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40 years past Watergate: A legacy evolves -- and questions linger

June 11, 2012|By Matt Pearce
  • The Watergate complex in Washington, as seen on June 11, 2012. June 17, 2012, marks the 40th anniversary of the infamous Watergate break-in, which brought down the presidency of Richard M. Nixon. Nixon resigned in August 1974 for his administration's role in the 1972 burglary.
The Watergate complex in Washington, as seen on June 11, 2012. June 17, 2012,… (Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images )

Richard Nixon is long dead and his henchmen long finished with their prison terms, but Watergate’s legacy lives on.

On June 17, it will be 40 years since a team of burglars broke into Democratic Party headquarters located in the then-new Watergate building in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood in  Washington.

“Plumbers,” Nixon’s operatives were called. Their capture triggered an investigation that eventually brought down the administration and elevated the careers of two dogged Washington Post journalists named Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward; they followed the story through every corner of Washington and beyond.

Now, as the anniversary approaches, the two journalists have taken to the papers and the talk shows to reflect on a landmark moment in modern American history.

“The Watergate that we wrote about in the Washington Post from 1972 to 1974 is not Watergate as we know it today,” Woodward and Bernstein wrote in the Post on Friday. “It was only a glimpse into something far worse. By the time he was forced to resign, Nixon had turned his White House, to a remarkable extent, into a criminal enterprise.”

The break-in at Watergate was like a flash of lightning, illuminating the much broader network of lies and corruption surrounding it — sending 40 Nixon aides and associates to jail and the president tumbling out of office in disgrace.

Today, with the generous hindsight of history, Woodward and Bernstein said they see Nixon as having presided over concurrent, figurative wars against antiwar protesters, reporters, Democrats, justice,  even history itself.

“Even now, there are old Nixon hands and defenders who dismiss the importance of Watergate or claim that key questions remain unanswered,” the pair wrote in the Post — an acknowledgment that’s notable, if not a little ironic. They too have been presiding over a journalistic legacy that’s  ongoing, requiring constant nourishment and defense in the decades since their big scoop.

The pair’s tireless reporting, in which they chased down reluctant sources within the Republican Party, “followed the money” and met clandestinely with an FBI source known as “Deep Throat,” inspired a new mythology about investigative journalism.

Woodward and Bernstein’s book recounting the investigation, “All The President’s Men,” inspired countless muckraking imitators around the world. And, of course, it was adapted into a journalism-school cinematic staple starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford.

But with time, too, has come criticism, some from Nixon’s never-say-die agonists and some from within the same journalistic community that’s piled so many laurels on Woodward and Bernstein.

A recent, slightly breathless New York magazine feature by Jeff Himmelman dug up remarks by Woodward and Bernstein’s old editor, Ben Bradlee, who apparently told an interviewer in 1990: “You know I have a little problem with Deep Throat” — referring to Woodward and Bernstein’s legendary secret source, who told Woodward to leave a red flag in a potted plant on his balcony if he wanted to meet.

“Did that potted [plant] incident ever happen?” Bradlee was quoted as saying, adding: “And meeting in some garage. One meeting in the garage? Fifty meetings in the garage? I don’t know how many meetings in the garage. ... There’s a residual fear in my soul that that isn’t quite straight.”

Even the slightest doubt about the official story behind “All The President’s Men” set an array of political and journalistic machinery in motion. Former Nixon advisor Pat Buchanan quickly leaped to the attack in an op-ed titled “The Unraveling Myth of Watergate,” grousing that “we were deceived.”

Yet the most interesting revelations in the New York magazine piece might not have been the details about how Woodward and Bernstein apparently turned a grand-jury member into a source. Rather, they might be from a scene near the end of the story when the famed investigator, Woodward, asks the story’s author, Himmelman, not to run Bradlee’s quote doubting the “All The President’s Men” story.

“Bob told me it was his ‘strong recommendation’ that I not use the quotes, then that it was his ‘emphatic recommendation,’ ” Himmelman wrote. “Then, when that got no truck: ‘Don’t use the quotes, Jeff.’ ”

Himmelman ran the story -- and the quotes.

The reaction was perhaps not so devastating as Woodward might have feared.

“Say what you will about Woodward and his reportorial techniques — and many journalists and scholars have weighed in — All the President’s Men has withstood rigorous scrutiny over the past four decades,” wrote press critic Jack Shafer.

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