On July 27, 1974, the House Judiciary Committee voted to adopt the first of three articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon, charging he had personally tried to obstruct justice in the Watergate case.
Nixon would resign in disgrace less than two weeks later.
As every history buff and journalism nerd knows, that very likely would not have happened without the dogged investigative reporting of a couple of young Washington Post reporters: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
There is no more famous double byline in the history of the American press.
So it was both fitting and slightly surreal — precisely 44 years later — to see Bernstein on cable news, talking about a story that had been published the previous day, one that also carried his name.
The tripled-bylined CNN story said that President Trump, according to his former lawyer Michael Cohen, knew about the infamous June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower between Russian representatives and Trump’s associates, including his son Donald Trump Jr.
If there is a single through-line from the doomed Nixon presidency to the troubled Trump presidency, it may be Carl Bernstein.
I caught up with Bernstein, an author and CNN analyst, Friday as he was bouncing between personal obligations and TV appearances, his phone exploding with calls and texts.
He described Trump as “sui generis” — one of a kind — not only in his “habitual aversion to telling the truth” and his “willingness to embrace authoritarian and racist notions,” but also in his “considerable brilliance in figuring out and tapping into something in the country” that was forming before his arrival as a candidate.
As for the Cohen news itself, Bernstein says the nub of it “goes to the question of intent to collude.”
But, as he said on CNN shortly after the story broke, there remain some big “ifs.”
Cohen, he noted, is “shopping for a get-out-of-jail card” through his cooperation with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Trump.
“If this information is true and accurate,” he said of Trump’s purported foreknowledge, and “if it can be nailed down” in testimony, it may be a very big deal, he said. (Trump and his son have consistently denied that the then-candidate knew about the meeting, which reportedly was convened to give the campaign dirt on Hillary Clinton.)
Earlier this month, Bernstein said on CNN that he had never seen anything like the political reaction to Trump’s kowtowing to Russian President Vladimir Putin at a news conference following their Helsinki meeting: “We’ve never had a moment in our history like this where serious people of both parties are questioning the loyalty of the president of the United States. Unprecedented.”
Unprecedented is a pretty good description of Bernstein’s longevity as a reporter on stories like this. (Woodward also has had a long, fruitful reporting career, with much of his emphasis in recent years on writing political books that often break news.)
“It’s glorious and poignant that this veteran investigative reporter, who will forever be identified with Watergate, is wading back into the fray,” said Tim O’Brien, the Trump biographer and executive editor of Bloomberg View.
But not surprising, O’Brien told me, recalling his encounter with Bernstein last summer after an appearance together on Anderson Cooper’s CNN show, “AC360.”
“Carl made a point of giving me his cellphone number and saying he wanted to get together for coffee soon because he needed to learn everything he could” about Trump and his finances.
Bernstein, said O’Brien, “is not a careerist — he’s a gigantic fire hose of boyish enthusiasm” and reportorial curiosity.
Not to mention pure longevity.
“It’s almost as if someone reporting on Watergate in the 1970s had also reported on the Teapot Dome scandal of the 1920s,” journalist and author James Fallows told me.
But making it even more eerie — his word — is the “thematic consonance” of the two situations: both dramas of presidential legitimacy, both asking, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”
“I can’t think of any parallel in our journalistic history,” Fallows said, though he mentioned that there are some reporters who manage to stay in the game, probably by dint of their inherent doggedness, including Walter Pincus, formerly of The Post, and the late David Halberstam of the New York Times.
How important will the latest Cohen story be in the overall arc of the Trump presidency? It’s too early to know.
But it could turn out to be a milestone. As Charles Pierce noted in Esquire on Friday, with a reference to a key White House lawyer of the Nixon era:
“This is the yes-or-no moment. If CNN is right, and if Cohen is telling the truth, then, in the immortal words of J. Fred Buzhardt, that’s the ballgame. Or ought to be.”
That Carl Bernstein, at 74, would once again be right in the middle of the high drama is utterly weird — and utterly perfect.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly quoted Tim O’Brien, executive editor of Bloomberg View. He described Carl Bernstein as a “fire hose of boyish enthusiasm,” not a “firehouse.”
For more by Margaret Sullivan, visit wapo.st/sullivan