Watergate: 25 Years Later
Tuesday, June 17, 1997; 12:00 PM
Bob Woodward, an assistant managing editor at The Washington Post joined us for a discussion. Along with his partner, Carl Bernstein, Woodward helped uncover the story that led to the end of Richard M. Nixon's presidency. The interview is now over.
The transcript follows:
Washingtonpost.com : Mr. Woodward, thank you for joining us this afternoon. Let's get right to it:
Many of our readers have questions about the process and challenge of reporting the Watergate story. At the time of the break-in, both you and Carl Bernstein were young (late 20s) and relatively inexperienced -- yet about to break the biggest political story of the century. At what point in the investigation did you realize what you were on to? Did you ever feel you were in over your heads?
Bob Woodward: The story was incremental and we wrote hundreds of different stories that were all pieces of a puzzle. It's like getting in the bathtub and turning the water on hotter and hotter and you don't feel it and it's possible to scald yourself to death. But we focused on the individual pieces. When we made some serious mistakes, as we did, we definitely felt we were in over our heads.
Mequon, Wis.: How did your personality complement or conflict with the personality of Carl Bernstein when you were working on Watergate?
Bob Woodward: Carl and I had some of the most intense fights about the substance of the story and where it was going, but the editors, including Bradlee, always mediated successfully. There were no fistfights, but there was lots of emotion and distress. But after months of working together, we realized that the Bradlee style of creative tension truly worked.
Washington, D.C.: How heavily edited were the Watergate stories published by The Post? Did lawyers review most of the major ones before publication? Did Nixon or his allies ever threaten a libel suit?
Bob Woodward: They were very, very heavily edited and reviewed, not as much for language as the authority of the sources. Lawyers didn't seriously get involved in the Watergate stories until quite late, when we realized we were on to something.
It's a good question about libel threats. To my knowledge, there were none. But Nixon on the tapes plotted and directed the very valuable television licenses that the Post Company had be challenged by outsiders. This had a big impact on the stock price and viability of the company in the short run. We knew the licenses were challenged, but didn't know that Nixon was behind it until more than a year afterwards.
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: My students here in Australia are always fascinated by Watergate. The main question they have difficulty resolving is whether Watergate shows the ultimate strength of the U.S. political system in limiting and dividing power, or whether the scandal highlights the inability of the system to deal quickly with an executive branch that exercises power far in excess of what the Founding Fathers intended. What is your view?
Bob Woodward: I believe Watergate shows that the system did work. Particularly the Judiciary and the Congress, and ultimately an independent prosecutor working in the Executive Branch. The failure of the system to deal quickly was attributable to Nixon's lying, stonewalling and refusal to come clean. So it took 26 months for the final truth to be known. Significantly, Nixon's grand mistake was his failure to understand that Americans are forgiving, and if he had admitted error early and apologized to the country, he would have escaped.
Black River Falls, Wis.: On balance, does Watergate indicate the strengths of our system or the weaknesses? Also, how much should we be teaching about Watergate in our schools? I am interested in this from your perspective.
Bob Woodward: In fact, Watergate provides a model case study of the interaction and powers of each of the branches of government. It also is a morality play with a sad and dramatic ending. Obviously, I'm ridiculously close to the issue, but it would seem that the Watergate story from beginning to end could be used as a primer on the American political system.
New Orleans, La.: Given the fact that you uncovered this conspiracy, do you think that there are many other conspiracies that the government is sucessful in covering up? Also, what would have happened if Watergate had not been uncovered?
Bob Woodward: The central dilemma in journalism is that you don't know what you don't know. I suspect there have been a number of conspiracies that never were described or leaked out. But I suspect none of the magnitude and sweep of Watergate.
Suppose Watergate had not been uncovered? I'd still be on the City Desk, among other things. But of course the number of illegal activities were so large -- I could count nearly 100 -- that one was bound to come out and lead to the uncovering of the others. Nixon was too willing to use the power of government to settle scores and get even with enemies. His talk and his attempts to order subversion of various departments was bound to come out in some form.
Now, if the tapes had never been discovered, or he had burned them, he almost surely would not have had to resign, in my view.
Chandler, Ariz.: Media corporations are buying large newspapers at a record pace. Since these corporations' fortunes can be tied to the business and political climate, is an investigation like Watergate still a possibility for one newspaper in a chain? Do corporations try to mediate damage to media-friendly politicians?
Bob Woodward: That's an excellent question. Newspapers that are truly independent, like The Washington Post, can still aggressively investigate anyone or anything with no holds barred. Unfortunately, there is some evidence that some newspapers have a hands-off policy on favored politicians. But it's generally very small newspapers or local TV stations. If you interviewed 1,000 politicians and asked about whether the media's "too soft" or "too hard," about 999 would say "too hard."
