Q&A Transcript

Watergate: 25 Years Later

Ben Bradlee
Washington Post Vice President at Large
Tuesday, June 17, 1997; 12:00 PM

Washington Post Vice President at Large Ben Bradlee, the newspaper's former executive editor, was online June 17, 1997, for a live online discussion on Watergate. Under Bradlee's direction, The Washington Post took the lead on uncovering the Watergate scandal. The Post won the Pulitzer Prize for its Watergate coverage.

A transcript follows:

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Washingtonpost.com: Mr. Bradlee, thank you for joining us today. Many of our users have asked about your decision to stand behind Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's reporting, when so many other news organizations ignored the Watergate story early on. What told you that you could have faith in the reporting of two 20-something Metro reporters on such a big story?

Ben Bradlee: The really tough thing would have been to decide to take Woodward and Bernstein off the story. They were carrying the coal for us -- in that their stories were right. You never monkey with the truth.

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Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada: What was the one moment during Watergate that frightened you the most? Was there ever a morning when you looked at the paper and thought, "Oh, God, we shouldn't have run that, we should have waited?"

Ben Bradlee: We made only one real mistake. And even then we were right. We ran a story saying that Sloan had testified to the Grand Jury about the existence of a White House "slush fund" controlled by Haldeman. We were right about the slush fund. But Sloan did not testify about it to the Grand Jury. He told the prosecutors about it but they never asked him about it when he was before the Grand Jury. It took us about a day and a half to find out what had gone wrong.

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Washingtonpost.com: This reader asked the same question of Bob Woodward just a few minutes ago.

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: Do you think that the media has adopted a "gotcha" mentality since Watergate? Is it fair to suggest that the important role played by the press during Watergate has only resulted in a trivializing and confrontational approach to the reporting of politics?

Ben Bradlee: "The media" is too big a word. I think there are some reporters who have adopted a "gotcha" mentality, but not in the really good newspapers. If an investigative reporter finds out that someone has been robbing the store, that may be "gotcha" journalism, but it's also good journalism.

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Bethesda, Md.: Roger Wilkins has said that he felt Woodward and Bernstein deserved individual Pulitzers for their work on Watergate, rather than the "overall" award that was given to The Post. Your thoughts?

Ben Bradlee: With the greatest respect for my buddy Wilkins, I think the paper deserved the prize. We never would have won it without Woodward and Bernstein, but we probably wouldn't have won it without Katharine Graham as an owner, without a lot of the editors, including an editorial writer named Wilkins.

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Weston, Mass.: Why is it that a lot of people in the media were so appalled by Nixon's actions and cover-ups, but seem to let Clinton's same problems (obstruction of justice, misuse of the IRS and the FBI, cover-up, etc.) get excused, or at least not commented on with the same skepticism that Nixon received (not that I like being in the position of defending Nixon)?

Ben Bradlee: I must be out of it, but I don't know any good journalists who have excused Clinton's problems. There have been as many investigative reporters on this newspaper working on Clinton's many problems as I can remember there were working on Watergate.

Many of us have said jokingly to each other that the one trouble with Watergate was that Nixon was a Republican. And, thus we have to answer this question over and over again.

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Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: When your memoirs were published, David Remnick wrote in The New Yorker that the remarkable thing about The Post was that Mrs. Graham was willing to put in charge an editor and a team that would dramatically change the paper -- changes that culminated in the Watergate stories. I was wondering if you think any publisher would be willing to go so far out on a limb today -- not on a "scandal" story but in the sense of letting an editor remake a paper in such a daring way.

Ben Bradlee: I don't know about "any" publisher. But Katharine Graham and I had been working together for almost seven years and we had come to trust each other. A little known result of Watergate, I think, is that other owners and publishers learned that trusting the newsroom can be rewarding.

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Morristown, Tenn.: In the darkest days of your investigation, I read that the break-in story maintained its momentum due to coverage Walter Cronkite devoted to it. To what extent do you credit Cronkite for keeping interest in this until you actually could break some evidence?

