Transcript

The Watergate Legacy, 35 Years Later

Bob Woodward
Bob Woodward (Win McNamee -- Getty Images)
Bob Woodward
Post Assistant Managing Editor; Pulitzer for Watergate coverage
Monday, June 18, 2007; 3:00 PM

Post Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward, one of paper's lead reporters on the Watergate scandal, was online Monday, June 18, at 3 p.m. ET to examine the legacy of the scandal 35 years after the initial break-in at the Washington hotel.

The Watergate Story: Read the original Woodward and Bernstein stories, listen to the White House tapes, watch video of President Richard Nixon and key witnesses, and explore in-depth the scandal that changed American politics.

The transcript follows.

Read Excerpts from "State of Denial," Woodward's most recent book. Woodward, a Post reporter since 1971, rose to prominence for his reporting on the Watergate scandal, for which The Post won the Pulitzer Prize. He has written or co-authored more than a dozen best-selling nonfiction books, including two others about the Bush administration: "Bush at War" (2002) and "Plan of Attack" (2004).

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Bob Woodward: It's been 35 years and there is a substantial record of what happened in Watergate, but I would be more than happy to try to answer specific questions or other questions that might relate to the significance of Nixon and Watergate.

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Rancho Mirage, Calif.: In light of Watergate, why did the "investigative" branch of the press miss so badly on the Bush-Cheney spin machine to justify Iraq? Was the lesson of Watergate wasted, or was the press serving the country well? Also would like your comments.

Bob Woodward: I think the press and I in particular should have been more aggressive in looking at the run-up to the Iraq war, and specifically the alleged intelligence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction stockpiles. To answer the WMD question before the March 2003 invasion would have been a monumental task, but one that we should have undertaken more systematically. I doubt if Saddam Hussein -- then the Iraqi leader -- would have allowed news reporters to scour the country to determine the existence or nonexistence of weapons of mass destruction.

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Peaks Island, Maine: What is the dominant theory as to what the burglars were seeking? Was it the case that, prior to their getting caught, the potential benefits were assessed as sufficiently large as to warrant incurring the risk of getting caught?

Bob Woodward: The evidence in testimony in all the Watergate investigations shows that the burglary was undertaken as part of a general fishing expedition to gather intelligence and dirt on the Democrats and their presidential candidates. There also is evidence that Nixon and his people were interested in any connection Lawrence O'Brien, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, might have had to billionaire Howard Hughes. Overall, the Watergate operation reflected the Nixonian desire to learn what the political opposition was up to, what they might have been saying on their telephones and what was in their files.

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Montreal, Canada: It seems there was damning evidence in this case from Day 1, and yet it took two years to indict the President. This shows the great power of the presidency to bulldoze through with its own agenda. This leads me to believe that such events happened often before Watergate, afterward, and are still occurring today. Would you agree with this assessment?

Bob Woodward: No. The evidence from Day 1 was in no way conclusive, and it took really years of work to establish all the connections, and in the end, the secret Nixon tape recordings provided the conclusive proof that Nixon had ordered the Watergate cover-up, and the elaborate efforts to obstruct justice.

The events where there is proof Nixon was involved did not occur until eight or nine months after the Watergate burglary, and the evidence did not go to the Congress until more than a year or two after the burglary. The suspicion about what may be going on or has gone on in the past is well-founded, but reporters need to stick to facts that can be established. That always takes time and quite frankly involves a lot of good luck.

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Alexandria, Va.: The "legacy" of Watergate, I presume, should have been more transparency in government, less trust of public officials and increased vigilance on the part of the public and the press. Given the revelations regarding the Bush administration and the seeming cooperation or complicity of the press post-9/11, do you ever feel that we (public, press, government, business) have learned nothing since? Given that you uncovered a Nixon regime that was corrupt to the core, would you support limiting the power of "executive privilege"?

Bob Woodward: Firstly, the Supreme Court in 1974 limited executive privilege, ruling that Nixon had to turn over his secret tape recordings to a grand jury investigating Watergate. Secondly, I think we've learned a lot from Watergate and from the handling of controversy and scandal in all the presidents' administrations since then. At the same time, as I said earlier, I wish everyone would be more aggressive -- the press and the Congress, and in developing a fuller system of accountability. Hopefully those in government also would see the value of transparency. Speaking openly and honestly gets issues out on the table, and as Nixon himself once said, "it's the cover-up that always matters."

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Cambridge, Mass.: How do you feel about the fact that the suffix "-gate" gets added to the name of every political scandal these days? To my mind, it diminishes the massive significance of Watergate (which many younger people hardly recall), while also exaggerating other scandals that are actually trivial. Your thoughts?