Huntsville, Ala.: For all of the beneficial changes that resulted from The Post's pursuit of the Watergate story, I think it is unfortunate that the stories also inadvertently helped breed today's so-called "gotcha" journalism. I am troubled by the number of young reporters who seem more interested in attaining your level of fame than pursuing truth and fairness. How do you feel about this trend?
Bob Woodward: Ouch! I, too, believe that there's too little patience and context to many of the investigations I read or see on television. One of the negative legacies of Watergate is the unleashing of a torrent of suspicion, doubt and mistrust. Unfortunately, too often politicians and other public figures provide sufficient grounds for the mistrust. I don't think there will ever be a permanent truce, but I believe the media needs to be more careful and be willing to count to 10 before rushing on the air or into print. In addition, news organizations need to make a concerted effort to regularly revisit high-profile allegations they have printed or broadcast and update the public and be willing to acknowledge matters that are unproven or are still in dispute.
The cloud of doubt that surrounds political figures tends to remain and never dissipate or be clarified. At the same time, the politicians need to be more willing to engage in full disclosure, rather than the classic Watergate "modified, limited hang-out route."
Phoenix, Ariz.: My family and I watched the movie "All the President's Men" last night and I was wondering if you could give me some clues on who Deep Throat was. Eric, age 10
Bob Woodward: Eric, I wish I could provide clues, but I hope you understand that I gave my word that this source would not be identified unless he changed his mind. He has not, and a reporter's ability to keep the bond of confidentiality often enables him to learn the hidden or secret aspects of government. And secret government is a great danger and the information from secret sources is tested and confirmed and in the case of Deep Throat, we know he basically got it right.
Arlington, Va.: I can understand protecting the identity of Deep Throat in a story as important as Watergate, but don't you think the precedent that came out of that -- the use of nameless, faceless sources for almost any story, no matter how insignificant -- has tarnished the face of political journalism at The Post and undermined its credibility? Don't you think you've paved the way for senior administration officials to hide behind nameless facades and spout off without holding them accountable for what they say?
Bob Woodward: All reporters, including myself, use too many unnamed sources. But the test is the quality of information they provide. If the information can be confirmed, and it contains the kind of specifics that can be cross-checked, it's important, in my view, to give the public the unvarnished version of reality rather than the "spun" version that too often comes from public spokespeople. Way before Watergate, senior administration officials hid behind anonymity. But if the information is true, if it can be verified, and if it's really important, the newspaper needs to be willing to take the risk associated with using unidentified sources.
In using these unnamed sources, if done properly, carefully and fairly, in fact provides more accountability in government. I recently read some of the transcripts of Nixon's Watergate tapes, and they spend hours trying to figure out who was leaking and providing information to Carl and myself. It was accountability that Nixon feared.
St. Paul, Minn.: Do you feel that if you had never had any contact with Deep Throat nor any opportunity to verify any information with him, the scandal would never have been uncovered?
Bob Woodward: The source known as Deep Throat (a very unfortunate name given to the source by the managing editor of The Washington Post) provided a kind of road map through the scandal. His one consistent message was that the Watergate burglary was just the tip of the iceberg, part of a scheme and a series of illegal activities that amounted to a subversion of government. The interlocking nature of the crimes gave it weight and provided the context, and in fact one of the incentives for us to continue our investigations.
Washington, D.C.: Near the end of the movie "All the President's Men," Deep Throat advises that "lives are in danger." Did Deep Throat actually communicate this to you and if so, did he provide any additional details? Did you ever feel that you were at risk as you and Mr. Bernstein investigated this story?
Bob Woodward: That's exactly what happened. But he was talking more in the context of the stakes involved and I overread what he said, and it was more my paranoia which fed on itself, that led us to take his words literally. Even now there is no evidence that anyone involved in the Nixon operation was going to threaten us. At the same time, one of our post-Watergate disclosures was a plan by the leading Watergate conspirators, G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt, to plan the assassination of newspaper columnist Jack Anderson. They never carried it off, but they actually devised a number of schemes and went through a practice run, according to Liddy's own book. It's chilling, even in retrospect, to think about it.
Knoxville, Tenn.: Howard Baker make a statement recently suggesting that Deep Throat should come forward in the public interest. Do you concur with Howard Baker? Also: with the yet to be disclosed facts, do you envision authoring another book on Watergate in the future?
Bob Woodward: Deep Throat did serve the public interest by providing the guidance and information to us. He was and to this day is not willing to come forward publicly, but his information, and in my view, courage, allowed the newspaper to use what he knew and suspected.
It's possible that there may yet be another Watergate book. I have thought a book about the aftermath of Watergate and its impact could be done, perhaps by me or someone else.