Ben Bradlee: I give Cronkite a whole lot of credit. Somehow many other editors felt when Cronkite -- the great white father of the American people -- said that The Washington Post was right, the story suddenly was worth their attention and coverage. The Nixon administration really put a lot of pressure on CBS not to run the second broadcast. They cut about seven minutes from that broadcast, but it was still vital to the story's momentum.

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New York: Does it irk you when The Washington Post is made out to be a bastion of slanted liberal thinkers instead of champion journalists just because of Watergate?

Ben Bradlee: Damn right it does!

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Henderson, Ky: My question concerns Martha Mitchell. Did the Nixon administration attempt to discredit her?

Ben Bradlee: They certainly did. They tried to make her look like a "nut case" and they succeeded to some extent.

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Washingtonpost.com: In our discussion with Bob Woodward a few minutes ago, he revealed that Martha Mitchell let him and Bernstein rummage through John Mitchell's papers one night. Can you tell us some more about that incident and why it hasn't been known before?

Ben Bradlee: That's the first I ever heard them rummaging through Mitchell's papers. I suspect you haven't heard about it before because they didn't get anything out of those papers.

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Coral Gables, Fla.: How comfortable are you with "sources say" type journalism and do you think it has gone too far? Some of these CIA-China money stories have had some sketchy sources.

Ben Bradlee: In the perfect world every source could be identified, but like the man said, "It's not a perfect world." The history of the Nixon administration is filled with acts of revenge and discipline against people who talked. Sure, some journalists use anonymous sources just because they're lazy and I think editors ought to insist on more precise identification even if they remain anonymous. Military or civilian? Republican or Democrat? Old or young? Male or female? You can help the reader a lot more than we do.

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Jacksonville, Fla.: What do you believe was Deep Throat's motive in divulging incriminating inside information to The Post, and what was it that confirmed for you he was a thoroughly reliable source? Will the public ever know the identity of this individual? Surely The Post owes it to posterity and to history to make his identity known at some point in time?

Ben Bradlee: I think he had a strange, passionate devotion to the truth and a horror at what he saw going on.

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Richmond, Va.: How would John F. Kennedy have responded if he found that his political operatives stepped over the line and broke the law?

Ben Bradlee: I think he would have thrown them out of the White House overnight.

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Arlington, Va.: When Nixon died, many honored his memory -- and few seemed to recall Watergate as his legacy. President Clinton called him "a statesman who sought to build a lasting structure of peace." Do you think Nixon's legacy will be largely positive or negative? How do you feel about this?

Ben Bradlee: I never believed that Nixon could fully resurrect himself. And the proof of that was in the obits. The lead of every obit said, in one form or another, "The first president in the history of the Republic to be forced to resign in disgrace." Obviously, no one was going to say that at his funeral. Although, I was amazed at the theatrical grief and general carrying on by all the speakers.

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Martinsburg, W.Va.: Mr. Bradlee, I was a college student and involved in the anti-war movement in 1972. Do you think that the war and the sentiment against it played a part in Mr. Nixon's paranoid feelings? Also, do you believe without a free press and The Post, Nixon would not have been forced to resign?

Ben Bradlee: I'm sure that Nixon's paranoia stemmed in part from Vietnam, although probably not as much as Lyndon Johnson's. But, Nixon was a paranoid and I do believe that without a free press Nixon would not have been forced to resign, especially if he had burned the tapes.

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Savannah, Ga.: I notice more and more local daily newspapers are tailoring their front pages to conform to TV news values rather than traditional print values. In other words, bigger photos, more "feel-good" human interest profiles, more crime stories, and more local industry boosterism. As editor of an alternative weekly newspaper, I'm concerned with how to maintain reader interest during a time when readers -- and publishers -- seem less interested in hard news than ever before. Any sage advice on how to stick to our guns?

