Watergate: The Biggest Story - And the Most Intense Moment of Our Lives

By Benjamin C. Bradlee
The Washington Post
Sunday, June 14, 1992

Benjamin Bradlee is vice president at large and former executive editor of The Washington Post.

Red Square in the rain might seem an oddly inappropriate place to recall the basic incredibility of Watergate and to ponder its meaning.

But last week, 20 years after the great American political scandal, a couple dozen reporters and TV cameramen stood under St. Basil's colorful, many-onioned church, doing exactly that.

We were there because a cameo appearance by Richard M. Nixon had been announced -- to participate in the photo-op presentation of three truckloads of humanitarian aid to Russia and to "answer questions." The real reason we were there was not the humanitarian aid story, with its top-heavy symbolism. What was irresistible was the conjunction of Watergate's 20th anniversary and the chance to ask its long-lived protagonist even a single question, not that there was any real hope of a straight answer.

But the questions that have plagued us for a generation plague us still. How much did Nixon know and when did he know it? Did he really think that there were ends that justified those means? Did Nixon really think he could get away with it? Had he ever felt remorse? Is he sorry now and what is he sorry about?

We all waited for 90 minutes in the rain until some minion was dispatched to say something had "come up" to cause Nixon to change his schedule. The humanitarian aid remained in the trucks, unblessed by cameras and unblessed by Nixon. The questions remained unasked as well as unanswered.

With no new answers, we are left with our memories.

My overwhelming memory of those 26 months -- from the day the five burglars were caught with their rubber gloves on, with the crisp hundred-dollar bills in their pockets and White House phone numbers in their address books, to the president's embarrassingly public final torture -- is simply this.

No news story has ever grabbed and held Washington by the throat the way Watergate did. No news story in my experience ever dominated conversation, newspapers, radio and television broadcasts the way Watergate did. There were times when you could walk whole city blocks and ride taxis all around town and never miss a word of hearings or press conferences.

There were times when anyone with a friend at The Washington Post couldn't go home at night without calling for a "fill" on the next day's Watergate story. People literally couldn't wait for the radio and TV stations to read the next day's Post stories on the 11 o'clock news. Looking back, it's easy to forget that The Post published more than 300 Watergate stories. Each was a comparatively small bite of an apple whose size we were to recognize only later. During that first summer (1972), we felt lonely. Few of our colleagues outside The Post were with us, and in the great American tradition, many newspapers seemed to be trying to knock our stories down. We did everything but keep Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's heads in a pail of water until they produced more stories -- as they did week after week. But we waited in vain for other papers to pick up the story.

Only toward the end of October 1972, when Walter Cronkite devoted two consecutive broadcasts to Watergate, did many editors begin to take The Post's Watergate coverage seriously. I remember the day that Gordon Manning, then a big cheese at CBS News, now at NBC and a former colleague of mine at Newsweek, called up with the good news. Cronkite was going to make us famous, Manning said. He was going to pull our chestnuts out of the fire.

The price for this wonderful gift, Manning announced, was the documents. "We need all the documents," Manning said, "television is a visual medium." I told him we had no documents, we had never had any, it was all original reporting. He stressed what a favor he was doing for us. He recalled the length and quality of our friendship.

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© 1992 The Washington Post Company