Woodbridge, Va.: Mr. Woodward, I have frequently heard G. Gordon Liddy on his radio program discuss the book "Silent Coup" and some strange scheme regarding John Dean. In fact, Liddy claims that there is pending litigation between himself and Mr. Dean. Is the book "Silent Coup" totally off-base? If so, what is it's major flaw?
Bob Woodward: There is litigation pending. John Dean, Nixon's former White House counsel, has sued the authors of the book. The book is a bunch of speculation and as independent reporters have discovered, a kind of house-of-cards imagining about connections that either do not exist or had no meaning. Even the Washington Times, the conservative local newspaper here, wrote a story questioning the authenticity of some of the suggestions made about me in "Silent Coup." But as a believer in the First Amendment, I believe they have more than a right to air their views. To me it's very sad the reporting was not done honestly with an eye toward understanding. I suspect John Dean's going to win this one in some form, in some time, because the book is so off-base.
Helena, Mont.: I am a 25-year-old newspaper reporter, so I come from a different perspective. I've read your book, unlike most of my 25-year-old peers, who think Watgergate was a botched burglary. Why are so many of us ignorant about the real facts of the Nixon cover-up? Has his image been glossed over in recent years so as to allow us to believe his improprieties were not so serious? How can we make people of my generation understand the true follies of Richard Nixon?
Bob Woodward: First, Watergate is an immensely complicated scandal with a cast of characters as varied as a Tolstoy novel. After Nixon resigned in 1974, he engaged in a very aggressive war with history, attempting to wipe out the Watergate stain and memory. Happily, history has won, largely because of Nixon's tapes. Not a season passes without new disclosures showing his numerous attempts at criminal use of his presidential powers and in fact the scorn he held for the rule of law. At the same time, Nixon had some large achievements in foreign affairs. They will be remembered fondly. But a president probably gets remembered for one thing, and Watergate will head the Nixon list, I suspect.
Clinton, S.C.: As I recall, Martha Mitchell was often seen and heard making cryptic remarks about Watergate, but she was dismissed by the media as having mental problems. Were any of her remarks accurate as the events were unfolding?
Bob Woodward: Martha Mitchell spoke a lot of the truth. Though she did not understand the details of Watergate and the various corruptions of what her husband, former attorney general John Mitchell called "the White House horrors," she understood Nixon's impulses to abuse power. One undisclosed Watergate incident involves a time she allowed Carl Bernstein and myself to go through some of her husband's papers in his apartment office after she had thrown him out one time. She was a joyful woman who loved fun and truth-telling, two matters not normally associated with the Nixon presidency.
Arlington, Va.: When do you think The Washington Post is going to stop resting on its Watergate laurels and start breaking stories again?
Washingtonpost.com : Many readers have asked this question in a variety of ways, particularly as it relates to Whitewater and the current campaign finance scandal.
Bob Woodward: Fair question. If you are a subscriber, you would know that we regularly publish exclusive investigative stories involving local government, President Clinton and other Democrats and Republicans. Earlier this year I did the long story on Vice President Gore's fund-raising activities, resulting in a new understanding of how active he was on the telephone soliciting money. His now-famous press conference was a direct response the day after we ran that story. But I think we need to do more hard-hitting stories, and I take your criticism seriously. We promise to work harder and do better.
Hanover, Md.: How do we even know "Deep Throat" was a real person? After "Veil" your credibility, in my opinion, is suspect. I cannot believe Casey, a man who had life-long hatred for the press and The Post, who was in a coma, and who was under constant protection, could -- or especially would -- talk with you. So, if you made that interview up based upon educated guesses and outside material, who is to say you didn't do the same in Watergate?
Bob Woodward: Deep Throat's information turned out to be true. On the matter of former CIA Director Bill Casey, the CIA itself and his widow have now acknowledged that I had extensive contacts with him and interviewed him many times. Bob Gates, who was Casey's deputy and later became the CIA director, stated categorically in his book that Casey talked to me regularly. Gates says that he figured Casey was playing defense knowing that I had intelligence agency sources and used me as an early warning system, but acknowledges that he does not fully understand why Casey dealt with me so extensively. My view is that Casey loved "the game" of combat and back-and-forth with a reporter and knew that I was going to write an in-depth book on his time at the agency. Casey, like many, wanted to fashion his image and history. Many have criticized me for being too willing to let Casey's views be stated in that book. Now, 10 years later, experts and others acknowledge the truthfulness of "Veil."
Washingtonpost.com : We have time for just one more question: Earlier, you said there might be room for a book on Watergate's aftermath, perhaps authored by you. Is such a book in the works?
Bob Woodward: I don't know what my next book is going to be, but it's one of the possibilities I'm considering. I've discussed it with people, but am not sure.
Washingtonpost.com : Mr. Woodward, thanks for joining us.
Bob Woodward: Thank you. I enjoyed it.