Bob Woodward: I agree, it's unfortunate that everything gets lumped together, but I think it was the New York Times columnist William Safire, a former Nixon speechwriter, who started using the suffix "-gate" for any scandal. It's a notion that's probably here to stay, but you're right, that doesn't mean everything with a "-gate" on it has the same significance.

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Effingham, Ill.: Did you, Carl Bernstein, Washington Post editors or publisher receive threats or pressure from the White House or conservatives to stop investigating and reporting on the White House's connection to Watergate burglary and cover-up? What advice do you have for media today to resist similar threats or pressure while investigating and reporting?

Bob Woodward: The most sinister pressure was the repeated denial of the information we were publishing. The second-most sinister was the Nixon White House and re-election campaign strategy of getting people to challenge the FCC television licenses that The Washington Post Company owned. That caused the stock of The Washington Post Company to drop significantly, and was a classic strong-arm tactic that I suspect we will not see again for many years or decades. Anyway, let's hope.

If anyone in the media is pressured or threatened, they should make it public -- again, transparency is the remedy.

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Wilmington, Del.: You seem to make your living creating relationships with sources. Does reporting on so many sensitive matters exact a personal toll? I can imagine, for example, a lot of folks in the Bush administration you became close to early on may not have liked "State of Denial." How do you cope -- personally and professionally -- when a relationship becomes strained in the line of duty, when telling an unpleasant truth about someone you trusted? I imagine it can feel painful sometimes.

Bob Woodward: That's an important question. You try to make it clear that you have a professional relationship with the people you're reporting on and the sources you use. Over time there are occasions when the relationships get too close, and you and the source or government official have to make a decision about your responsibilities. Sometimes that's difficult, and on a few occasions it's been painful. But the investigations and reporting have to go where facts lead, and there have been people I've known who've wound up in jail.

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New York: As far as federal government corruption is concerned, would you rate the Nixon or Bush administration more corrupt?

Bob Woodward: Happily, reporters don't have to give ratings. Clearly the Nixon administration -- as the record shows -- was corrupt, and President Nixon personally was involved in lots of criminal activity. The Bush problems that I think are most important involve the war in Iraq -- and though that certainly is the most important thing going on in the world, with lots of deceptions and half-truths and denial, I'm not sure how it will in the end be compared to Nixon historically.

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Philadelphia: My memory is fuzzy. Why was Richard Nixon so interested in Howard Hughes? Wasn't there a connection between Howard Hughes and a loan to Nixon's brother? Was it that Nixon feared the Democrats has information on this loan that led to Nixon's almost paranoia over needing to find out what the Democrats knew about him?

Bob Woodward: That is part of the answer. Indeed, there was an approximately $205,000 Hughes loan that was given to Nixon's brother, and this was revealed I believe in the 1960 presidential campaign. And as we reported during the Watergate era, Nixon was so worried about his brother's activities that Nixon ordered the Secret Service to tap his brother's telephone.

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El Paso, Texas: What are the "key unanswered questions" about Watergate? And where might be the information sources, yet unknown or unreviewed, that might answer these questions in the future? Thank you for your past and future work as a journalist.

Bob Woodward: One of the questions that still is out there is the "why." Exactly why did Nixon and his people undertake so many illegal activities, and what made them so indifferent to the law? Part of it has been answered -- Nixon, as he declared in one of his tapes, believed that "if the president does it, it's legal." Well, that of course is not true, but somehow he and others in the White House felt they had powers beyond the law to do what they felt was necessary.

There is also much to be learned about the psychology of Nixon. The next treasure trove of information may someday come from hundreds of daily diary dictations that Nixon made. He used some in his own memoir, and several came out in the Watergate investigations, but as I understand it, the Nixon family or estate have control of hundreds of other dictations that were done on DictaBelts. One of Nixon's lawyers told Carl Bernstein and I that he had listened to a number of these daily dictations, and they revealed the inner struggle and torment and loneliness that Nixon felt. Hopefully history will see this information someday.

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Los Angeles: Did your status in the District following your Watergate work become a factor in how you covered the outing of Valerie Plame? In particular, was it a factor in your reluctance to come forward when you had been told about her identity, and further, in your initial comments that you did not think this was a big story? More pointedly, have you become too much of a player, too much of an insider to do the type of work you did in the '70s?

Bob Woodward: First of all, there is an extensive record in the Scooter Libby trial about this. I was told that Joe Wilson's wife was a "weapons of mass destruction analyst" at the CIA. There was no "outing" of her to me, so anyone who has looked at the record will realize there's no story I could have or should have written. There's been much understandable confusion about this case. But the court record and the editor's comments from The Washington Post -- that if the editors had known what I had been told, we would not have been able to do anything differently -- make it clear. Some have attached significance to what I knew and didn't do, but it was gossip I was told about, and I passed it on to another reporter. And my testimony in the tape recording played in the Libby trial I think was the only evidence submitted by anyone -- other than from the grand jury -- that was tape-recorded, and that made it clear precisely what and when I was told about this matter.

