At Post Watergate forum, scandal’s players tell their stories

The speakers gathered Monday in the unpolished top floor of a place that was once just another Washington hotel and office complex, before their professional lives intersected with an infamous moment in American history that now carries this lodging mecca’s name: Watergate.

Here, a who’s who of politics and media met once again in the midst of the building’s renovation, a week before the event’s 40th anniversary, to share with hundreds the stories of the events that ultimately led to the resignation of a president.

The questions touched the pragmatic and the philosophical: Did you ever try to persuade “Deep Throat,” the practically mythological source who confirmed key information to cub Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, to reveal himself? (Yes, Woodward said: Deep Throat hung up the phone.)

What did this event, which would forever change the country’s political conversation, mean in today’s polarized political atmosphere? (It proved that no man was above the law, former Massachusetts governor William Weld told the audience.)

And what drove Richard M. Nixon to place microphones throughout the Oval Office, tap reporters’ phones and allow operatives to break into offices in the hope of securing information he could one day use against his foes? (Anger, resentment and hatred for others, according to former defense secretary William S. Cohen.)

Still, there might be many mysteries about Watergate that have not been revealed. No matter, according to Bernstein.

“It’s what we know that was important,’’ said Bernstein, sharing the stage with Woodward on a panel moderated by PBS journalist Charlie Rose as part of the Washington Post Live event. “And we know that it was about a president who used illegal, unconstitutional means as a basic matter of implementing policy.”

John Dean, Nixon’s White House counsel, recalled getting the phone call: that on the sixth floor of the Watergate, five men in business suits had been arrested and accused of breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s offices. They were wearing rubber gloves and had money stashed in their pockets. When he recognized the names of those arrested, Dean said he knew that “at that moment, we were going to have really big problems.”

It was only the beginning of damning revelations of Nixon’s plans to use spies to sabotage strong Democratic candidates and to order break-ins into buildings such as that of the Brookings Institution to glean information that could be used for blackmail, among other tactics that were made public through the release of recordings from the White House and the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein.

They would eventually be canonized by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in the film based on their book, “All the President’s Men.” And before his death, W. Mark Felt, a former government operative, would reveal himself as Deep Throat.

“You had to have a willing press that was aggressive, you had to have a Deep Throat in this case,’’ said Fred Thompson, who was the Senate Watergate Committee’s chief minority counsel in 1973 and 1974. “You had in this case, the White House counsel who was willing to testify about conversations, and then you had a taping system. If you didn’t have [any] of those four, you wouldn’t have had the results we had.”

The scandal captured the American imagination; Washington Post Live host Mary Jordan noted that the average household in America watched 30 hours of Watergate coverage. In its covert corruption and ultimate revelation, Watergate was a true American contradiction, according to PBS host Jim Lehrer.

It was “a stain, a cleansing,’’ Lehrer said. “A proud moment, a terrible moment.”

The event ended with a tribute to Benjamin C. Bradlee, 90, former Post executive editor, whom Lehrer called “a superhero” for his work during that time.

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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