Legendary journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein came to New Jersey Performing Arts Center last week for an event to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their book, “All the President’s Men” — a book that not only detailed how the then-young duo of reporters brought down President Richard Nixon, but did so in a way that glamorized the profession, inspiring so many to join it.
The talk, however, wasn’t a history lesson.
The conversation, led by longtime journalist Jonathan Alter, certainly included numerous questions about a comparison of Nixon to President Donald Trump. But, perhaps more importantly, were these two:
- Could an investigation such as Watergate — one that took years to unfold — take place today?
- Would a modern-day journalist, in a short-staffed newsroom, have the opportunity to do the boot-strap journalism needed?
Bernstein said “Yes” to both, without hesitation.
“I think it definitely could be reported today and would be reportable today,” he said.
He said the current group of White House reporters has done the greatest reporting of “any presidency in my lifetime.”
The question, Bernstein said, is this: Would such reporting actually be wanted?
“We have a different country today,” he said. “We have people increasingly in this country who are looking for news and information for the purpose of reinforcing what they already believe.”
And thus began a 90-minute conversation about the past, present and future of this country and the journalism profession.
For those familiar with the book, the movie — or the actual time period — the conversations detailed some of the key moments, with some details that are not wildly known. A few:
- How Bernstein got the key interview with Judith Hoback Miller, the “bookkeeper” who proved to be a key source: He said it was a persistence and willingness to go to people’s homes, where they would be more willing to talk — but were just as capable of slamming a door, which happened often. “People respond when you’re looking for the best obtainable version of truth,” he said. “Not all of them. But, if you’re straightforward, and you’re a good listener, I think our experience shows this basic methodology (works).”
- Woodward on why Mark Felt (the then-deputy director at the FBI) became Deep Throat, perhaps the biggest source: Felt was bitter that he did not get the top job upon J. Edgar Hoover’s death, mainly because Nixon knew he wouldn’t be able to control him. “Part of Felt’s motive is personal — grave disappointed in not getting that directorship of the FBI, which he felt he was entitled to,” he said.
- What John Mitchell said when he was told he was going to be a subject of a story that said he controlled a slush fund for criminal activity: It was a misogynistic comment toward Katherine Graham, the publisher that both Woodward and Bernstein spoke the world of — saying her support meant the world. “A towering figure in Washington for 40 years,” Alter said.
- The simple but meaningful note Graham wrote to both of them after Nixon resigned: Woodward recalled it this way: “Dear Carl and Bob. You did some of the stories on Nixon and now he’s gone. Now, don’t start thinking too highly of yourself. And let me give you some advice: Beware of the demon of pomposity.”
This was journalism at its finest.
Woodward and Bernstein sparked a surge in journalism with their reporting of Watergate and Nixon that serves as the ultimate example of investigative reporting in this country. (The Boston Globe’s investigation into widespread child abuse by the Catholic clergy may be the only comparison.)
Woodward and Bernstein worry, however, if the basis of their reporting — to find the “best obtainable version of the truth,” they said — still exists today.
“The truth is not neutral,” Bernstein said. “We’ve been yoked by this idea in the press that our job is to give 50% of the story to one side and what they’re saying, 50% to the other.”
Bernstein said he disagrees with that reporting structure.
“The most important thing a reporter or news editor does in many regards is to decide, ‘What is news?’” he said. “We made a decision at the Washington Post that this was news — that what we were reporting was news.”
Getting it right is easier said than done, Woodward said.
Woodward said legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee described the Watergate stories this way.
“You go home and there’s a lump in your throat because you have good sources that you believe, but you can’t prove it — you don’t have audio, you don’t have video,” Woodward said he said. “So, you are necessarily swimming in a sea of doubt — and you need to know that and live by it.”
Bernstein said the journalists of today need to spend more time talking to people away from political leaders.
“It’s really helpful to know, what are the people in the country thinking?” he said. “What are they doing? How are they living? What is their relationship with the economy? What do they think of their mayor?
“We get very little of that. And that’s as valid a form of reporting as what Bob and I have done all these years.
“I think that we need to start to consolidate this idea that politics and journalism are not separate from the rest of American culture. We need to be reporting on what the people in this country are feeling. If we want to know about the phenomenon of Trumpism, we’re not going to find out just following Donald Trump around.”
The conversation was lighthearted at times, with a number of one-liners that had the audience roaring, including:
- Woodward, on what it was like to be portrayed by Robert Redford in the movie: “You have no idea how many women I disappointed during this period,” he said. “I could get a date with anyone on the telephone. They said, ‘I’d love to, here’s my address.’ And then I’d go to the door …”
- Bernstein, on J. Edger Hoover, the all-powerful head of the FBI until his death in 1972: “We’re going to need to explain to people who Hoover was. He was a not vacuum cleaner guy.”
- Bernstein, when Woodward talked of getting all the emails Rudy Giuliani sent: “He got the hair dye memos.”
