Woodward and Bernstein Didn’t Act Alone

If not for their competitors, Nixon would probably have survived Watergate.

Carl Bernstein (left), 29, and Bob Woodward (right), 30, in the city room of the Washington Post office on May 7, 1973, shortly after it was announced that the Post had been awarded a Pulitzer Prize for its investigative reporting of the Watergate scandal. Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
Carl Bernstein (left), 29, and Bob Woodward (right), 30, in the city room of the Washington Post office on May 7, 1973, shortly after it was announced that the Post had been awarded a Pulitzer Prize for its investigative reporting of the Watergate scandal. Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

It’s easy looking back a half-century later to feel that the fall of Richard Nixon was inevitable, but the Watergate plotters almost got away with it. At a half-dozen moments after the June 17, 1972, burglary and attempted bugging of the Democratic Party headquarters, the investigations and follow-ons appeared all but over. Nixon won many of the early rounds of the coverup and went on to win reelection that same year in a landslide. It really did appear, in the White House’s famous words, to be just a “third-rate burglary.”

What eventually caused Watergate to turn from an odd political sideshow into an ultimately fatal, inescapable scandal was dogged investigative reporting — but there, again, the history we remember is not the history that actually happened. It wasn’t just the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who broke open the story but a half-dozen other reporters, all working far from the cozy corners of D.C. power — none of whom were immortalized onscreen by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. Woodward and Bernstein mattered, yes, but not in the way that the popular history recorded in the gauzy, laudatory movie All the President’s Men tells us. Under a slightly different set of circumstances, it’s not even clear that Woodward and Bernstein’s names would be synonymous with Nixon’s downfall. Without their competitors at other newspapers, Nixon would have almost surely survived.

The first Watergate leak from the man who would become the most famous source of all time, Deep Throat, a.k.a. FBI associate director W. Mark Felt, went not to the Post at all but to its crosstown rival, the Washington Daily News. On June 30, Felt, already frustrated by what he saw as stonewalling in the investigation by the bureau’s acting director, L. Patrick Gray III, handed the capital’s afternoon tabloid a scoop about the suspicious contents of E. Howard Hunt’s safe at the White House. It turned out to be the Daily News’ first and last Watergate scoop; it shut down publication in early July, a victim of the city’s 1970s newspaper wars. Whether, if it had continued publishing, the paper would have become Felt’s preferred source of leaks, rather than Post, will never be known.

Over the next few weeks, both Woodward and Bernstein, who had doggedly reported about the burglary in the first following days, both drifted away from the story. The Post had all but moved on by mid-July. Bernstein was sure that the break-in was bigger than anyone imagined, but the Post had a daily newspaper to run, and despite his protests, his editors assigned him back to his normal Virginia beat. Woodward took a July vacation home to Michigan, where his Republican father urged him to vote for Nixon in the fall.

Meanwhile, a steady drip of stories about the FBI’s stalled investigation emerged from Time magazine’s Sandy Smith, a gruff former organized-crime reporter who was well-sourced in law enforcement. Smith documented how even in those first days, the Justice Department leadership appeared to be stonewalling attempts by the FBI’s Washington Field Office to dig deeper into the burglary and its ties to Nixon’s campaign. Smith’s scoops resulted in a then-unknown explosive meeting between the field agents and acting director Gray, where he hauled them into his director’s suite on a Saturday morning to rail against the leaks.

It was only a late July scoop by the New York Times Walter Rugaber that jolted the capital back to attention. Rugaber had come to the D.C. bureau in 1969 after covering the civil rights movement in Georgia and Alabama and had been suspicious of the Watergate operation as soon as he heard Nixon’s campaign security director was involved. “From the moment [James] McCord was identified, I was confident it could not be anything but a Nixon operation,” he said later. Rugaber guessed that the key to the story would be found not in Washington but in the burglars’ hometown of Miami; he struck up an odd alliance with Richard Gerstein, the Democratic state’s attorney there, who was personally and professionally curious whether the Watergate plot had roots in his jurisdiction. The reporter’s hunch mixed with the subpoena power of a prosecutor made for a powerful combination. Gerstein gathered Cuban burglar Bernard Barker’s phone records, and Rugaber took to calling each in turn; he knew he’d struck pay dirt when one number was answered: “Committee for the Reelection of the President?” It appeared that the burglar had been calling G. Gordon Liddy at the reelection campaign regularly — even just hours before the DNC break-in.

