“June 17, 1972. Nine o’clock Saturday morning. Early for the telephone. Woodward fumbled for the receiver and snapped awake. The city editor of the Washington Post was on the line. Five men had been arrested earlier that morning in a burglary at Democratic headquarters, carrying photographic equipment and electronic gear. Could he come in?”
The greatest investigative journalism story of them all would end more than two years later with the resignation of the 37th President of the United States. But it started on that Saturday morning with a great deal of foot-dragging from a reporter hauled out of bed by a call from his newsdesk.
Bob Woodward was reluctant, bordering on grouchy. A reporter in his late 20s, he thought he had grown out of parochial news stories and was impatient to get his teeth into bigger investigations.
To make the situation worse, when he got to his desk at the Washington Post, Woodward discovered that a long-haired college dropout called Carl Bernstein, who sometimes wrote about rock music, was also making calls on the same story.
“Bernstein looked like one of those counterculture journalists that Woodward despised. Bernstein thought that Woodward’s rapid rise at the Post had less to do with ability than his Establishment credentials.”
They had never worked on a story together, but they were about to be conjoined; Woodward and Bernstein, the most famous joint byline in the history of journalism.
Reading the opening pages of a musty 1974 hardback edition of All the President’s Men is to be immersed instantly in the drama of the Nixon era. “All America knows about Watergate”, the blood-red type of the dust jacket declares. “Here, for the first time, is the story of how we know.”
And the reader is right there, inhaling the shoe leather and cigarettes of half a century ago, joining a pair of paranoid reporters as they fear for their jobs and their lives, trawl the car parks and courtrooms, hit the phones, miss crucial lines, get knocked back on doorsteps and fill four filing cabinets with notebooks and theories.
The scandal began with a 2.30am break-in at Watergate – a low-rise complex of apartments, offices and a hotel on the bank of the Potomac River, one mile west of the White House – five men, four of them Cuban-Americans, wearing suits and latex gloves, caught in the act of a burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. They were carrying walkie-talkies, bugging devices and hundreds of dollars in sequentially numbered bills.
A few hours later that Saturday, when Woodward went along to the first courtroom hearing, it became clear these burglars had an expensive lawyer, and that one of the defendants – James W. McCord Jr – told the judge he was a security consultant, recently retired from government service.
“Where in government?” asked the judge.
“CIA,” McCord whispered. The judge flinched slightly.
Holy shit, Woodward said half aloud. The CIA.
Woodward was reluctant no more. And as the weeks and months unfolded, he and Bernstein cultivated hundreds of sources who helped them piece together the details of a secret Republican fund that had used election campaign cash to run dirty tricks operations, including the bugging of the rival Democratic campaign.
A group of Nixon staffers who knew each other from college days were the hub of these political dark practices – using tactics like forged letters, smear campaigns and phone tapping against opponents. They called it ratfucking.
Less than a month out from the 1972 presidential election, Woodward and Bernstein broke a story on page one of the Post, headlined: “FBI finds Nixon aides sabotaged Democrats”. It revealed the full scale of the political espionage, but had zero impact on the election, which Nixon won in a landslide.
Truthfully, the reporters were getting somewhere, but they had really only scratched the surface. After the burglary, the attempt to cover up went right to the top, but Nixon’s part was hidden from view. For a time.
Modern readers may be hazy on the details, but most will know that the word Watergate still resonates because it has become the international yardstick for all scandals everywhere.
Fifty years on and every day on social media some fresh scandal is being billed as “bigger than Watergate”. A scandal simply isn’t a scandal until it gains a -gate. From donutgate to picklegate, elbowgate to nipplegate, almost no foodstuff or body part at the centre of a juicy story has been spared the earthquaking shudder of the suffix.
What makes the story of Watergate so memorable and worth retelling? Well, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman definitely help. The movie of All the President’s Men won four Oscars in 1977 and turned the high crimes and misdemeanours of President Nixon into a detective story.