The type of work I do is in the newspaper stories I've written and the 14 books I've done, and I've let that speak for itself.

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Shanghai, China: Good afternoon, Bob. I am reading MacMillan's "Nixon and Mao" and Dallek's "Nixon and Kissinger," and both paint pictures of a tortured president with unconventional character traits that had him living a life on the edge. Although his was one of the stronger foreign affairs administrations from the point of view of personal knowledge and interest, he is depicted as being lackadaisical on domestic matters. Did his focus on building his credibility on the global stage blind him to the sensitivities of what's right and wrong in the eyes of the normal American, or was it simply his pettiness that led him into the Watergate imbroglio? And if Kissinger could give him sage advice about governance, why didn't Nixon listen?

Bob Woodward: Nixon's troubles came from his view that he as a president was not accountable under the law. Nixon was a lawyer and had a substantial understanding of the history of our country, but somehow felt that it didn't apply to him. That's the nature of the tragedy. In addition, his tapes show in detail how he thought the presidency could be used as an instrument of personal revenge and personal reward. It's pretty surprising to listen to the tapes and see the smallness of the discussion about who to "screw" and who to reward. The dog that never barks on the Nixon tapes to my knowledge is that no one says what would be right or what would be good for the country. The focus is obsessively on Nixon himself.

The Nixon-Kissinger relationship is mighty complex, and Carl Bernstein and I wrote about it at length in our 1976 book "The Final Days." From the record even available today, I have found it difficult if not impossible to untangle that relationship.

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Central Missouri: How often do you talk with or see Bernstein? Were you ever good friends, and if you were, are you still?

Bob Woodward: I just talked to him an hour ago, and we talk all the time and see each other regularly. He was down here visiting my wife, Elsa, and I last week while on his book tour for his excellent Hillary Clinton biography "A Woman in Charge." Carl and I indeed are friends and always will be friends. We look at lots of things very differently, but through the decades have become much closer.

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Arlington, Va.: In light of your personal involvement in exposing the Watergate scandal, are you really able to assess its historical legacy with an appropriate degree of objectivity and distance?

Bob Woodward: Probably not. But I did about eight years ago write a book called "Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate." It is an attempt to deal with the impact of Watergate on the presidencies of Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton. There's a lot of new information in that book, and in the end, I think the value of history connects not necessarily with its objectivity but with the amount of new, credible, documented information that is presented. For what it's worth, I consider myself a journalist who often writes contemporary history books, but I certainly don't consider myself a historian.

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Albany, N.Y.: How difficult was it to report on the Watergate scandal as a beginning journalist?

Bob Woodward: Carl Bernstein had more than a dozen years as a reporter at the time, so he taught me a lot. The key to the Watergate reporting was the many layers of editors -- including the executive editor, Ben Bradlee -- who were the ultimate deciders on how and what should be published. In addition, we were most fortunate to have a publisher, Katharine Graham, who was willing to back the editors and the reporters.

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Eugene, Ore.: Do you think there is any effect on administration policy from published revelations? Have you detected any change in Bush's conduct in Iraq? For example, did the press have any role in the firing of Donald Rumsfeld and the shift of power from the DOD to the State Department?

Bob Woodward: Well, all kinds of stories and books have been written about the Iraq War so far. My book, "State of Denial: Bush at War Part III," was published in early October, and after the November elections Rumsfeld resigned. I truly don't know what connection there might have been if any, but I think the press reporting overall in 2005-2006 underscored the difficulties of the war and highlighted the rosy picture too often presented by the administration.

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Washington, D.C.: You and Carl Bernstein were so vigilant about protecting the identity of Deep Throat all those years. Do you feel that his family "sold you out" in the end by revealing his identify while he is still alive?

Bob Woodward: Not at all. Mark Felt's family and attorney had his consent, and in television and other interviews I felt he'd made it clear he's happy about the revelation of his previously secret role. At the same time, he's 93 or 94 now, and his memory is not good at all. When his identity first was revealed in 2005, I was worried that somebody might have taken advantage of him -- but when I saw him smiling for the cameras and absorbed the various things he and other family members said, I was convinced it was the right and proper thing to do. For us at The Washington Post it was important that we keep our word, which we did. I keep up with Mark Felt's daughter, who is his chief caregiver.