Rugaber’s scoop on July 25 spurred the Washington Post to reassemble their Watergate team. Managing editor Howard Simons, annoyed, cornered city editor Barry Sussman with the Times in hand and demanded, “Why didn’t we have that?” And by the end of the day, Woodward and Bernstein were back on the beat until further notice. Though in its own way, the assignment of two young, inexperienced reporters amid a newsroom filled with respected veterans still indicated how little attention the Post expected to get out of the scandal.

Rugaber’s bosses, though, were distracted and failed to capitalize on his reporting; the New York Times was experiencing a leadership switch, its D.C. bureau was distracted internally, and it took months for the stately Gray Lady to decide to pay serious attention to Nixon’s unfurling scandal. They were hardly alone in overlooking the early phases. Across town, it’s not a coincidence that the aggressive reporting of Woodward and Bernstein came out of the Washington Post’s Metro desk, not its political one — the paper’s doggedness came because it treated the burglary first as a local crime story, not a White House story.

In fact, almost none of the first year’s revelations about Watergate came from “real” political reporters, who for the most part trusted Nixon’s denials and mingled at swanky Georgetown cocktail parties with administration figures like Henry Kissinger, who brushed off the whole tawdry episode. Amid the juggernaut of the president’s reelection campaign, it seemed hard to convince most political reporters in DC that the ill-fated bungling burglary could pose any real threat to Nixon.

Through the early fall, Woodward and Bernstein kept pushing the story forward — helped by Felt — but their impact was subtle, less revelatory in the moment than it seemed in hindsight. They excavated the money trail that the FBI and Gerstein had identified, making public how checks from Nixon’s donors had ended up directly in the hands of the burglars, and beginning to pierce the cover-up that had descended over the Committee to Re-elect the President in the hours after the June arrests. Their true power came less in their own scoops, which in many respects followed the FBI’s investigative trail, but instead in how their headlines nudged forward others to pick up the tantalizing clues emerging in the Post’s reporting, including the General Accounting Office and Representative Wright Patman’s banking committee. It was those investigations that filled the gap while the Justice Department’s leadership tried to bury the whole thing.

The story didn’t really explode into the public consciousness, though, until early October, when the Los Angeles Times’ investigative reporter Jack Nelson scored the first interview with burglary lookout Al Baldwin, a former FBI agent hired to work James McCord, the Nixon campaign security chief who had been arrested among the burglars at the DNC. Nelson had developed a strong voice speaking truth to power as he, too, covered the civil rights movement, including Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama; he had gone after J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI for bungling an investigation of the Ku Klux Klan in Meridian, Mississippi. (Hoover had retaliated with a smear campaign labeling Nelson a drunk, but as the reporter later quipped, “What they didn’t realize is that you can’t ruin a newspaperman by branding him a drunk.”)

After hints of an as-yet-unknown burglary participant came in an early September press conference by Democratic Party officials, Nelson’s colleague Ron Ostrow had managed to uncover the witness’s name and locate Baldwin in Connecticut. Nelson quickly ensconced himself nearby and began to court the one-time accomplice. Finally, over five hours and a sandwich dinner at the home of one of Baldwin’s lawyers, Baldwin disclosed the full story of the Watergate burglary to a reporter for the first time, taking Nelson step-by-step through how McCord had recruited him, his dealings with masterminds Liddy and Hunt, his time monitoring the wiretaps and his courier trips to the Nixon reelection campaign with eavesdropping logs, and the night of the break-in itself. As their meeting wound down, Baldwin approached Nelson with a special request: He had a girlfriend in Wisconsin who he wanted to impress — could Nelson refer to him as a “husky ex-Marine”? Nelson took stock of the pudgy former lieutenant and thought, What the heck, every story has its price. Baldwin’s tale ran both as a news story and as a full-page first-person narrative on the editorial page on October 5. It described Baldwin as a husky ex-Marine.