By the time preppy Redford and scruffy Hoffman were jumping over newsroom desks on the big screen, everyone knew how the Watergate story ended with Nixon becoming the first president in history to resign. Among the 48 convicted were two attorney generals, campaign chiefs, numerous legal counsel and even the White House chief of staff.
But the movie was really a neurotic character study of a classic odd couple. Suspicious of each other at first and capable of fighting for ages over a single word in their copy, they kept going, found things out and stuck with it.
The detail of how they worked was where the storytelling magic lay: Woodward’s use of folksy spycraft involving a red flag in a plant pot on his balcony to fix up clandestine meetings in an underground car park with a source known by the nickname Deep Throat (named after a mainstream porn movie released that year); Bernstein desperately lingering over multiple coffee refills as he tried to keep a nervous government source talking.
At the same time, the movie gave newsrooms both real and imagined a rapid-fire lexicon more urgent than the clattering typewriter keys that set the movie’s tempo: “Follow the money”; “non-denial denials”; “Get out your notebook, there’s more”; and “Goddammit, when is somebody going to go on the record in this story?”
The reporters, who were given the portmanteau nickname Woodstein by their newsroom colleagues, rightly take the credit for a book that captures the drama of their own investigative scrambling, but Redford’s role should not be underestimated.
After filming the political movie The Candidate, he began taking a real-life interest in the two guys who always had their names on the Watergate story, and he actually approached Woodward before the idea of a book about the investigation had even been conceived.
He was drawn to the detail in a profile of the pair which revealed their mismatched backgrounds and contrasting styles. But when he first called up, Woodward cold-shouldered Redford, told him they were busy and hung up. He explained later that they had feared being set up, right at the moment when the White House was desperately trying to undermine their credibility.
Like their book, which came out months before Nixon resigned, the movie parts company with the reporters and their story while they are still a long way short of success.
And actually, that is as it should be. Because while it is delicious to think of two twentysomething reporters bringing down the most powerful man in the world, that is not the real Watergate story. Woodward and Bernstein got scoop after scoop, but judges, other journalists, ethics watchdogs, dismayed White House staff, and even elected members of Nixon’s own Republican Party played their essential parts in upholding the integrity of democracy.
At first, Nixon seemed to have ridden out the scandal, easily winning a second term in the White House at an election just five months after the Watergate break-in. Woodward and Bernstein’s book ends with Nixon ascendant, vowing never to resign and telling the nation during his January 1974 State of the Union address: “One year of Watergate is enough.” But his undoing came within months because of the genuinely bipartisan work of Congress and the judiciary.
A special Senate committee with powers to subpoena documents had been working since February 1973 to examine Watergate. Evidence heard in public and live on television and radio was seared into the minds of Americans.
And in July of 1973, more than a year after the break-in, the whole Watergate affair was transformed by a revelation that Nixon had been routinely recording every conversation and phone call in the Oval Office. Congress demanded the tapes, but Nixon refused. It fell to the Supreme Court, which voted by 8-0 in July 1974, to force him to hand over the recordings in a judgement. The bullish Nixon would be gone in a matter of days.
The crucial piece of evidence was a tape that became known as the “smoking gun”: a recording of a conversation with his chief of staff just six days after the Watergate break-in that revealed that Nixon had been part of the cover-up from an early stage. The president was heard on tape hatching a plot for the CIA to falsely put pressure on the FBI to drop its investigation.
Support within his own party drained away – Republican senators made clear to Nixon that he must resign or be found guilty at an impeachment trial and removed from office.
So on 8 August 1974, Nixon addressed the nation live from the Oval Office, failing to confess or apologise, admitting only that he could not carry on without the backing of his party in Congress. In reality, he jumped before he was pushed.
We look back to look forward. Nixon left office because reporters, judges, politicians and public servants did their jobs. Is US democracy similarly protected 50 years later?
The read-across from Nixon to Trump is multilayered, starting with their shared willingness to abuse the conventions and norms of public office. Both men claimed to put America first, but nothing was more important to them than preserving their own interests.
Nixon remains the only president to have resigned from office – concealing criminal conspiracy to the end. Donald Trump achieved an historic first of his own: becoming the only president to be impeached twice.
