Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein
Friday, October 27, 2006; 1:00 PM
Alicia C. Shepard was online to talk about her new book, " Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate ." The book, published by Wiley this month, looks at the lives of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein -- the two Washington Post journalists whose reporting helped to bring down President Richard Nixon.
washingtonpost.com: Our discussion with Alicia Shepard about her new book on Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein will begin in a moment. For more information on her book, go to woodwardandbernstein.net .
washingtonpost.com: Thanks for joining us today. How long did you work on this book, and did you receive cooperation from Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein?
Alicia C. Shepard: I started working on a piece about what happened to Woodward and Bernstein for Washingtonian magazine in 2002. That piece appeared on Sept. 2003 (that link should be good on Oct. 30. Washingtonian is redoing its website) I did long interviews with both Carl and Bob for that piece. I interviewed about 75 people for that story, so as you can imagine I had a ton of material left over. And that went toward the book, which I began in earnest in summer 2004. Once I got the contract, I told both men about the book. Woodward was working on his new book, and frankly, Bernstein is really hard to pin down.
But the truth is, I had already gotten a lot from them and I felt that the primary sources I used were more valuable. I relied on their archives at Univ. of Texas. But also very valuable were the interviews of Woodward and Bernstein and all the principals done in the 1970s.
I found those to be fascinating and really reliable. One of those archives belonged to Alan Pakula. the director of All the President's Men. He felt to do the movie well he had to do in-depth interviews with everyone connected to the Post's Watergate story. Ben Bradlee said Pakula was like Freud in interviewing him.
One of the things I learned from trying to research something that happened 30 years ago is that memory plays many tricks. People have a set way of remembering an event, and it's not always accurate. I found the interviews at the time to be more accurate.
Harrisburg, Pa.: What led the Washington Post to stick with Woodward and Bernstein through the entire Watergate saga? Was there ever pressure from more senior writers to take over the story? What led to the story staying with Woodward and Bernstein?
Alicia C. Shepard: Initially the more senior reporters at the Post, especially those familiar with Washington politics didn't think much of the story. I found a quote from William Grieder who was a reporter at the Post at the time, who said if he'd gotten the same information he would have shrugged his shoulders and said,"politics as usual."
Woodward had only been at the Post for nine months when the break-in occured on June 17, 1972, and he was hungry and extremely hardworking, and a natural to put on initially. He worked so hard at the time that the Post practically had to beg him to take time off. so it was natural to keep him on the story.
Bernstein was another story. He wasn't happy at the Post, was looking for other jobs, and they weren't happy with him. But there was one editor there who saw past Bernstein's foibles, and that was Barry Sussman. Carl was a reporter with a lot of raw talent and a terrific investigator and a terrific writer. But he wasn't considered reliable. Carl and Bob were paired together by Sussman, who instinctively knew that together they could do something neither one of them could do individuallly. Today, Sussman doesn't speak to either man, which seems sad.
Washington, D.C.: Broadly speaking, how did Woodstein's Watergate work change journalism in the years after?
Alicia C. Shepard: Their reporting had a dramatic impact on journalism and my book deals with this as well as their fascinating story. For starters, they popularized the use of anonymous sources. Who, after all is the most famous anonymous source in history? One Watergate era journalist told me that he once came back to his station with a story that had a guy on the record. the producer looked downtrodden. can't we make him an anonymous source?
And after Watergate there was a rise in investigative journalism. it had been done before, but it became a staple in newsrooms.
Also, the tenor between the White House and the press was forever altered, and became much more aggressive. Another change was the advent of celebrity journalism. Woodward and Bernstein were the the first average joe reporters to become celebrities. it's hard to remember just how much attention they got after they wrote All the President's Men.
Baltimore: Anything really surprising in the archives you had access to at the Univ. of Texas?
Alicia C. Shepard: One of the things that really surprised me was the fan mail. it's hard to imagine any reporters today getting so many love letters really for one story. there are about two feet of fan letters in there. and they were just metro reporters. in the thick of Wgate, they received so much mail the Post had to assign them an assistant.
