When journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward walked up to a glass case displaying some of their Watergate papers in the LBJ Library on Thursday afternoon, Bernstein exclaimed, “ancient history!”
Watergate might feel that way sometimes: June marks the 39th anniversary of the break-ins, and this year is the 35th since the release of All The President’s Men, the Academy Award-winning adaptation of Bernstein and Woodward’s book about covering the scandal. Back in 2007, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin acquired the duo’s papers, a collection that includes notes from source interviews, drafts of stories and books, memos, tape recordings, and other behind-the-scenes materials from their famous reporting effort. To commemorate the anniversary of the film, the LBJ Library and the Ransom Center brought two all-star panels to the library on Thursday to discuss both the film and the current state of journalism, tackling the question, “Could the media break a story like Watergate today?”
While Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate papers have been tucked inside boxes at the Ransom Center since 2007, the collection is not a static version of history, but a still-evolving one. As their sources pass away, Woodward and Bernstein send material relating to that source to the archives. At Thursday’s event, Bernstein was carrying six pages of notes from their conversations with Nixon Chief of Staff Alexander Haig, who died in February 2010. The notes document, among other insights, Haig confiding his fears of a presidential suicide after Watergate broke, and his early premonitions that Nixon would be leaving office prematurely. “Forty years later, there are mysteries still,” Woodward said. “The mystery of Nixon, of why did he do this? Watergate’s a lifelong story. It never goes away, and it never gets fully settled.”
Woodward and Bernstein—along with Pulitzer-winning Dana Priest, Monica-gate-breaking Peter Baker, and the Texas Tribune’s Mark Miller—also turned a critical eye to journalism today, discussing whether journalists could break a story like Watergate in the contemporary media climate. The consensus was that, yes, talented journalists and quality journalism still abound, but there are obstacles. “There’s less money in newspapers,” Woodward said, “people in government are much better at tuning up their message machine; there’s a question of whether or not you can protect confidential sources.” There’s also, of course, the question of the Internet. Describing his experience covering the Lewinsky scandal, Baker said, “Some of the things are the same. I remember door-stopping to try to talk to people. But once the story was out, it was everywhere. The challenge became… between competing and keeping our standards.”
For Bernstein, the biggest concern is the audience. “Many publications today could break this story and do it well, but I don’t know how it would be received,” he said. “Today, so many people are only interested in reinforcing some version of what they already believe. It’s a toxic environment. I think we’re in many ways a less serious country.”
Later, he added, “What happened in Watergate was that the American system worked. The press, the judiciary, did their jobs. Would that happen today? Would the Republican Party insist that its President step down? I don’t think so.”
Woodward and Bernstein have spent the last few decades talking and writing about Watergate, and it shows: the pair repeated a few stock anecdotes on both panels. But both men are also articulate, funny, captivating speakers, adept at taking the audience back to the summer of 1972 to relive the thrill and fear of unraveling the story behind the break-ins.
Bernstein described the moment when the gravity of their scoop sunk in for him:
“We would have coffee every morning and prepare our good-cop, bad-cop presentation for the editors,” Bernstein said. “And I’m putting a dime in the coffee machine, and all of a sudden I feel a chill down my entire spine and I turn to Woodward and say, ‘My God, this President is going to be impeached.’ And he says, ‘Oh my God, you’re right. But we can never use that word again because somebody will think we have an agenda.’”
Redford said he too became “obsessed” with the story, and started following it closely just two weeks after the break-in. Not long after, he read a profile on the two men “who were causing all of this trouble,” he said. “That’s the piece that got me as a storyteller. The WASP and the Jew, the non-writer and the writer, the conservative and the liberal—how were these two guys working together?”
While he was shooting The Way We Were, Redford began reaching out to Woodward and Bernstein, and after a few rejections, Woodward agreed to meet with him privately (“in a garage,” Redford joked). By this point, the movie star was hooked, and while he waited for Woodward and Bernstein to write the book, Watergate escalated, the hearings began, and Redford realized “I had basically stumbled into history.” But by the time the book was out and Redford could pitch it to the studios, they weren’t biting: The country, Hollywood honchos reasoned, wanted to move on. So Redford spun the movie the same way it had first interested him: as a detective story, a character study of the two guys behind the scenes. From there, he worked with Woodward and Bernstein—using the same notes and records that are now archived at the Ransom Center—to create the film.
“For me, it was always about their work,” Redford said. “What does it take to get underneath the obfuscation attempts and to some fundamental truths? It takes hard work. And that’s that all-American quality.”