- Woodward, on what it was like to have Trump repeatedly call his house, as he did throughout his administration: “Our phone would ring and we’d think, ‘Is this one of our daughters, is it a friend, is it a robocall or is it Donald Trump?’ And it would often be Donald Trump.”
- Bernstein, on what he thinks should be the proper punishment for Trump, should he be found guilty of some of the charges he faces: “Do you want it to be like in a James Bond movie?” he asked. He then said: “Anything that allows the country to move forward without him being the President of the United States.”
Which brings us to the Trump-Nixon comparison.
Bernstein was straight to the point.
“What happened in Watergate was a criminal President of the United States established this huge vast campaign of political espionage and sabotage to undermine the very basis of American democracy: The electoral system. Sound familiar?” he said.
Woodward made another comparison involving Trump — fresh from a tape of conversation between Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, on Dec. 14, 1972, or shortly after Nixon’s huge reelection victory.
“This is a moment of triumph and exuberance for Nixon — and this is what he’s recorded saying to Kissinger: ‘Remember, we’re going to be around and outlive our enemies. And, also, never forget the press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy. The professors are the enemy. The professors are the enemy. Write that on a blackboard 100 times and never forget it.’
“That’s Nixon speaking from the heart. That’s Donald Trump, also. Donald Trump could have said that 50 years later.”
Woodward and Bernstein said they wish the senators of today could do what the senators of the Nixon era did — showing him the door.
Bernstein, though, said Congress isn’t the only group that’s failing to see the light around Trump.
“We need to be reporting on the people in this country, because this is not happening in a vacuum in Washington — this is about half the country voting for Donald Trump,” he said. “Seventy percent of the people who identify themselves as Republicans still go along with what he says.”
Bernstein does not. He feels Trump is not fit to hold office. But, like the great reporter he is, he’s willing to be persuaded elsewise.
“Bring me the evidence of Trump and his fitness (for office),” he said. “I’d be the first to report it. Let’s see the evidence of it. It’s all about getting the evidence. That’s what reporting is. That’s what the best obtainable version of the truth is.”
Ten more quotes
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had a number of good thoughts during their event at New Jersey Performing Arts Center last week. Here are 10 more of them:
- Bernstein on pardoning of Richard Nixon by President Gerald Ford: I called Woodward and said, ‘Have you heard the news: The son of a bitch pardoned the son of a bitch.’ For a long time, both of us believed that this was a terrible thing, that no one is above the law and Nixon ought to be prosecuted — that there was more information to be learned and Nixon should have been real longstanding, et cetera, et cetera. And, eventually, I came and so did Bob, to believe that one of the great acts of political courage in the history of the United States was Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon. Ford was running against Jimmy Carter for the presidency of the United States, and he knew that, if he pardoned Nixon, there was a very good chance that he was going to lose the election over this issue. And yet, he issued it and said he needed his own presidency, that the country needed to move on from Watergate.
- Woodward on Nixon, post-resignation: He spent 20 years after he resigned until they die, trying to steer the story away from his responsibility … but the tapes put this entirely on him.
- Bernstein on hearings: There have been three great congressional investigations in my lifetime: The Army McCarthy hearings, the Senate Watergate Committee hearings and the Cheney-led Jan. 6 hearings.
- Woodward on writing “All the President’s Men”: It was Carl’s idea to write the book. We decided we’re going to work on that book; we wrote some chapters. But, while we did, it was unspooling so fast, we couldn’t keep up with it. And I said, ‘What we have to do is follow the first rule of journalism, write about what you know.’ And we know our own experience. Let’s write that this way.”
- Bernstein on the reaction he got after writing a story that said 21 Republican Senators did not agree with Trump: The next day, I got a call from a former Republican senator who had served very recently who said, ‘Carl, that number is really close to 40 Republican senators.’
- Bernstein on Trump’s supporters: We’ve had a cold civil war in this country for 30-35 years. Trump ignited it. No question about that.
- Woodward on Trump and democracy: He’s disconnected from the basic premise of democracy and why he doesn’t like democracy is because it’s about other people, and he only focuses on himself. Democracy is threatened under him.
- Woodward on election denial: I think Trump has bamboozled us. And he’s bamboozled us about this discussion of the 2020 election being stolen. People will write all the time, ‘It’s a lie, it’s a lie.’ There is zero evidence. We have kind of adopted in a strange and bizarre way that only a panel of psychiatrists will be able to describe, have gone and accepted: Let’s have a discussion about the 2020 election. It’s absurd. There is no evidence.
- Woodward on Trump handling the pandemic: He was so irresponsible in responding to the coronavirus. It took me months to find out, but he got a very specific warning from people who knew the most and he lied and covered it up.
- Bernstein on reporters having opinions: One of the things that’s happened in journalism, since Watergate, is that we finally opened up about who we are, as people who are journalists. We make judgments, hopefully based on repertory considerations, but we’re not some kind of robotic reporter dolls that have no feelings.