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The Watergate Legacy, 35 Years Later

Alicia C. Shepard
Author, "Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate"
Tuesday, June 19, 2007 1:00 PM

Author Alicia C. Shepard was online Tuesday, June 19 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss her book, " Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate," which tells the story -- before and after the June 17, 1972 Watergate break-in -- of the unlikely journalistic duo who changed the face of journalism and the American presidency.

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.

Shepard teaches journalism at American University. She contributes to Washingtonian and People magazines, and has written for the New York Times, The Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune. For nearly a decade, she wrote for American Journalism Review on such things as ethics, the newspaper industry and how journalism works -- or doesn't.

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Fairfax, Va.: As you think back through all your research on this project, were you able to reach any conclusions as to the positive/negative effects the whole Watergate scandal and its coverage had on politics and journalism? Have we paid too much/too little attention to it through the years when measured against important times in our country's history?

Alicia C. Shepard: I've given a lot of thought to the impact of Watergate on journalism and politics. It clearly dramatically changed journalism. You'll have to decide if it's for the better.

Here are the ways I concluded Watergate made an impact:

1. The White House/press relationship forever was altered. It was much more gentlemanly and courtly in 1972. The press and the rest of the country actually believed what the president said. Even some hard-bitten investigative reporters could not believe that the criminal act of the break-in actually went all the way to the president. Today, it's a different story. The public in particular, and the press, tend to assume "Bush isn't telling the truth." That certainly grew out of Watergate.

2. After Watergate, Investigative Reporters & Editors was formed in 1975. There was a real rise in investigative reporting, and it became common for newsrooms to have an investigative team. Newsroom budget cuts have tended to hurt that trend.

3. Celebrity journalism came out of Watergate. In a way, Woodward & Bernstein were the first journalists to become the story. Certainly there were some well-known journalists before W&B, but in the W&B archives at University of Texas, there are about 3 feet of articles about the two men -- not by them, about them. And then, if you recall, People magazine debuted in 1975, so the cult of celebrity was beginning.

4. What I would say W&B did during Watergate that forever has changed journalism was their prolific use of anonymous sources. They, in effect, popularized the use of anonymous sources. It became cool to have people not on the record. I would say this is not a good thing, that today journalists should be more judicious about their use of anonymous sources.

Bob Woodward, on the other hand, would disagree with me strongly. He thinks more reporting should be done anonymously, that the only way you can really get information is to talk to people and promise not to use their names.

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Waterloo, Iowa: Given the current 24-hour news cycle, do you think there will ever be another "Woodstein?"

Alicia C. Shepard: One of the unique characteristics to the Watergate investigation was that Woodward and Bernstein and other reporters from other outlets worked slowly and methodically on the story. There was no cable, no Internet, no 24-hour news cycle. Woodward has joked that today, Ben Bradlee would have been in his office saying: What do you have for me today? How soon can we get it on the web?

The fact that W&B had time makes all the difference in the world. The fact that there were only three network channels and many newspapers created a smaller, more intense, more closely followed media universe.

Today, the media world is too big and people get their news and information from so many disparate sources, that I don't think there ever could be another Woodward & Bernstein.

Good stories break, they rise to the surface, they get some attention and then they fade into the background.

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Rome, N.Y.: Has there been any attempt to apply "CSI" techniques to the 18-minute gap in the tape? It would be of great historical interest to know what the White House tried so hard to conceal.

Alicia C. Shepard: You can bet there have been many, many attempts to use "CSI" techniques to find out what exactly was said during those 18 minutes, but no one has been successful. There are some questions that still are unresolved on Watergate -- and that we likely never will know. What was on that tape? Did Nixon order or know about the break-in? We do know he ordered a cover-up. I think it's safe to say that whatever was on there, it couldn't have saved his job!

