Famed journalists Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and Ben Bradlee received a hero’s welcome when they entered the ballroom for a historic session during the 2007 SPJ Convention & National Journalism Conference in
Journalists of all ages rushed the stage, nearly blinding the reporting legends with camera flashes. Even after the program, “Watergate: Thirty-five Years Later,” was under way, convention-goers kept sneaking up to the stage for a quick snapshot.
The two former Washington Post reporters lashed out at Congress for failing in its oversight role in the Bush administration. Bernstein said he doubted that a situation today similar to Watergate would have the same outcome if today’s Congress were involved.
“The difference with today is that the system did its job. The press did its job. The court did its job. The Senate committee did its job,” he said. “There’s been great reporting on this president. But there’s been no oversight. We have a Democratic Congress now, and there’s still no oversight.”
Joining Woodward, Bernstein and Bradlee for the discussion were Alicia Shepard, ombudsman for National Public Radio and the author of “Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate”; Daniel Schorr, senior news analyst for NPR; and Scott Armstrong, founder of the National Security Archive and an investigator on the Senate Watergate Committee.
CBS anchor Bob Schieffer moderated the discussion, which examined the aftermath of the Watergate investigation and resignation of President Richard Nixon.
After watching a documentary on the making of the iconic movie “All the President’s Men,” Bernstein said he and Woodward initially had no idea the magnitude of what they were uncovering.
“I think we both knew it was going to go somewhere … we talked to the wives of the burglars and found a connection to the CIA. But I really had no idea,” Bernstein said.
Schieffer said no one could have anticipated what Watergate would become.
“We thought this was odd, but it can’t amount to anything,” he recalled,
Nodding at Bradlee, well-known for being a demanding and feisty editor, Woodward said their investigation was aided by their employer.
“The Washington Post at that time was a terrific place to work because there was this terrific sense that you could go look anywhere (for stories) … even the White House,” Woodward said. “There was a sense of being on your own and a sense of discovery.”
However, that didn’t mean that Bradlee was a kind and fuzzy editor. He constantly pushed “Woodstein,” as he called them, to work harder, which made the stories better.
“He was a real hard-ass,” Woodward said. “He told us to go verify, go make sure and go get more sources.”
Schorr was a reporter for CBS News during Watergate, and panelists acknowledged the role the network played in bringing the story to the masses.
“CBS News turned the newspaper story into a TV story, a national story,” Schorr said.
Bernstein said they welcomed the competition.
“When CBS put it on the air, it meant we weren’t out there alone,” he said. “It had been a lonely place.”
Armstrong said he thought President Nixon was later able to repair some of his tarnished reputation in part because the government wrapped up the investigation before making public details of payments to Nixon from reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes.
“One lesson of Watergate is that cover-ups work,” Armstrong said. “The system worked well enough that a president resigned. But it did not work well enough that we knew what happened.”
Woodward shook his head in disagreement as Armstrong made that statement.
“If you go around the country, there are no Richard Nixon high schools,” Woodward said.
The panelists also enjoyed some lighter moments. When queried as to why the identity of “Deep Throat,” Mark Felt, was kept secret for so long, Bernstein said the reason was simple.
“None of us told our first wives,” he said as the audience laughed.
Woodward also discussed the pitch-perfect casting of Jason Robards as Bradlee. He said Robards balked at the role at first.
“They gave him the script, and he read it and said, ‘I can’t play Ben Bradlee. All he does all day is run around and say, ‘Where is the f—— story,’” Woodward said as Bradlee laughed.
But Robards came around and accepted the role, which later won him an Oscar.
“That’s what the executive editor does. That’s his f—— job,” Woodward said as convention-goers howled in laughter. “You have to figure out 15 ways to say, ‘Where is the f—— story.’”
The panel briefly took questions from the audience. Asked about Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of the Wall Street Journal, Bradlee said, “Look, Murdoch’s gonna make the Post a perfectly good paper.”
Woodward blanched and tapped him on the arm.
“The Journal, I mean,” Bradlee quickly corrected as the audience laughed.
Woodward, Bernstein, Bradlee and Shepard signed autographs after the session, and hundreds of attendees, many of whom were college students and recent graduates, packed the hallway for a few seconds with the authors.
Rebecca Neal, a reporter at The Indianapolis Star, covered the 2007 SPJ Convention & National Journalism Conference for Quill. She can be reached at (317) 444-2710.