Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein finished each other's sentences as if they were still young hungry reporters at the Washington Post chewing on the Watergate scandal. Now they are nearing 70.
This time around, as they spoke to a gathering of Washingtonians Monday, the urgency in their voices addressed more than just facts, ma'am, moving flowerpots, and daily deadlines on the president's men. Filing for history and memory now, they are speaking out more freely and fully than ever on how the vicious and vengeful President Richard M. Nixon richly deserved his downfall when he resigned in 1974.
Their stage was set in the Watergate building by the Washington Post for an elaborate "Watergate at 40" event Monday. Five men were arrested on the sixth floor for a break-in that broke open the truth of how a president used his vast powers to plot, lie, and spy all day long. Who knew Nixon even tapped the home telephone of White House staffer William Safire, a speechwriter who remained a loyal apologist (as an op-ed columnist for the New York Times) up until the day he died? Not I.
The June reunion of Woodward, Bernstein, and others in the cast of characters felt like the last waltz in many ways. (Nixonian courtiers Pat Buchanan and Henry Kissinger, who escaped the stain of conspiracy, we missed you so much.) For plainly in the next decade, some of the assembled voices shall be stilled. So it was a final live reckoning: recapturing the time when government at its worst clashed with journalism at its best.
The outcome was one of history's very close calls. Before we feel too great and sanguine about the system and right prevailing in the end, it's well to remember the White House tapes were Nixon's secret apparatus—with microphones placed in the Oval Office chandeliers, Woodward dryly noted. Without the incriminating tapes, which later turned the tide of public opinion, the legal case against Nixon's crimes and cover-ups would have gone nowhere. And the enemies list would have gone on and on. Seldom, even in Shakespeare, does a "a very good hater" of his own people become the top public man. (Another English poet, Samuel Johnson, spoke that useful phrase.)
Editor Ben Bradlee, the 90-year-old hero of the piece, spoke little and loomed largest at the scene of the crime—an ugly, concrete, modern building that stands as the symbolic Nixon memorial in the capital. The Watergate looks even more gawky next to the gleaming, white marble Kennedy Center, its neighbor on the Potomac River. (Much like 1960's presidential debates.) Bradlee's Boston Yankee bloodlines, Eastern establishment confidence, and friendship with John F. Kennedy were just the kind of the things that set Nixon off.
John Dean, another speaker at the scene, combs snow white hair now—once the fresh-faced former White House counsel who told the truth. So does the electrically fluent Carl Bernstein, whom Woodward generously described as "clearly the better writer." So do they all now, the men who gathered in a rare political frisson of history. The crest of memory, calling up the tears and outrage that went with Watergate, was rising like a river inside that room.
And it was all caught on tape for the ages. The Washington Post made sure of that.