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Alexandria, Va.: I think it is well-documented that the JFK and LBJ administrations indulged in all the same behaviors that Nixon was driven from office for (JFK's taping of Oval Office conversations, LBJ's use of the IRS to intimidate political opponents, wiretapping and break-ins of the GOP headquarters and campaign during the 1964 campaign, the Bobby Baker influence-peddling scandal, etc.). Don't you think that the only difference is that during Watergate you had a Democratic Congress that was eager to investigate and bring down a Republican President, whereas during 1961 through 1968 you had a Democratic Congress that wasn't about to seriously investigate any scandal involving a White House of their own party?

Bob Woodward: Whatever the scandals and misbehavior in the John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administrations, the Nixon presidency stands alone. The tapes, documents, memoirs and testimony show that Nixon ran a criminal conspiracy from the Oval Office to obstruct justice during a period of months if not years. I was too young and did not cover the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, but I'm familiar with the history, and there is nothing I am aware of on the scale of the Nixon crimes and abuses. Some 40 people went to jail because of Watergate, many pleading guilty, the others being found guilty in courts of law.

As best I can tell,there is no comparison with any other administration. At the same, time you don't know what you don't know. And there may be information buried forever or soon to come out that will change my view, or that could change my view.

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Mississauga, Ontario, Canada: What's the biggest factual error in the movie "All The President's Men"?

Bob Woodward: The movie is an incredibly accurate portrait of what happened. To limit the number of characters, the city editor, Barry Sussman, was merged into another character. That is regrettable, and something Carl Bernstein and I should have fought, because Sussman played a critical role in guiding and directing our reporting.

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Tehran, Iran: Mr. Woodward, what do you think about the current administration's twists of the truth about Iraq and WMD and the al-Qaeda hype? In your opinion does this merit as much attention as the Watergate scandal, given that it took America into a nasty war, and even though overall moral values and standards of society cannot be measured as "pure" and "clean-handed" as back in 1970s? Thanks.

Bob Woodward: I think there is no way the news media, the Congress or anyone could spend too much time trying to explain and understand the Iraq war. That war is the most significant thing occurring in the world today in my view. There have been lots of misstatements, denials, misrepresentations and factual errors delivered by the administration, so there's much reporting to be done. But it all needs to be looked at fairly -- and at the same time, with relentless aggressiveness.

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Fairfax, Va.: Fred Thompson was on Watergate committee chaired by Sen. Sam Ervin and asked the crucial question about whether Nixon kept tape recordings. What did you think of him back then? What do you think of him now?

Bob Woodward: First of all, when Fred Thompson (who was the Republican counsel to the Senate Watergate committee) asked Alexander Butterfield the question about possible tape recordings in the White House or Oval Office, Thompson, like a good lawyer, knew the answer -- because three days before the public testimony, lawyers and investigators for the committee got Butterfield to reveal the existence of the secret tape-recording system. Though Thompson seems to get public credit for asking this critical question, it was the work of others on the committee staff who dug out Butterfield's revelation in a lengthy interview on a hot Friday afternoon on July 13, 1973.

I've known Fred Thompson for 35 years in his various roles -- he seems to be doing very well as an undeclared candidate, and of course the real test will come if he actually decides to run.

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Honolulu, Hawaii: If you'd had a chance to meet Nixon, what do you think you would have said to him, or him to you?

Bob Woodward: The question, as I said earlier, is to elaborate on the "why." Why do this, why was there such a dim awareness of the consequences of lawbreaking at the highest level. Why didn't you have one good, strong lawyer close to you who could have come in and slammed his fist down on your desk and say "you're president of the United States -- you need not do these things and you dare not do these things."

But I doubt if we could have had a fruitful discussion on these issues. Any president has a wall around him or her -- the current President Bush once told Dan Balz, another reporter for The Post, and myself that he lived in a bubble. That probably in itself is inevitable, but the bubble should not become a wall, and Nixon walled himself off, and in fact confided to aides that he didn't like to be around lots of people or meet new people. So it was odd he chose to be a politician. A president and his or her staff has to fight to break the bubble or break the wall and make sure that they're dealing with the larger reality -- and sometimes an unpleasant reality. Presidents, like all of us need the largest possible dose of reality, and Watergate was about avoiding reality.

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Bob Woodward: Because of the tapes, the numerous investigations -- which were conducted over long periods of time, and in-depth -- we know more about Nixon and Watergate than perhaps any event in presidential history, so there's a clarity to the record. When Nixon chose to resign in August of 1974, as he said he was "effectively impeaching himself." So the Nixon resignation brought closure, or at least a partial closure to the scandal.

Clarity and closure don't come very often. As the Bush administration goes through its final years and the Iraq war goes on and on and on, people are looking for clarity and closure. I'm not sure that we're going to get either in the coming months, or even years. So the comfort of basically knowing what happened and that it's over just may not be on the radar when it comes to the Iraq war. There is a lot of education and hand-wringing, and partisan and other crossfire -- but my sense is that the war will continue for some time and deny us either clarity or closure.

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