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New York: Hi Alicia. I saw "All the President's Men" recently for the first time since it came out. One thing jumped out at me on this viewing: the moment in the film when, chillingly, Deep Throat informs Woodward "your lives are in danger." From that moment on (in the film, at least) Woodward-Bernstein assume that their conversations (and even Ben Bradlee's house) are bugged -- and the Watergate conspiracy takes on a perhaps lethal dimension. Was this just cinematic overstatement, or did it really happen? In danger from whom? In danger of what? Thanks for your time today!

Alicia C. Shepard: The element of danger was hyped for the movie, but Woodward has asked that people try to imagine what it was like for a neophyte reporter (he'd been at The Post for nine months when the break-in occurred) to go into the bowels of a dark parking garage in Arlington at 2 a.m. to meet his source, Deep Throat. There certainly was an element of fear that overshadowed The Post reporters -- fear mainly of some kind of retribution; fear of being wrong. The scene on the front lawn of Ben Bradlee's house apparently never really happened.

If you recall, burglar Howard Hunt's wife was killed in a plane crash during Watergate and her purse was found stuffed with cash (believe it was $10,000 but don't quote me on that). That certainly raised a lot of fears and conspiracy thoughts.

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West Coast: I'm sorry about feeling this way, but I don't buy into the Watergate coverage being important unto itself. After all, without Deep Throat, the two reporters were never going to uncover anything of major import. Why is Woodward especially such an icon, when there's little to back it up other than pseudo-gravitas? (An exploitative book on Belushi? A fiction-as-fact tale of noble war by Bush? Hiding for cover during Plamegate?) Am I being a bit cruel?

Alicia C. Shepard: Ouch -- someone doesn't like Bob Woodward. Regardless of what you think about Woodward, it was hard for me to ignore the phenomenon of Bob Woodward. He's virtually the fifth branch of government, or Woodward Inc. The fact is -- and again, you don't have to agree -- what Woodward does makes news.

With this last book, the New York Times got hold of an early copy, and wrote a front-page story about it. And Woodward is still connected to The Post. Simon & Schuster printed 900,000 copies of "State of Denial" -- that's Steven King territory, almost unprecedented for a nonfiction book.

As for the Watergate coverage by The Post being all that, read the piece I wrote last weekend on the Myth of Woodward and Bernstein. I think they get too much credit. I don't think they would disagree.

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New York: What made you decide to become a writer?

Alicia C. Shepard: I love writing. It's always a challenge -- even doing this discussion. Every time I sit down to write something, I am overcome with a fear that I can't do it. I face an empty page and panic. And I've been doing this for 25 years.

But in the end, I love it and I keep doing it. I love doing the reporting, talking to people, getting information, putting facts together,making sense of it all.

I like sharing information and explaining things. I recently wrote a piece for Washingtonian magazine in April on the five boys who robbed a Smoothie King in Bethesda. I really wanted to get beyond the facts to try to figure out the why.

I was born to be a journalist; I'm the nosiest person I know. Anyone who knows me would not disagree. I feel very lucky to have found a profession that I continue to feel passionately about. So that's why I became a writer. I'm sure I'll do it for the rest of my life.

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Warwick, R.I.: Did anybody die as a result of the Watergate break-in? Did anybody die in Teddy Kennedy's car?

Alicia C. Shepard: Ah, yeah, someone did die in Ted Kennedy's car. And no one died during Watergate. But does someone have to die to make a story historically important? The president of the United States was a criminal. That's a big story.

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Alexandria, Va.: It is so hard to believe it's been 35 years -- Watergate was the first major public issue of my adult life -- the first presidential election I voted in was 1972 (and I didn't vote for Nixon). Anyway, it seems like the public already has forgotten the lessons of both Vietnam and Watergate in allowing the current president to get away with what he's done. Given the massive media coverage -- which most of generation (fiftysomethings) were exposed to -- why do you think that is? Were they really not paying attention?

Alicia C. Shepard: One of the things to remember about Watergate was that we had a Republican president and a Democratic House and Senate. That allowed for much more accountability. That's why the Senate Watergate hearings were held, and how we came to learn that Nixon had a secret taping system; without the tapes becoming public, I doubt Nixon would have resigned.

