DC at Night

DC at Night

Friday, August 8, 2014

40 Years On, Carl Bernstein Talks Nixon, Watergate, Tapes

Welcome to this week's Friday Flashback. Each Friday in the Flashback we offer a post about some part of the past and its relationship to DC. Sometimes, we will write a new entry. Others times, we will showcase articles that previously appeared in The Prices Do DC or some other online publications. But no matter who does the writing, you can trust that you will learn something important from the Flashbac

Probably no two names are more associated with the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon than the Washington Post reporting team of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Carl Bernstein in a previous
appearance at the Newseum
That's why it was so fitting that last night,  Bernstein, the more colorful of the 2 master reporters whose Washington work helped lead to the toppling of a president and made them journalistic legends, appeared on a panel at the Newseum to discuss Nixon, his presidency, and Watergate.

The event was held exactly one day short of 40 years since Nixon became the only president to resign his office, a resignation that was in large part driven by damning revelations of behavior and character recorded on a series of secret tapes he made as a record of his presidency.

Bernstein was joined on the panel by historians Douglas Brinkley and Kurt Nichter, who have just released a co-written book The Nixon Tapes and former CBS journalist Marvin Kalb.

As shocking as the revelations that appeared almost daily in the Washington Post 4 decades ago were, the thoughts and actions of Nixon that have emerged in the tapes and other information revealed in the last 40 years is even more alarming, Bernstein told a sold-out Newseum crowd.

"What we know now is so much worse than what we knew when we were writing our stories," Bernstein said. "You have a criminal presidency. We have had presidents who have abused power, but this was something else."

"The last thing I want to do is get into Richard Nixon's head, but much of (what he said and did) comes from some dark place in Nixon's mind. Paranoia is what drove Watergate," he added. "(The behavior that led to) Watergate began in the 1st days of his presidency. Nixon saw himself as master strategist, but the darkness always intrudes."

Bernstein said that any understanding of Nixon and his actions has to take into consideration the contentious nature of both the man and the times of the late 1960s and early 1970s. "The whole country was in the kind of an upheaval we had never seen. This was a man about whom the country was passionately divided. He caused a visceral reaction among the people," Bernstein said. "He dominates our history as no other modern political figure does."

During a question-and--answer session, Bernstein was asked if he believed investigative reporting such as he and his partner Woodward conducted could still be done in today's contemporary media environment.

"I think there is a lot of great reporting going on in this country. But what we lack today is the strength of journalistic institutions," Bernstein said, giving great credit to the Washington Post for backing its reporters.

To support his contention, he cited an example of the strong support from the Post.

"I was called and told there was someone downstairs with a subpoena for our notes," Bernstein explained. "I said "don't let the guy up." And then I called (editor) Ben Bradlee and he said 'Don't let the guy up'.  And then he said, 'You get the hell out of the building'".

Publisher Katherine Graham was just as supportive and courageous, Bernstein said. "She said (that as publisher) these are her notes and if anyone is going to go to jail (for refusing to turn them over) it is going to be me,"

Bernstein said that with Watergate, he and Woodward were trying to report "the best obtainable version of the truth" and then that truth could be used to convince others.

But now the situation is much different. "Today, people are looking for reinforcement and ammunition for their beliefs. They're not looking for reporting; they're not looking for the truth. I think we have a cultural problem, not a reportorial problem," Bernstein said.

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