The letters are so laudatory. People thought that Woodward and Bernstein could save the world after Watergate and sent them scores of requests: investigate the kennedy assassination, look into fluoride in water, find someone's missing husband in Cuba, look into military medical malpractice.
My fave was a letter from a woman who said that "one day she would tell her two daughters about what giants once strode upon the earth." They were only 28 and 29.
Another woman wrote in saying she was interested in Bernstein and that Woodward seemed like a cold fish. Many letters like that.
Also in the archives are there financial records. Woodward was earning about $156 a week and suddenly they were getting royalty checks of $50,000 -- a quarter.
It all makes for fascinating reading.
Chicago: Did you talk with Mark Felt or his family for the book?
Alicia C. Shepard: It is not possible to talk to Mark Felt. Woodward makes that clear in the Secret Man. I thought it was awful that Larry King had Felt on TV. Anyway, I talked with Felt's attorney John O'Connor, but more for the last chapter on the revelation of who DT was.
As an author, I was very fortunate that Felt's ID was revealed on May 31, 2005. It made for a great final chapter of my book. I had a clear starting date of June 17, 1972 and a clear ending date of May 31, 2005. My book is not a definitive bio of both men, but the story of what happend to them during Watergate and after. We all may have read All the P's Men, but that was just their story. There is so much more that happened to them.
Alexandria, VA: I'm enjoying your book now. It's seems like a valuable trait for an investigative reporter is the ability to smell fear, which encourages you to plow onward when no one is talking to you.
Alicia C. Shepard: Thank you. Good observation. There is something in a reporter's DNA that makes them want to work much harder when someone tells them 'No." I LOVE that challenge of being told you can't get some information. If someone stonewalls you, you know that, and it makes me want to dig further.
Arlington, Va.: Woodward continues to take a lot of criticism for some of the things written in "Veil" and the Belushi bio. Do you touch on those in the book?
Alicia C. Shepard: Yes I do. The Belushi book was the only book that Bob has done where he used footnotes. He applied his usual techniques of interviewing scores, going deep, going back, but he was in unfamiliar territory and he was surprised by the vitriol that came from Belushi's friends. He talks about that in the chapter that deals with Belushi. Someone said he got the story right but he couldn't hear the music, like he was tone deaf to the nuances of Belush's life.
There is also a chapter that deals with Veil and Woodward's close relationship with CIA director William Casey. There are many who think BW made up that scene of visiting Casey in the hospital room--and before the revelatoin of DT, that he made up DT.
But they don't know Bob Woodward. After spending four years researching him and Carl, I would have stood on a stack of Bibles to say that there was a Deep Throat. If there hadn't been, and he was a composite, that would have meant that Woodward had built his whole career on a lie.
Say what you will about Woodward, and I know that there is a vocal group out there that are quite critical, but I came to believe he's an honest journalist who operates without an agenda.
Philadelphia, PA: Tell us more about Sussman not speaking with Woodstein. Didn't that have something to do with the creation of a composite editor character in the movie? It seems so sad, though.
Alicia C. Shepard: Yes, it is sad. It had to do with writing the book All the PResident's Men. Initially, the three of them were going to write it. But then Carl felt it wasn't necessary to have Sussman too. I found a lot about this in the archives of author David Halberstam, who wrote The Powers that Be. Halberstam let me look at his interviews done in the 1970s with the POST mainstays involved in Watergate. So the rift occured by 1973. Sussman told me he never read the book.
Another fallout in relationships occured because of the movie and Pakula's making editors into composites and not accurately representing what happend. Ben Bradlee/Jason Robards became the hero of APM. Robards even won an Oscar for his performance. In reality, it was managing editor Howard Simons who was the hero in the Post newsroom. He was more involved with the story initially and backed it from the start. Bradlee didn't get involved until later in the came. Now that's a simplistic answer. Bradlee AND Katharine Graham played a key role in allowing and encouraging Woodward and Bernstein to stay on the story.