With the current Bush administration, there was a Republican trifecta -- and no Congress to hold him accountable. That's an important fact. Look at Clinton's impeachment trial. Do you think that would have occurred if the House and Senate had been Democratic? I don't.

Reporters can only do so much. They can shine a spotlight on issues, but Bush had everyone in his White House walking in lockstep. Carl & Bob will tell you during Watergate that some of their best sources were Republicans.

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Rochester, N.Y.: Was not a prominent reporter also killed in the crash of the airplane with Ms. Hunt?

Alicia C. Shepard: Don't know about that, sorry. Here's where Google comes in handy.

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Missoula, Mont.: Max Holland and William Grimes recently wrote a piece explaining that Deep Throat was far more important to the Watergate Investigation than Woodstein have admitted. Do you agree?

Alicia C. Shepard: I read that piece all the way through. It was very detailed and filled with the kind of minute details that only a Watergate geek like me could digest.

W&B -- and in particular their terrific Watergate editor Barry Sussman -- argue that Deep Throat was one of many sources, that no one source provided all the information. I tend to believe that. As far as how much or how little Deep Throat helped, it would only matter if he were their sole source.

To me the tragic thing is that we will never know why Mark Felt -- aka Deep Throat -- helped Woodward and Bernstein, and what his real motivations were. It's really sad to me that Woodward waited until it was too late to confront Felt, who is now 93 and for the past few years been unable to really remember much.

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Warwick, R.I.: Alicia, have you ever read, "It Didn't Start With Watergate"?

Alicia C. Shepard: Afraid I missed that book. And I thought I had read or heard of all the Watergate books.

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Takoma Park, Md.: Lisa, with reference to Waterloo's question: I lived in Washington and read The Washington Post regularly during the 1970's. It is my recollection that The Post was pretty much the only media outlet, print or broadcast, except perhaps for the New York Times, that covered the Watergate story at all. Do you have any information about that?

Alicia C. Shepard: I have a whole chapter in "Woodward & Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate" on the role of the rest of the media. Again, read my piece about the Myth of Woodward & Bernstein, about getting way too much credit, mentioned earlier. What was significant was that The Post published in Washington and was widely read by members of Congress and government officials and judges -- like Judge John J. Sirica who was the Watergate burglary judge. Nothing happens in a vacuum. While The Post was writing those stories, they were influencing or at least arousing curiosity no matter how many times the Nixon administration tried to downplay or attack The Post.

Broadcast coverage of Watergate was fairly minimal. Why? early on, when the best reporting was being done, there were few pictures. TV doesn't do complicated that well, and above all, Watergate was a complicated story -- not unlike the Scooter Libby story.

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New York: I can't think of a single Presidential scandal or news story since Watergate (or even before) that is so closely associated with individual journalists. Not Iran-Contra, not Plamegate (and not Monica Lewinsky) -- I must be overlooking others. Are Woodstein a one-off, or is this the effect of the 24-hour-news-cycle? Or some other effect?

Alicia C. Shepard: It's hard to mention that Mike Isikoff of Newsweek was the reporter most closely associated with breaking the Monica Lewinsky story. He initially owned that story.

It's my strong conjecture that if Woodward & Bernstein had just done the reporting on Watergate, they too would not be as closely associated with the story.

But they wrote a best-selling book, "All the President's Men," that got them tons of attention. You should read the piles of fan letters inside the Woodstein archives at the University of Texas that they got, largely after the book came out in 1974. They got so many letters The Post had to assign them an editorial assistant, and they were Metro reporters.

The book was one thing. But Robert Redford made a movie about them. He starred in it as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman played Carl. The reason W&B have so much fame is because of the movie. A lot more people saw that movie than read their books. Being played by Redford and Hoffman in 1976 was the equivalent of being played by Brad Pitt and George Clooney. "All the President's Men" is still a great movie. Watch it. It came out 31 years ago in April and it's still a great movie.

