Special Program: A Conversation with Bob Woodward on the 40th Anniversary of Watergate

June 13, 2012
Location: Walter and Leonore Annenberg Theater

Guest: Bob Woodward

By Sharon Shahid, online managing editor

WASHINGTON — The legacy of Watergate, according to author and Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward, was the unanimous cooperation and determination of Republican legislators to end the corruption of President Richard Nixon's administration — something partisan politics in 2012 make unimaginable.

"It wasn't the Democrats or the press that brought Nixon down. It was the Republicans," Woodward said.

The award-winning reporter singled out Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater as the leader who met with Nixon at the White House and frankly and honestly told the president he had only four votes of support in the Senate.

"Where would you find the public figure today who would turn on the leader of his party? The idea that we've lost something is exactly right. The great mistake is through hyper-partisan alliances," he said.

Woodward was the featured guest in a revealing special program at the Newseum June 13 commemorating the 40th anniversary of the break-in at the Democratic National Committee's headquarters at the Watergate hotel and office complex in 1972. (The door from the hotel is on display in the News Corporation News History Gallery.) The scandal pitted the Post and ultimately Congress and the courts against Nixon, forcing him to become the first president in U.S. history to resign. In 1973, the Post was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for public service for its dogged coverage.

During the 90-minute conversation before a sold-out audience, Woodward talked about his start in journalism, the anonymous sources that supplied information, his life after Watergate and the state of journalism today.

Woodward credited his interest in journalism to his job in high school as a janitor in the office of his father's Illinois law firm. Woodward said he would look at papers on his father's desk and in the drawers. In the attic where disposed files were kept, Woodward learned that his father represented some of his classmates.

"I discovered that most people had secrets," he said.

Years later, that discovery worked to his advantage at the Post, which Woodward said liberated reporters and was led by executive editor Ben Bradlee, who lived by the rule that "lots of good stories are hidden," and owned by Katharine Graham, whose philosophy was "Never, don't tell me never."

Woodward called his relationship with Deep Throat, the anonymous source whose identity was revealed in 2005 as former FBI second in command W. Mark Felt, a "predatory friendship," in which Woodward often pressured Felt for help.

"Felt was not a volunteer," Woodward explained. "Sometimes he would help, sometimes, not. Felt was the first to explain that Watergate was a series of events, not just one event."

Woodward also revealed a surprising anonymous source: the late conservative publisher William F. Buckley, who was friends with E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA officer who was also a Watergate conspirator. Buckley told Woodward about the plan involving Hunt to assassinate the late syndicated columnist Jack Anderson.

Woodward said his only worry during his and Bernstein's coverage of Watergate was that he would be set up with an erroneous story. He called the tapes from Nixon's White House "the gifts that keep on giving," and said the real legacy of Nixon — who Woodward called the "wrong man" for the presidency — was that the former president misunderstood what the office was about.

Woodward said the biggest revelation from the Nixon tapes was how angry and unhappy Nixon was at being president.

"He used the White House as an instrument of personal revenge. He never said what would be good for the country."

Woodward said the only time he got something terribly wrong was his long-held belief that Nixon's pardon by President Gerald Ford was "fishy." While writing the 1999 book "Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate," Woodward repeatedly pursued Ford for an answer to why he pardoned Nixon. Ford finally agreed to an interview.

"I chased him over a number of months," Woodward said. "He said, 'I did not pardon Nixon for Nixon or for me. I pardoned Nixon for the country. I needed my own presidency.'" Woodward said he realized it was a gutsy thing for Ford to do.

In answer to an audience member's question about how Watergate would be covered in today's social media world, Woodward joked that "we'd just go and Google 'Nixon's Secret Fund.'" He added that he doesn't think in-depth reporting is much different than in 1972.

"A lot of the good stuff is just not on the Internet. Interaction with a human being who was there is critical."

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40 Years Ago in News History: Break-in at the Watergate
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