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Watergate: The Biggest Story

By Ben Bradlee
The Washington Post
June 14, 1992

Red Square in the rain might seem an oddly inappropriate place to recall the basic incredibility of Watergate and to ponder its meaning.

But last week, 20 years after the great American political scandal, a couple dozen reporters and TV cameramen stood under St. Basil's colorful, many-onioned church, doing exactly that.

We were there because a cameo appearance by Richard M. Nixon had been announced -- to participate in the photo-op presentation of three truckloads of humanitarian aid to Russia and to "answer questions." The real reason we were there was not the humanitarian aid story, with its top-heavy symbolism. What was irresistible was the conjunction of Watergate's 20th anniversary and the chance to ask its long-lived protagonist even a single question, not that there was any real hope of a straight answer.

But the questions that have plagued us for a generation plague us still. How much did Nixon know and when did he know it? Did he really think that there were ends that justified those means? Did Nixon really think he could get away with it? Had he ever felt remorse? Is he sorry now and what is he sorry about?

We all waited for 90 minutes in the rain until some minion was dispatched to say something had "come up" to cause Nixon to change his schedule. The humanitarian aid remained in the trucks, unblessed by cameras and unblessed by Nixon. The questions remained unasked as well as unanswered.

With no new answers, we are left with our memories.

My overwhelming memory of those 26 months -- from the day the five burglars were caught with their rubber gloves on, with the crisp hundred-dollar bills in their pockets and White House phone numbers in their address books, to the president's embarrassingly public final torture -- is simply this.

No news story has ever grabbed and held Washington by the throat the way Watergate did. No news story in my experience ever dominated conversation, newspapers, radio and television broadcasts the way Watergate did. There were times when you could walk whole city blocks and ride taxis all around town and never miss a word of hearings or press conferences.

There were times when anyone with a friend at The Washington Post couldn't go home at night without calling for a "fill" on the next day's Watergate story. People literally couldn't wait for the radio and TV stations to read the next day's Post stories on the 11 o'clock news. Looking back, it's easy to forget that The Post published more than 300 Watergate stories. Each was a comparatively small bite of an apple whose size we were to recognize only later. During that first summer (1972), we felt lonely. Few of our colleagues outside The Post were with us, and in the great American tradition, many newspapers seemed to be trying to knock our stories down. We did everything but keep Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's heads in a pail of water until they produced more stories -- as they did week after week. But we waited in vain for other papers to pick up the story.

Only toward the end of October 1972, when Walter Cronkite devoted two consecutive broadcasts to Watergate, did many editors begin to take The Post's Watergate coverage seriously. I remember the day that Gordon Manning, then a big cheese at CBS News, now at NBC and a former colleague of mine at Newsweek, called up with the good news. Cronkite was going to make us famous, Manning said. He was going to pull our chestnuts out of the fire.

The price for this wonderful gift, Manning announced, was the documents. "We need all the documents," Manning said, "television is a visual medium." I told him we had no documents, we had never had any, it was all original reporting. He stressed what a favor he was doing for us. He recalled the length and quality of our friendship.

Finally Manning was persuaded and we were delighted that the visuals in Cronkite's great pair of broadcasts consisted almost entirely of montages of Washington Post front pages.

Still, it wasn't until well into the winter of 1973 that the rest of the American press not only joined the hunt for the truth but contributed solid, original reporting of their own. Even so, when the Pulitzer juries, those pillars of the American newspaper establishment, met in New York to choose the best stories of 1972, their disbelief in Watergate was awesome. We had entered our Watergate coverage in the public service category, the most prestigious of all -- what we called "Big Casino."

When the jury's verdict was revealed to the advisory board, on which I sat, the results staggered me. Five newspapers had been selected as finalists by the public service jury -- but not The Washington Post.

When I arrived at Pulitzer headquarters at Columbia University for the actual prize decisions, I was greeted by my fellow board members Newbold Noyes, editor of the Washington Star, and James (Scotty) Reston, the dean of Washington correspondents from the New York Times. They told me they had decided that The Post should be granted the public service award and they intended to overrule the jury.