Luckily for me, Alan Pakula the director, took amazing notes. He did in-depth interviews with W&B and Ben Bradlee and Nora Ephron, who was Bernstein's girlfriend then and later became his wife, albeit briefly.

Pakula's notes provided great details that hnever ad been published. I was the first to look at his archives, thanks to a generous tip from Bob Kaiser of The Post. So I was able to incorporate a lot of Pakula's insights in the book.

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Confront Felt?: Is that how Woodward should have treated his source? I am surprised he never asked why the No. 2 man in the FBI was helping him dispose of the president.

Alicia C. Shepard: Me too. Sometimes life just gets away from us. I'm sure Woodward meant to ask; it's just too bad he waited so many decades. There's a lesson for all of us in that -- don't wait to ask the important questions.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I was a child during Watergate and the Vietnam war, but I remember believing that the journalists like Woodward and Bernstein who uncovered these events critically and in true investigative fashion were brave heroes themselves. I later studied journalism and was taught that the role of a journalist is to serve as a watchdog of government. Today, I agree with those who say that most news -- especially TV news -- is little more than infotainment, peddled by functionaries who are under strict instructions not to ruffle the feathers of corporate sponsors. Commitment to true investigative journalism seems all but dead. Is this just my bias talking, or is there some truth to it?

Alicia C. Shepard: The news industry is going through a major shift, but the bottom line is that most journalists -- I'd say 95 percent -- are motivated to find out the truth, have strong integrity and are not going cave in and do some story just to boost the profits of their corporate parents. Most would and do quit.

Lucky for us, there are dozens and dozens of media outlets and we can pick and choose where to go for the most reliable information. That's an amazing ability we have today.

I, for one, am hopeful about the news industry and am willing to be patient as the sands shift, because I think that most of the people who go into journalism do it because they love it, and care deeply about getting to the truth. Call me Pollyanna, but that's what I believe.

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Washington, D.C.: Does your book deal with the "Silent Coup" controversy? This is the book that has been more critical of The Post's Watergate narrative than any other. What do you think of how The Post and Woodward dealt with what this book says about them? And if you did not deal with this in your book, why not?

Alicia C. Shepard: My book, "Woodward & Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate" tells the story of the amazing journey Woodward & Bernstein experienced while they were reporting Watergate and what happened to them after it. Their lives really were defined by that event. The book is not a biography; it is a tale that ends with the revelation of Deep Throat.

Throughout their careers, people have attempted to discredit Bob and Carl --especially on the issue of whether there was a Deep Throat. I basically came to the conclusion -- and feel free to disagree -- that if Bob & Carl had made up information or were less than honest, that their whole careers would have been based on lies. And I just didn't believe that.

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Re: Did anyone die in Watergate?: Always a pleasure to see the Nixon defenders come out. Democrats loot the treasury and Republicans ignore the Constitution, but at least the Democrats go to jail like big boys.

Alicia C. Shepard: Are you suggesting that I'm a Nixon defender? I don't think so. Hard to do that.

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Washington, D.C.: I like Bob Woodward -- he can take a punch. I was a little bit disconcerted to learn that Deep Throat was the second-highest person in the FBI. The way Felt worked, Woodward would bring him everything that he had collected, and then Felt would help him sort through it. What about the stuff that Woodward uncovered that was damaging to the FBI but that Felt kicked aside? Did Woodward hand it off to another journalist, or was collusion with the FBI the price for bringing down Nixon? If the top Moscow newspaper was collaborating with the KGB to force Brezhnev from office and the Leningrad newspaper was following along, would we call it democracy or an insider's power-play?

Alicia C. Shepard: Did you know that Woodward was doing an online chat yesterday? You'd get a better answer asking him directly. He's very accessible.

My sense is that Felt was or had to be somewhat miffed at the FBI becausehe hadn't gotten the top job. (Though it was Nixon who didn't give him that job. But Felt might have encouraged Woodward if W&B dug up something on the FBI. Again, Felt wasn't their only source.