But after the movie, SImons and Bradlee's relationship changed. They had been so close that Simons and he had talked abou taking care of each other's kids if anything happened to one of them. But Simons did not like that Bradlee got all the credit. Bradlee told me they eventually reconnected before Simons died.
these are small things but they show the greater impact of the Watergate story.
Bethesda, MD: Have you had any reaction from either Woodward or Bernstein to the book?
And what did you find the most surprising about the two men?
Alicia C. Shepard: No, haven't heard a peep from either man. I think they might be surprised at how much research I did, and what I dug up. the book isn't a love letter, but it is rich in detail about all that has happened to them. I was fascinated with the idea of hitting the top at age 30, and what do you do with the rest of your life. They clearly picked different paths.
But what surprised me about them is how they are very close friends. They had an awful rift when the Watergate story came to a close for them in 1976-- after the movie appeared in april 1976 and after The Final Days was published that same month. Carl left the Post in December 1976.
But they did go through an incredible, life-altering experience together and a year or so later, Carl reached out to Bob when Bob was getting divorced from his second wife. Interestingly, both men got married during the height of Watergate (Carl famously to Nora Ephron) and neither man's marriage could weather the intensity of those times.
Today, Carl is exceedingly loyal to Bob, always defending him in public any chance he gets. and Bob let Carl write an afterword to his book The Secret Man.
They are SO different, and never would have been friends, but then life intervened, and they are very close today. But they would never work together again on a story or a book.
New York, NY: We hear so little of Carl Bernstein anymore. How close are he and Woodward?
Alicia C. Shepard: I actually have a piece running this Sunday, Oct. 29 in the Newark Star Ledger perspecitve section on what happened to Carl Bernstein. He's in the news of late actually -- but it's because his name is mentioned in conjunction with Woodward's new book and Nora Ephron's new book.
Silver Spring, Md.: Do either men have children working in journalism?
Alicia C. Shepard: Yes they both do.
Jacob Bernstein is a reporter for Women's Wear Daily, and he covers the media and does quite well in NYC. I'd say he was succesful on his own.
Woodward's daughter, Tali, has been a reporter for a while at the SF Bay Area Guardian. I remember years ago doing a story for American Journalism Review on the SF Chronicle and interviewing the editor, and he brought in Tali Woodward -- wanting me to know that Woodward's daughter worked at the paper. But I've followed Tali's reporting and she is very good. No doubt, she checks in with her dad on a story-- but so would I if my dad were the most famous reporter in America.
Alabama: I really enjoyed the oral history article this book grew from, and look forward to reading the expanded edition.
Some historians have criticized the heroic role given to Woodward and Bernstein, noting (among other things) that the harsh sentences imposed by Judge Sirica on the Watergate burglars forced McCord to acknowledge that he had been paid hush money for the break-in. In your view, how much credit should they receive for the progress of Watergate?
Alicia C. Shepard: Ah, someone after my own heart. I try hard in the book to demythologize the legend that Woodward and Bernstein brought down a president. It's just NOT true. They would say it wasn't true.
There's a wonderful letter in the Texas archives from Kay Graham to Woodward and Bernstein, and she says, "We didn't bring him down.." But the American public loves the Davd and Goliath story. We like the little guy bringing down the president.
(BTW, the reason for this myth that Woodward and Bernstein brought down the prez is the influence of the book and movie, All the P's Men. One can't underestimate its impact. At the time the book was published in June 1974, 200,000 copies were printed. that's huge. and bookstores couldn't keep copies in the store. Having Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford portray you in a major Hollywood movie sinched their fame.)
But the fact is the courts, the congress even the FBI played key roles in Nixon's resignation.
The one unsung hero, as far as I'm concerned, is Alexander Butterfield. He was the former Nixon aide who was compelled to testify before the Senate Watergate Hearing and revealed to investigators on (i love this) Friday July 13, 1973, that Nixon had a secret taping system. If there had been no taping system, I maintain Nixon would not have resigned.