The story by Nelson and Ostrow revealed the first direct link between the burglars and the Nixon campaign and rocked Washington. Nelson’s scoop, wrote David Halberstam later, was “perhaps the most important Watergate story so far, because it was so tangible, it had an eyewitness, and it brought Watergate to the very door of the White House.” The Baldwin story helped convince Walter Cronkite to dedicate an extraordinary two-part segment to the scandal on his powerful CBS Evening News just before the election — one part ran a full 14 minutes in the 22-minute newscast. By the fall, both House and Senate leaders began to get interested in investigating the cover-up.

The next biggest turning point actually came from Seymour Hersh, a rising star reporter at the New York Times who had been imported to Washington from New York in early 1973 as the paper finally started to focus in earnest on the still-building scandal. Hersh, who had come to prominence with his stories on the My Lai massacre, reported just as the burglary trial was kicking off in January that the burglars were apparently being paid hush money, presumably by the president’s allies. The morning his story ran, Hersh was surprised to receive a telephone call from Woodward, thanking him for the big story on the hush money; the Post had been feeling out on a limb and the newly aggressive coverage from the New York Times had helped to provide cover and solidarity.

Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh in his office at the Washington bureau of The New York Times in 1975. Photo: The New York Times/Redux

Even as late as January 1973, it wasn’t clear that Watergate posed any real risk to the presidency; when the Washington Post ran a special 22-page section for Nixon’s inaugural, the word “Watergate” didn’t appear once in the entire coverage. Hersh’s reporting that winter helped spur the momentum on Capitol Hill for the Senate to create a special select committee, chaired by North Carolina senator Sam Ervin to investigate the matter, and was part of the series of events that led James McCord to write a letter to trial judge John Sirica that March that there was, indeed, a cover-up furnished by the White House.

As the spring unfolded, the scandal blossomed in the wake of the trial, McCord’s letter, and the “must-see TV” hearings of Ervin’s Watergate committee over the summer of 1973, where the former White House counsel John Dean captivated the nation with his tales of presidential abuses and Oval Office aide Alexander Butterfield revealed for the first time the presence of a White House taping system. By this time, Woodward and Bernstein largely disappeared from the story to hunker down and write their memoir that would turn into the blockbuster book All the President’s Men. In the end, none of the Post’s exclusives through the summer and fall of 1972 would be part of the narrative told by a House committee in 1974 as it drew up its three articles of impeachment for obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress.

Barely two years later, Woodward and Bernstein’s legacy of aggressive investigative reporting was mythologized in the movie that grew out of their book. The movie also rewrote history in ways big and small: It put Deep Throat at the center of a story in which he was actually mostly a bit player and sidelined from the narrative two of the paper’s main internal Watergate champions: managing editor Howard Simons and city editor Barry Sussman. Simons, who Woodward would later recall as the “day-to-day agitator” on the story, was remade into a weak-willed supporting character buoyed along by Post editor Ben Bradlee’s enthusiasm for the story, which won Jason Robards an Academy Award for Best Actor. (Bradlee, in his own memoir, wrote that his relationship with the managing editor was “never the same” after the movie.) Sussman, who had edited and overseen the paper’s trove of stories, was written out of the movie entirely and ultimately wrote his own (very good) history of the scandal, The Great Cover-Up. “I don’t have anything good to say about either one of them,” he said to journalism historian Alicia Shepherd decades later when she was writing a biography of the duo forever short-handed as “Woodstein.”

By the end of the scandal in August 1974, the reporters on the beat — Woodward, Bernstein, Smith, Nelson, Rugaber, Hersh, and others — collectively ushered in a new style of journalism and posture for reporters. “This was a turning point in the relationship between the White House and the press,” Shepherd wrote. “Never again would White House reporters be so trusting or respectful of a press secretary pushing the administration’s agenda.” The journalist Teddy White wrote in his 1975 history of the era, Breach of Faith, that it was this change that ultimately might be Richard Nixon’s biggest legacy in Washington: “If Nixon has bequeathed to his presidential successors a permanently hostile news system, he has cursed them all.”

Adapted from the forthcoming Watergate: A New History (Avid Reader Press).

Woodward and Bernstein Didn’t Act Alone