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Arlington, Va.: What did Woodward and Bernstein think of your book? I imagine that after having established such a legacy, combined with the natural skepticism of journalists, that they might have only seen the potential for tarnishing their legendary status. Any thoughts?

Alicia C. Shepard: Good question. I would love to know what they thought of my book about them.

I spent four years working on it off-and-on, and interviewed more than 175 people. I meticulously went through the 75 boxes of stuff they sold to the University of Texas for $5 million. I used Pakula's archives and those of the late David Halberstam. So I thoroughly researched their lives. I came to feel that I knew more about their past than they remembered.

The book is not a love letter to them, but is instead a thoroughly reported story of their incredible journey and the ups and downs in their personal lives, and the surprising fact -- as I noticed Bob mentioned yesterday -- that they have become close friends. There was a time toward the end of their partnership in 1976 when they could barely stand to be in the same room.

So, Bob? Carl?

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Pittsburgh: Among other passengers on the same plane crash (headed toward Midway Airport) as Dorothy Hunt were Chicago Rep. George Collins (whose wife Cardiss took over his seat for many terms) and a gifted young African American reporter for CBS News, Michelle Clark, who was a contemporary of Lesley Stahl's -- so who knows how successful she also might have become during a similarly long and distinguished career.

Alicia C. Shepard: Well, there's the answer to who else was on that plane -- thank you. But it never was established that there was some nefarious reason why that plane crashed, as I recall.

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Toledo, Ohio: I read your essay that asserts that Woodstein gets too much credit for cracking Watergate. Yes, the grand juries, courts, congressional leaders etc. played an important role. But is it not said that without Woodstein plastering all of that damning information on the front pages of The Washington Post on a daily basis, that the impetus would not have been there for others to start digging? As you rightly point out, the culture was very different in those days, and presidents were put up on pedestals. Would anyone have even dared to impanel a grand jury if it wasn't for Woodstein's work?

Alicia C. Shepard: Thanks for taking the time to read that piece. You have wandered into a lively debate among historians -- especially the legendary Stanley Kutler, who has written several Watergate books. He argues that the press played a minor role. The FBI, especially special agent Angelo Lano, say they were well on the case and didn't need any prodding from W&B.

But the fact is that the press did keep the issue alive and in front of government officials in Washington. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Some say Watergate was a perfect storm; Carl Bernstein says it proved the system works.

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Lyme, Conn.: What were some of the underlying motivations behind Richard Nixon, in your opinion? He struck me as a paranoid politician who felt that, as president, he was above the law because he truly believed his power gave him the privilege of being above the law. How do you read him?

Alicia C. Shepard: Nixon has to be one of the most fascinating people in history. Why he was so paranoid and so insecure and so unsure of his political capital is mind-blowing. Here he was playing dirty tricks to get information on his Democratic opponents when he was doing well in the polls and was going to be easily re-elected. You have to wonder how he did not know how good his chances for re-election were. After all, in November 1972, he won by a landslide. all states save for Massachusetts voted for him.

The lesson is how much better his life might have turned out if he had just come clean early on. The cover-up is always worse than the crime. That's what Nixon taught us, but we don't seem to have learned that well, have we?

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Humacao, P.R.: I have followed the Watergate story and the various books written about it over the years. The identification of Felt as Deep Throat certainly solved what had been a major mystery for the past thirty plus years. In your opinion, what pieces of the Watergate puzzle still remain to be, and are likely to be, discovered?

Alicia C. Shepard: I mentioned earlier that it is has not been proven whether Nixon ordered the break-in or even that he knew about it at the time. People speculate he did/he didn't, but we don't know. Same thing with what was on the tapes. No doubt the real Watergate-ophiles have more unanswered questions.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: I thought Mark Felt's motivation to talk to Woodward was a combination of disgust at what the Nixon White House had the FBI doing on behalf of its vendettas against supposed "enemies" of the administration, and the fact that Felt wasn't promoted to the head of the FBI after J. Edgar's Hoover death in 1972. Conjecture? Fact? Or a little of both?