That was great, I thought to myself, but it was only later that I learned the price. The advisory board overruled two of the three other prizes juries had recommended for Post reporters -- Haynes Johnson's for spot national reporting, and Robert Kaiser's and Dan Morgan's for foreign reporting -- and given them to others. (David Broder still got his prize for political commentary.) By this time, the press was united in pursuit of the story of a lifetime and the government was united in covering it up.

Woodward and Bernstein were refining their most important single contribution to American journalism -- persistence. They had no qualms about calling a source back and back and back. And, of course, their persistence paid off.

We pressured them to produce, but once they produced, we pressured them for documentation and for sourcing. We grew more cautious as the story unfolded -- in retrospect, often too cautious. I remember not believing -- and keeping out of the paper -- stories about the plumbers' efforts to discredit Teddy Kennedy. I remember specifically underestimating the importance of the tapes when I first heard that they actually existed.

We worked incredibly long hours -- especially Woodward, Bernstein, Howard Simons, Len Downie, Barry Sussman. We could almost feel public support growing despite occasional low moments. The first low moment I remember involved the days just before the 1972 election, when Sen. Bob Dole and Nixon campaign manager Clark MacGregor (and after the election, Republican National Committee Chairman George Bush) belittled The Post's effort, to put it mildly. None of us saw many Republican big shots socially. The ones I saw, like Henry Kissinger and Pete Peterson, were absolutely convinced we were ruining a great newspaper -- and said so openly.

The lowest moment came over our story about a $350,000 slush fund controlled by White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman from the White House. We had said that campaign official Hugh Sloan had testified about the fund to the federal grand jury investigating Watergate.

We watched the news a lot in those days to see how TV was playing our stories and we were all horrified one morning to see Dan Schorr of CBS shove a microphone into Sloan's face and to hear Sloan deny he had said any such thing to the grand jury.

We went to general quarters and told Woodward and Bernstein to find out what had gone wrong. What had gone wrong was that Sloan had told prosecutor Henry Petersen about the slush fund but Petersen had not questioned him on that subject before the grand jury. We wondered why. Later we learned that the slush fund had $700,000 in it, not $350,000.

There were a few days, though, when we were genuinely worried and we knew that our colleagues in the media were wondering whether the story was going to collapse. Sometimes we felt they were hoping, not wondering. Once the Senate hearings started, followed inevitably by the impeachment investigation in the House, we began to think that it would take the departure of President Nixon to unravel the case. For months I had worried that it would end up as a tie -- the press claiming one thing, the president claiming another and the public splitting along party lines.

By early August 1974 it began to look as though Nixon would leave one way or another. The Post had a strange source, revealed here for the first time, in Sen. Barry Goldwater. With Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott and House Minority Leader John Rhodes, Goldwater made a special visit to the White House to give Nixon the bad news: He did not have the votes to prevent impeachment.

When Goldwater called after that meeting, it was to warn me against writing something that would make Nixon feel that he was trapped. "He is trapped, but don't you bastards say it," is the way Goldwater put it.

Soon after that conversation, we had a staff meeting to warn against any public displays in connection with the resolution of the case. Anything that could be interpreted as gloating or rejoicing was worthy of a firing, if not a firing squad. We decided to give no interviews, to allow no TV cameras in the Post building and to make no statements.

And suddenly it was over. The most intense moment of all our lives. The president had resigned.

I left town almost immediately for an isolated log cabin in West Virginia to finish a book about John Kennedy. A month later I went on a long vacation that Katharine Graham, the publisher who had stood beside us all the way, had decided we all deserved. I chose Brazil -- the jungles of Brazil -- because I thought at least there would be no talk of Watergate.

When we landed in Manaus, two journalists speaking in heavy German accents met us at the bottom of the landing ramp. I heard the words "Haldeman" and "Ehrlichman" -- they were asking about something Haldeman had said to John Ehrlichman. "What did he mean?" they wanted to know. God knows.

Benjamin Bradlee is vice president at-large and former executive editor of The Washington Post.

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