First, Trump was caught on tape withholding US aid to Ukraine unless it opened an investigation into his presidential rival Joe Biden’s son. This was Trump First, not America First. He was running a shadow foreign policy that openly put his personal political fortunes ahead of American interests and was urging a foreign power to interfere in a US election. Republicans in the Senate stayed loyal and he was found not guilty of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
The second impeachment came after he urged a mob to march on Capitol Hill on 6 January 2021. Trump was acquitted again on a charge of incitement of insurrection, after a Senate trial staged in the very same chamber that had been invaded days earlier by his supporters who acted upon his call to “fight like hell” to overturn the election.
Seven Republican senators broke ranks to find him guilty but it wasn’t enough to convict Trump and bar him from holding public office ever again.
The most immediate parallel to Watergate is the creation of a committee to investigate that violent insurrection, but the comparison is imperfect. In a 2021 interview, Carl Bernstein set out the differences: “In Watergate you had a situation where the Senate voted unanimously to create the Senate Watergate Committee to investigate, on a bipartisan basis, what had happened in our electoral system. We have the opposite happening now in the Republican Party,” he said.
Watergate scandalised Washington and politicians from across the aisles committed to a thorough inquiry, no matter the potential electoral consequences. Not so now. For a vanishing moment after the Capitol insurrection there were cross-party calls for a reckoning. Democrats and Republicans agreed there had to be a clinical appraisal of the events of that day and a firm refutation of claims that the election had been stolen. Kevin McCarthy, the top Republican in the House of Representatives, marked out his determination to investigate, but that resolve bent out of shape soon enough. The sheer force of Trump’s lies about the election and his warping of the historical record proved too powerful to resist.
So, instead of cross-party collaboration there was sabotage. Senate Republicans rejected a proposal for an independent investigative commission, modelled on the taskforce that was created after the 9/11 attacks. When Speaker Nancy Pelosi began composing a House committee to investigate the Capitol riot, McCarthy did all he could to thwart it, proposing candidates who were vocal backers of Trump’s stolen election conspiracies.
The committee went ahead without Republican support. Only two Republicans, Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, dared to join the committee’s efforts.
For months, the investigation’s progress seemed torpid. By the first anniversary of the Capitol attack there had only been a single hearing. But the committee and its staff had interviewed hundreds of witnesses, trawled through thousands of pages of documents and released 50 subpoenas.
The committee has been rigorous in gathering its evidence, but its progress has been continually hampered by the most important witnesses. Several of Trump’s inner circle have refused to co-operate and are facing contempt of Congress charges (here again, Watergate echoes down the years; the last successful convictions for contempt of Congress were in the aftermath of Watergate in 1974).
And just as Nixon claimed executive privilege to keep his Oval Office tape recordings secret, Trump has resisted handing over White House records of phone calls and visitors in the hours and days surrounding the Capitol insurrection. Nixon lost in the Supreme Court. Trump, who packed the bench with conservative justices, may hope to win there.
What can the committee hope to achieve in the face of a Republican closing of ranks around Trump? Like the Watergate committee before it, its job will be to tell the story of the events it has investigated with piercing clarity. The committee’s narrative will need to lay out in forensic detail what happened on 6 January – and what the president did to inspire and incite the riot.
And like Watergate, this scandal was recorded – this time in public. The world saw it unfold live. We saw Trump urge his supporters to march to the Capitol. We saw them breaking in. Footage from the Capitol’s Statuary Hall shows the moment the rioters breached the building’s defences. At first the room is empty, the statues standing sentinel while the roar of the crowds outside builds. Then rioters in balaclavas, MAGA hats and gas masks begin streaming into the marble hall toting flags: American, Trumpian, Confederate. A desecration of democracy by those who claimed to have come to its defence.
In his speech on the anniversary of 6 January, Joe Biden stood in that same marble hall and recounted what those statues bore witness to. He pointed to a sculpture of Clio, the ancient Greek muse of history, and recounted how history had “recorded what took place – the real history, the real facts, the real truth”. He urged Americans to hold in their minds a faithful picture of what had happened that day. “This is about making sure the past isn’t buried,” he said. “That’s the only way forward. That’s what great nations do. They don’t bury the truth.”