Alicia C. Shepard: All of those are possible theories. The problem is that no one ever asked Mark Felt why when he was sentient enough to answer. So they remain conjectures.

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Vienna, Va.: I thought Mark Felt passed away, and that the agreement was that his identity not be revealed until after his death. Interestingly, it appears that the reason he chose to do it was being passed over for promotion by the FBI. If you see the movie "Breach" (and I don't advocate paying to see it) the implication is that Robert Hanssen did what he did after being passed over in favor of Louis Freeh.

Alicia C. Shepard: One of the conjectures is that Felt helped Woodward (Bernstein never spoke with him) because he was angry about being passed over.

Felt is still alive and lives in Northern California.

W&B had vowed to not reveal his name until he died. But Felt allowed his family to reveal that information on May 31, 2005 in the pages of Vanity Fair -- not The Washington Post. My final chapter is all about that fateful day and what it was like to give up a secret that W&B had held onto so tightly for three decades.

It's quite dramatic when you think of it. After creating the literary character Deep Throat in "All the President's Men," there was rarely a time ever when W&B spoke that they weren't asked to reveal the source's identity. Imagine being asked the same question over and over for 33 years? That day, May 31, 2005, was a really tough and emotional one for both Woodward and Bernstein.

Felt's family thought that Felt should get some of the credit and money that had come from Watergate. At the time of the revelation, Woodward had been talking to Felt's daughter Joan about doing something together.

Watergate is the gift that keeps on giving. A few months ago, I got a call from Tom Hanks' screenwriter who was working on a screen play about Felt/Throat.

I also got a call from the actress Diane Ladd, who is working on a movie about Martha Mitchell. Ladd believes that Mitchell is the real Deep Throat.

So you see, that 35 years later, this story refuses to die.

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Warwick, R.I.: To phrase this genteelly, were you an adult during the Watergate crisis?

Alicia C. Shepard: I was a sophomore in college. Would you call that an adult?

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West Orange, N.J.: Former White House counsel John Dean wrote a book entitled "Worse than Watergate," alleging that government abuses are worse today than under Nixon, also a "wartime president." If so, why is today's Washington Post -- and the veteran Woodward -- not publishing investigative exposes on par with those of 1972? For instance, why no follow-up on the authorship or source of the phony WMD hype? Is it simply that no one could have sufficient cover to function as today's "Deep Throat"?

Alicia C. Shepard: The difference between then and now is war. That adds a different, more urgent time element.

When the press was investigating Watergate there was no major decision looming -- like whether or not to send thousands of young men and women to war. The press/the courts/Congress had time to investigate the criminality involved in Watergate. The Watergate story spanned from the break-in on June 17, 1972 until Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974.

There is no doubt that the press could have done a better job reporting on the Bush's decision to go to war.

Again, had there been a Democratic House or Senate, there might have been hearings and a greater call for accountability. Had Bush and his top aides not so tightly controlled the White House, someone -- another Deep Throat -- might have come forward. But that didn't happen.

What you see happening in the past years of the Bush administration is that many top aides and military officials are coming forth and telling all to journalists -- hence you have books like State of Denial," and "Hubris" by Mike Isikoff, and David Corn's and Ron Suskind's and Frank Rich's books. And there are others.

I see it as those who should have talked sooner now coming forward to cover their posteriors for posterity.

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Alicia C. Shepard: This was fun. Want to encourage everyone to take a look at my Web site. My filmmaker son, Cutter,(www.figureonthewall.com) made a cool 30-sec video book promo that is a hoot.

One of the lessons from Woodward & Bernstein and the Watergate reporting is to keep digging, and not to get discouraged or give up when you hit dead ends. Sometimes we journalists admittedly forget that or lose sight of it; but we shouldn't.

I wrote the book, in many ways, to educate young journalists about the important tenets of journalism -- fairness, accuracy, truth-telling, never giving up -- and to tell one hell of a story.

Feel free to contact me at Alicia@woodwardandbernstein.net.

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