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Opinion Donald Graham: Watergate resonated because The Post reported the truth

The Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate building in D.C. in June 1972. (Ken Feil/The Washington Post)
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Donald E. Graham was publisher of The Post from 1979 to 2000 and served as chairman and CEO of The Washington Post Co. until 2013.

I was with Katharine Graham, my mother and the publisher of The Washington Post, when managing editor Howard Simons called to tell her about the burglary at the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee.

We talked about it that morning, laughed about it and went on to other subjects. The idea that this incident would lead to the resignation of the president of the United States would have seemed crazy to her that day or any time in the next nine months.

Richard M. Nixon resigned because of many things, some far removed from The Post: A security guard who saw something suspicious and called the police. A judge who pushed hard to make the truth come out. A Senate committee that did its job. The tapes.

But two Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, played a crucial role. Their book and the movie, “All the President’s Men,” describe what happened well.

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Today, those on both the left and the right decry stories they don’t like as “fake news.” Had the phrase been around in 1972, Nixon’s folks would have gratefully used it.

But the stories — day after day, week after week — hit hard for a simple reason. They were true. They weren’t fake. They were news. A White House phone number was in the address book of a Watergate burglar? Really? The bills in their pocket came from a gift to the president’s reelection campaign? Yup. And on from there.

Woodward and Bernstein had sworn testimony in court and to a Senate committee to (eventually) back up what they wrote.

If most of their stories had been untrue or exaggerated, Watergate would be the story of the embarrassment of a newspaper, not of a president. But Bob and Carl, carefully edited by Ben Bradlee and many others, told as much of the truth as they could learn every day. They got it right. (When they erred on an important detail in one story, they immediately corrected it. It earned several pages in their book.)

From Post archives: Benjamin C. Bradlee: The biggest story -- and the most intense moment -- of our lives

There was one other hero at The Washington Post — Katharine Graham herself.

Alan Pakula’s great movie conveys a sense that there were grave threats to The Post. There were — but the threats were to her and the business she ran. (She does not appear in the film “All the President’s Men.”)

The most serious: The Washington Post Co. owned four television stations, and challenges to the licenses of two of them sprang up, backed by wealthy businessmen in Florida. Years later, White House tapes showed Nixon telling his aide Charles W. “Chuck” Colson to arrange those challenges. Had Nixon stayed in office, they would have been heard by a Federal Communications Commission chaired by the former head of the Republican National Committee. If the stations were taken away, The Post Co. would have lost about one-third of its value. Katharine Graham was the CEO — and owned a controlling share of the company.

My mother, never the world capital of self-confidence, stood up for her newsroom. Her faith in her editors and reporters turned out to be a central part of the Watergate story.