Philadelphia, PA: Is it true that Woodward still insists that he be the lowest paid person in the newsroom?
Alicia C. Shepard: Yes. He may be. but that is really irrelevant. He rarely goes into the newsroom, and if you check, he hasn't written many stories of late for the Post. His arrangement is quite unusual in American journalism. But it seems to work for both parties.
Petworth, D.C.: Alicia--Congratulations on the publication; your book is definitely on my Must Read list. I'm a big fan of Woodward and Bernstein's work. "The Final Days" is one of the best-written political books ever.
Do you think Woddward and Bernstein's reluctance to be interviewed for your book stems from all journalists' natural disinclination to subject themselves to the other side of the pen?
Alicia C. Shepard: I've spent the bulk of my career writing about the media. Yes, it's true, journalists do not like to be the subject of interviews. They are wary of other journalist; they know what can happen with a story.
I like to say that Woodward likes the attention and fame and money, but he doesn't like the spotlight. He actually doesn't think he's that interesting. it sounds so disingenuous, but that's how he sees himself. Woodward does interviews with all other journalists very reluctantly. in each case, he tries to talk the reporter out of doing the story.
Bernstein on the other hand, is much more outgoing and likes to go around the country giving speeches and seems to enjoy press attention. Once I finally got a commitment, he was delightful to talk to. He can be self-effacing and is able to look at himself with some critical distance now.
I did talk to both men and I include a lot from those interviews done in 2003 with each of them in my book. But as I said earlier, the first seven chapters deal with Watergate and what happened after, and I found the primary source material very valuable. Plus, I interviewed almost 200 people associated with both men.
Walnut Creek, Calif.: Alicia: I read the excerpt of chapter one online yesterday and ordered the book this morning. It reads like a fast paced mystery novel and I can't wait to get my copy. Thanks for a nostalgic look back at my younger days and the enthusiasm we all had.
Alicia C. Shepard: Are you my sister, Judy? Thanks so much. Yes, there is an excerpt on my Web site: http:/
I might also add, that on my Web site homepage is a request for stories. Where were you when Nixon resigned? I'd love people to tell me those. It's not quite like when Kennedy was killed, but for those of us 50 and above, it was an amazingly traumatic time.
Alexandria, Va.: Hello. Can't wait to read the book. How many people from the Watergate-era staff of the Post newsroom were you able to talk to for this project?
Alicia C. Shepard: About 20 from the Post or who had worked there.
Woodward and Bernstein: Most of us have the sense that the two essentially worked in obscurity for several months, ignored by other media outlets as they plugged away at Watergate. When did they first become publicly recognized for their work -- when they won the Pulitzer, when they published All the President's Men, or some other point? And what role did they play in creating their own mythology?
Alicia C. Shepard: Good question. They did work in obscurity for the first seven months or so. Other reporters from other outlets also worked on this story. Especially at the Los Angeles Times: Jack Nelson, Ron Ostrow, Bob Jackson. Interestingly, those three men were about a decade older than Bob and Carl and because of family commitments and wives could not work 24-7 the way Woodward and Bernstein did. It really did make a difference that bob and carl were newly single (one divorced, one separated) and didn't want much to do with women at the time. they loved this story.they inhaled it. They worked so much on this story that the Post had to send a news clerk out to buy Woodward soap.
But they didn't really get much credit until May 1973 when the Post --not Woodward and Bernstein (a common mistake i saw repeatedly in the press) -- won the Pulitzer Prize. But they truly became rock stars after the book All the P's Men came out in 1974.
Ironically, Playboy did an excerpt in May 1973 and that is where Deep Throat made his first debut.
One other thought: It was CBS that really galvanized the nation and got it paying attentoin to the Watergate story. and that was exactly 34 years ago TODAY.
