With talk of impeachment echoing around Washington and John Dean popping up at Congressional hearings, Watergate seems more relevant than ever. Through a combination of accidents and dumb luck, I had a close-up view of one of the most important political events in 20th century America.
Life At The Washington Post Before Watergate
When I graduated from college, I snagged my first job as a copyboy for The Washington Post. Back in the good old days, copyboys were literally responsible for the delivery of the news to editors. They hung out in a central room filled with teletype machines.
Those machines spit out a constant flow of paper as the events of the world unfolded; they also had bells that sounded when important stories were coming through, just in case people were napping. The copyboys collected the stories, sorted them into folders, and delivered the material to the appropriate desk editor.
There were instructions on the wall on what to do if the president was shot, as well as how to prioritize catastrophes: plane crashes with more than 50 fatalities got their own folder and were delivered immediately, but lower body counts could wait.
I worked in the Style section, which covered books, music, theater, food and society. To the hard-core reporters who populated the main newsroom, we were a bunch of effete, useless misfits. Because of the nature of our beat, I spent less time hanging out in the teletype room—contrary to what the National and Metro guys thought, we had to seek out our own information rather than have it handed to us.
In addition to their other duties, copyboys also fetched coffee for reporters, picked up dry cleaning, made restaurant reservations, and generally did anything their superiors didn’t feel like doing. They were the pledges at the fraternity house.
The Last Age Of Innocence In Journalism
In many ways, this period in the history of journalism (the early 1970s) was an age of innocence similar to European life prior to World War I. The unions ran the shop. Computers were off in the distant future. Copy was delivered to the composing room via pneumatic tubes, and it was then handed to linotype operators who punched out the stories by hand; each page was locked into a frame reminiscent of the Gutenberg Bible. It was a reality barely recognizable today.
After about six months of copyboy servitude, I was promoted to editorial assistant. Rather than working on the next day’s paper, most of my day was devoted to researching the stories that would occur the day after that. Unless you’ve been in the news business, you don’t realize how little news there really is—about 90% of what happens is known 48 hours beforehand.
Barring the occasional assassination, earthquake or tsunami, the “news” is pretty predictable.
One day, along with a friend of mine, I had lunch with a Metro reporter. This guy was the black sheep of the newsroom: He had been a reporter for ten or twelve years and was still on the police beat, which is where most reporters start out. The fact that he was hanging out with two editorial assistants from the “women’s section” was proof that no one of any importance wanted to associate with him. He was unkempt and disorganized, but displayed flashes of intelligence and perception that would have surprised his colleagues. His name was Carl Bernstein.
Carl Bernstein: The Luckiest Man In The World
On the evening of June 17,1972, five men were arrested breaking into Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate building. Carl Bernstein was assigned to cover the story. As the police processed the burglars, they noticed that one of them—Howard Hunt—had notebooks with the contact numbers of people in the White House. According to legend, one of the cops tipped off Bernstein. If you saw All the President’s Men, you know the rest of the story.
As the trail developed, Bernstein was paired up with Bob Woodward, who had been a reporter less than a year. The two men were the quintessential Odd Couple. Woodward was everything his partner wasn’t: a company man, organized and prissy to the point of being anal. Somehow they made it work, and became famous for breaking the story of the century.
Initially, though, it didn’t look like a story at all. Woodstein (as they were called by Ben Bradlee, the Post’s Executive Editor) was way out on a limb, and if the limb were sawed off it would have taken the entire paper with it. The Post carried the story exclusively during the early months, which was a source of acute worry to everyone: If this story was the real deal, how come The New York Times wasn’t picking it up? Everyone did, eventually, but those early days were intense. The Nixon administration denied the story as a fairy tale, and the paper’s credibility was at stake.
Watergate: Does The End Justify The Means?
Needless to say, Woodstein wasn’t sharing any information with the Style section, but we weren’t immune from Watergate. Everyone was involved in Watergate coverage. Some of the best stuff we did was a series of profiles on the shadowy figures lurking behind the scandal—people like Herbert Kalmbach, Nixon’s personal attorney, who allegedly jetted back and forth between California and Washington with suitcases full of cash to pay off the burglars.
Woodward and Bernstein won Pulitzers. They became celebrities and multi-millionaires, and they gave birth to a new generation of aggressive investigative journalists. And their actions removed a dangerous psychopath from public office. But did they really have the story?
Today, I think what I always thought: They were taking a shot. All the indicators (and tantalizing fragments of truth) were there, so they rolled the dice and came up winners. They were lucky. According to rumors, Bernstein was about to be fired before Watergate. He probably would have surfaced at a regional paper in a minor market. Woodward likely would have covered an esoteric beat for several years (such as the Supreme Court) and ended up going to law school.
Good for them. But for someone in my situation, it was a disturbing and frustrating scenario. Absolute loyalty was demanded of everyone at the paper, with no hint about whether the emperor had any clothes. As the days wore on, I began to see that everything at the Post was like that. The angle of every story 48 hours out was determined by the editors, and reporters who saw it differently ended up on the Obit desk.
And so I decided to leave the newspaper business and become a real writer.
Loved the Watergate story.
Reminds me of the days when newspapers were king.
Former newspaper guy.
Thanks for your kind words. I know the good old days always seem better in retrospect, but it’s amazing to think about how much the technology of print has changed since then.