Washington Post journalists were at the forefront of uncovering the truth about Watergate 50 years ago, and journalists were again the ones documenting the facts of 6 January. We interviewed a number of the current generation of Post journalists about their far-reaching investigation into the insurrection: what happened before, during and after.
They saw their purpose as more urgent than ever, because the risk is that the validity of future elections will be challenged. “We don’t see this as just a one-time thing,” investigative reporter Aaron Davis says. “There are elements within the country – very strong and still powerful elements within the country – that will take power at all costs.
“And so how is that going to play out over the next couple of election cycles? Will the United States come back from the brink in a way after all of this? Or are we just at the beginning of a really disturbing period in the United States?”
Their investigation was meant to lay down a marker about what happened and be a foundational piece of evidence upon which to build the true story.
The Washington Post’s reporters are trying to overcome what the House committee may not be able to: the Republicans’ drive to suppress and distort history.
Philip Rucker, who won a Pulitzer Prize as White House bureau chief during Trump’s term, explained: “The vast majority of elected Republicans are really in thrall to former President Trump right now and afraid of crossing him and therefore afraid of a serious, sober fact-finding inquiry into what happened on 6 January.
“And our role as journalists is not to have any sort of a partisan bias. I mean that’s not what we’re here for. But we do have a bias for the truth and a bias for fact and reality.”
Nixon lost his party and the confidence of millions of his voters, but in the misinformation age, Trump and his enablers roll on.
Fifty years after Woodward and Bernstein, good investigative journalism still exists – some of it on a truly global scale. Think of the Paradise Papers investigation into tax havens that drew together newsrooms from around the world chasing the super-rich and their hidden fortunes.
But the way we all consume information has changed – stories ignite brightly and burn out fast. And in diminished newsrooms, expensive, long-range investigations are almost always the first thing to go.
Crucially, the way people behave in public life has also gone through half a century of change. In an era where political leaders cannot be shamed, and voters cannot be shocked, facts often count far less than opinions.
Some journalists are still doing their jobs, but for democracies to thrive, politicians, judges – and voters – have to show up too.
The Watergate complex was given a facelift a few years ago. Room 214 of the hotel, where two of Nixon’s henchmen checked in and orchestrated the break-in at the office block next door, has been christened the Scandal Room, decorated with a reel-to-reel tape recorder and plastered with 1970s front pages. Guests can stay for $2,500 a night and curl up in a plush “Cover Up” robe.
Nixon will never get a monument on the National Mall, but he has one on the Potomac. A crime scene, with fancy rooms.
What happened to Woodstein after Watergate? Carl Bernstein left the Post in 1977 for television, and as we have heard, still pops up occasionally to offer comment and contrast with his era.
Bob Woodward is still at it, turning out books that tell the presidential stories from the inside – daring the key players not to cooperate, knowing that all of their former colleagues will likely have given Woodward their version of what really happened. Trump, most recently, admitted to him he had deliberately played down the threat of coronavirus to the American public, even while he knew it was “deadly stuff”.
Woodward’s affiliation with the Post has been career-long, and he can claim credit for the portentous quote that lives under its masthead every day: “Democracy dies in darkness.” Not his words, but his guiding light. It was a phrase Woodward popularised after a similar remark by Judge Damon J. Keith, who wrote in a legal opinion on Bush-era secret court hearings: “Democracy dies behind closed doors.”
Woodward and Bernstein forced open the doors.
Photographs Ken Feil/The The Washington Post, Snap/Shutterstock, White House via CNP, Mostafa Bassim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images, Corbis via Getty Images
This piece appeared in Anniversary, a recent edition of the Tortoise Quarterly. If you were lucky enough to grab a Founding Membership back in the early days of Tortoise, you’ll receive your copy in glorious, old-fashioned print. If not, you can pick up a physical copy in our shop at a special member price.