On Oct. 27, 1972, at anchor Walter Cronkite's insistence CBS ran a piece on Watergate that was 14 minutes long -- the equivalent of two-thirds of a front page. The Post may have been writing stories, but they weren't getting a lot of attention outside of DC. THis was afterall, pre-Internet.
In my book, in chapter 3, I deal with how the rest of the press behaved during Watergate. Why the New York Times failed to engage in the story is a fascinating tale of serendipity.
Washington, DC: Three years ago I took one of your classes at AU and I really enjoyed it. I am looking forward to reading you new book.
Alicia C. Shepard: Thank you. send me an email and let me know how you like it. No quizzes, though.
Northern Virginia: Bob Woodward became famous through one of the most famous unnamed sources ever -- Deep Throat, and is still known for using unnamed sources in his books. I know this is much debated. What is your take?
Alicia C. Shepard: That's a great question. My take is that the use of anonymous sources is complicated. I think it is always best to get people on the record and make them accountable. When you use anonymous sources, those people are not accountable. We don't know who said it, or why they said it or whether they have an agenda.
But it's not always possible to get people on the record. Sources are critical for reporters to tell the stories that the government and others do not want the public to know. Those stories are important for informing the public and maintianing a viable democracy. So, no, i would never ban the use of anonymous sources. They should just be used judiciously.
As far as Woodward goes, he believes that people lie on the record and there's no value to getting someone on the record. In fact, he thinks, people will be more honest when there name isn't used. He may be right.
Woodward can do this. He's proved himself as a journalist. People trust what he writes. To me, he fits the definition of sui generis (look it up). But as a journalism professor, I would not hold him up as an example. I would not want young journalists to work the way he does.
Washington, D.C.: You're saying so many nice things about Woodward. I can't believe he wouldn't cooperate with you for the book.
Alicia C. Shepard: You interpret what I have written in this Q-and-A as "nice," about Woodward, I look at my book as my best attempt to get an accurate take on someone who has become like a fifth branch of government. My goal in doing this book was to write a fair, accurate and complex portrayal of what happened to Woodward and Bernstein because of their role in Watergate.
Life in the Shadow of Watergate is by no means a hagiography. Like any of us, Bob and Carl have strengths and weaknesses. If I just wrote about the strengths, I guess they would have approved an authorized biography. But I didn't. I wrote about their divorces, their personalities, and Woodward's role in the Janet Cooke scandal at the Washington Post and how he got too close to CIA director William Casey, who was able to steer Woodward away from the big scandal, Iran-Contra. Those stories are accurate, but may not be "nice," to quote you. Read the book then get back to me, pls. my e-mail is on my Web site
New York: Is investigative journalism threatened by the consolidation in the news media? Does it take a Sulzberger or Graham family to support aggressive reporting like this?
Alicia C. Shepard: Investigative journalism is expensive. One reporter can spend months on a story, and it may not pan out. Then the paper or TV station would have spent months and thousands of dollars (salary alone) and gotten nothing.
So, yes, in these times of media consolidation and endless budget cutbacks, investigative journalism is in great peril. It would be the easiest thing to cutback on in a newspaper and not have readers miss any expected coverage of say, sports, education, city hall, politics. So it's really to the credit of any news organization that keeps spending money on investigative journalism.
You may be right that family-owned papers like the Post and the NY Times are the only ones that can comfortably keep practicing investigative journalism.
Carl Bernstein finds the terms "investigative journalism" to be offensive. He said that "investigative reporting" is just plain old, good, solid, gumshoe reporting that you should do on any story.
Alicia C. Shepard: Thank you all for the many great questions. Sorry I couldn't get to all of them.
I hope you'll take a look at Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate and check out my website
Love to get your "Where were you when Nixon resigned" stories for my Web site.
Woodward and Bernstein are journalistic icons. They sold the contents of their desk at the Post from 1972 to 1976 to the University of Texas for $5 million. That tells you everything about their place in history. What other journalists could possibly do that? That's why I find their tale so worth telling.
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