their reporting at the Washington Post, discussed their Watergate days with the conviviality of men who have gone through a life-altering experience together. In June, they shared a byline again in an anniversary article, "40 years after Watergate, Nixon was far worse than we thought."
The shock of illegal activity emanating from Richard Nixon's White House and captured on tape recordings still resonates with Woodward, who's gone on to write more than a dozen insider accounts of presidencies.
"It's a mindset that became clear– let's go after the enemy, let's screw the opposition– with a lawlessness we've never seen," he said at the November 2 event at the Paramount theater.
"This is what's strange," continued Woodward. "Nixon never says, 'What would be in the national interest?' It was all about Nixon screwing people and seeking vengeance on his enemies."
A key player in the 1976 film is Deep Throat, Woodward's anonymous source whose identity was kept secret until seven years ago when former Associate FBI Director Mark Felt outed himself in Vanity Fair, "where Carl was an editor and he didn't know the story was going to run," said Woodward.
"Contributing editor," corrected Bernstein, noting the the film slightly exaggerated the role of Deep Throat, who typically confined himself to confirming information already uncovered by the pair.
"It was dramatic when [Woodward] told me he had to move a flower pot," said Bernstein about how Woodward would signal Felt when he needed to talk to him.
Woodward, who was 29 when the Watergate saga began, said, "When Mark Felt said we set up a signal and meet in a garage, I thought, well, that's what you do."
The two noted the accuracy of the movie's portrayal of the shoe-leather reporting of the two young journalists, who were depicted knocking on the doors of people on a long list of names.
"What's important is it shows the methodology of reporting," said Bernstein. "The sheer terror we saw of the people we approached, that told us there was a story."
As for how reporting has changed since the pre-Internet days when articles were entered into antiquated devices called typewriters, Woodward described how Yale professor Steve Brill asked his class how Watergate might be reported today. The student response? "You'd go on Google and google 'Nixon's secret fund,'" said an appalled Woodward. The students were convinced the blogosphere would have Nixon out of office in a matter of weeks.
"Too many students think the Internet is a magic lantern," said Woodward. "You have to go to humans and gain their trust, particularly when you're dealing with a conspiracy."
Another difference between then and now was that the Senate voted 77-0 in favor of setting up a committee to investigate the Watergate burglary.
"Imagine that today," said Woodward, referring to the current partisan Congress. "It just wouldn't happen."
Even more notable was that it was Nixon's own party that convinced him to resign. "It was the Republicans who did him in," said Woodward. "Republicans said, that was enough."
Noting that many citizens feel highly skeptical of government, Baliles asked the men if the system worked. Bernstein credited the press, the justice branch, and Congress for all doing their jobs.
"I think we knew it when he resigned," said Bernstein. "We were awestruck when it happened. There was no dancing on desks."
One notable absence in the movie, said Bernstein, was any glimpse of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, who put her business on the line with her support of the reporting of Woodstein, as the pair were dubbed. Bernstein recalled his late-night conversation with then Attorney General John Mitchell, who warned, "Katie Graham's gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that's published."
After the article implicating Mitchell as the controller of a slush fund– complete with the incendiary quotation about Graham– ran in the Post, Bernstein said the publisher was non-plussed. "The next morning, Mrs. Graham came by my desk and said, 'Carl, do you have any more messages for me?'"
He also recalled the day he received a subpoena for his notes.
"Katharine Graham said, 'They're not their notes; they're my notes,'" putting herself in a position of being arrested. "I said a picture of Katharine Graham getting out of her limo to go to the DC jail would run all over the world," chuckled Woodward.
In the movie, Mark Felt warned that lives were in danger, and Baliles asked the reporters if they were fearful.
"We were terrified," said Bernstein. "What we were terrified of was making a mistake." He said he knew how crazy some of the Nixon operatives were, and one night, he was fearful enough that he didn't go home.
"It was an excuse," interjected Woodward, parodying Bernstein: "I'm in danger. Can I come over and spend the night?"
Bernstein's reputation as a womanizer was well-documented in Heartburn, a novel by his second wife, Nora Ephron, who was pregnant when she discovered he was having an affair.
More seriously, Woodward said he perhaps overreacted when Felt said people's lives were in danger, meaning not so much their physical safety as their reputations and jobs.
In the movie, Jason Robards portrays WaPo editor Ben Bradlee; and, according to Woodward, Robards initially balked at taking the role after reading the script.
"He came back and said, I can't play Bradlee because all he does is run around the newsroom saying, 'Where's the f*cking story?'" recounted Woodward. Robards was told, "You have to find 15 different ways to say, where's the f*cking story."
For a long time, Woodward and Bernstein thought President Gerald Ford's pardon of Nixon was an outrage when dozens of people under him went to jail. Years later, Woodward asked Ford why, and the partial-term president finally said, "I did it for the good of the country," recounted Woodward. "The national nightmare is over."
And the two admitted they were wrong about initially condemning Ford, whose decision cost him reelection at the hands of Jimmy Carter.
"It was the right thing for the country," conceded Bernstein, 40 years later.