Ben Bradlee: John Denson, one of the last editors of The New York Herald Tribune, said it best. "Good newspapers don't have to be dull." He was talking about The New York Times at that time. But, he was right. Maybe some of today's papers have too many "feel-good" features, but there is a lot of good news out there.

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Berea, Ky.: Compare Kennedy and Nixon, especially in the way they "handled" the media.

Washingtonpost.com: You mentioned Lyndon Johnson a few minutes ago. How does he compare to the other two?

Ben Bradlee: The biggest difference between Kennedy and Nixon, as far as the press is concerned, is simply this: Jack Kennedy really liked newspaper people and he really enjoyed sparring with journalists. Richard Nixon really disliked newspaper people and he really hated any kind of give-and-take with journalists. It's no great secret that newspaper people, like everyone else, like to be liked. We agree with the American people that we've become quite respectable.

Lyndon Johnson really thought newspaper people were obstacles in his path. When he licked them like a St. Bernard and they didn't respond, he gave up on them.

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Portland, Ore.: Mr. Bradlee, during various interviews I have seen, where you have been asked about your knowledge of President Kennedy's extra-marital activities, you have always claimed that this was a subject that gentlemen simply didn't discuss. With all due respect, your answers have always seemed to be an intentional dodge of the question. Are you saying that you had no reliable information outside of your personal relationship with the president and if you did, did this personal relationship prevent you from reporting that independently acquired information? Finally, would you today, allow yourself that kind of relationship with a sitting president -- no matter how charismatic?

Ben Bradlee: Imagine, if you can, that you and your wife were having dinner with the president and his wife and no one else. Imagine all the subjects that you might talk about. And I'm telling you that fooling around is a subject that rarely comes up. There were stories about Kennedy liking members of the opposite sex. He was well over 30 when he got married.

Times have changed and the press simply did not feel compelled to document the sex lives of their politicians.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you think the growing "corporatization" of the media industry has been killing excellent reporting by squeezing newsrooms for the sake of unreasonably high profit expectations and forcing news organizations away from criticizing the policies of their parent companies?

In the first instance, I cite Times-Mirror, taken over by a non-newspaperman who mercilessly slashed newsrooms in L.A. and Baltimore in search of a 25 percent profit margin; and in the second, the purchase of ABC by Disney.

If this is true, how can journalism be saved?

Ben Bradlee: Of course when newspaper companies went public they faced a lot of pressure from Wall Street to increase their profits. In my ideal world I think I'd like to work without that pressure, but there is no rule that a well-run, financially successful corporation has to put out a schlock product. A lot of well-run companies put out good newspapers and make a buck. Times-Mirror is one of them. I don't believe they've made a 25 percent profit recently. Though they sure did when they were a private company.

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Arlington, Va.: Has Washingtonpost.com ever thought about running a retrospective of the Janet Cooke debacle next to The Post and Watergate feature? Ben Bradlee: Not to my knowledge. That is an idea whose time has not come.

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Norman, Okla.: What did you think of Jason Robards' potrayal of you in "All the President's Men"?

Ben Bradlee: Not bad, not bad at all.

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Bethesda, Md.: Do you ever feel that The Post gets too much credit for Watergate in popular history, where men like John Sirica receive less popular credit for their roles?

Ben Bradlee: I think we probably do get too much credit for it. There were many courageous people in government and in the press who deserve a lot of credit. But for the first seven months after the Watergate break-in, The Post was alone most of the time, keeping this story on the national agenda.

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Washingtonpost.com: We have time for just one more question: How does this online discussion compare with the other Watergate forums you've participated in this week?

Do you think the Watergate scandal would have unraveled the way it did if the Internet -- with its anonymous e-mail, file tracking, and self-published news Web sites -- had existed back then?

Ben Bradlee: I love the candor that this conversational exchange inspires. If I worry that the questions aren't all that different, neither are my answers.

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Washingtonpost.com: Thank you very much for joining us.

Ben Bradlee: My pleasure.


© 1997 The Washington Post Company