Ben Bradlee and Watergate

Excerpted from "The Washington 'Post' and Watergate: How two Davids slew Goliath" in CJR's July/August 1973 issue

Editor’s Note: While Watergate was still unfolding, CJR’s James McCartney explored The Washington Post’s effort to uncover the scandal, and what lessons could be learned from it, in our July/August 1973 issue.

By James McCartney

It was 11:55 a.m. on April 30, and Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee, fifty-one, executive editor of the Washington Post, chatted with a visitor, feet on desk, idly attempting to toss a plastic toy basketball through a hoop mounted on an office window 12 feet away. The inevitable subject of conversation: the Watergate. Howard Simons, the Post’s managing editor, slipped into the room to interrupt: “Nixon has accepted the resignations of Ehrlichman and Haldeman and Dean,” he said. “Kleindienst is out and Richardson is the new attorney general.”

For a split second, Ben Bradlee’s mouth dropped open with an expression of sheer delight. Then he put one cheek on the desk, eyes closed, and banged the desk repeatedly with his right fist. In a moment he recovered. “How do you like them apples?” he said to the grinning Simons. “Not a bad start.” Then, addressing the visitor: “The White Hats win.”

It was true. The White Hats had won. For ten months-often alone, and under the most severe and virulent attack an administration had ever launched against a newspaper-the Washington Post had pursued the Watergate story with relentless conviction. Following the watergate burglary, on June 17, 1972, the Post was the first to make a connection between the burglary and the White House; the first to show that Nixon campaign funds were involved; the first to describe “laundering” of campaign money in Mexico; the first to involve former Atty. Gen. John Mitchell; the first to involve former presidential appointments secretary Dwight Chapin; the first to explain that political espionage and sabotage were an intrinsic part of the Nixon campaign; the first to trace the Watergate affair to the very doors of the president’s Oval Office-to his White House chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman. It had unloaded these salvos over a period of months, beginning only three days after the burglary and reaching a climax in october, a few weeks before the election.

The White House had admitted nothing, denied all, lashed back-first with verbal attacks on the Post, then by calculated efforts to punish the Post by depriving its reporters of Administration sources; then to seek to humiliate the Post by public ridicule; then by a thinly veiled challenge to lucrative Post-owned TV licenses in Florida. The president to this time had jealously guarded the inner circle of his White House team.

But by April 30, the noose had grown too tight. The Washington Post stood vindicated. Bradlee couldn’t restrain himself. He strode into the Post’s vast fifth-floor newsroom and shouted across rows of desks to reporter Bob Woodward, who had played a major role in pursuing the story: “Not bad, Bob! Not half bad!” Howard Simons interjected a note of caution: “Don’t gloat,” he murmured, as Post staff members began to gather around. “We can’t afford to gloat.”

The Post did not gloat. But it might have been pardoned if it had done so. Rarely has a major American newspaper risked so much for so long with so little companionship in print from the rest of the media. “For months, we were out there alone on this story,” as Howard Simons has put it. “What scared me was that the normal herd instincts of Washington journalism didn’t seem to be operating. We used to ask ourselves, where are the AP, the UPI, the New York Times, Newsweek? It was months of loneliness.”

Looking back and considering the dimensions of the story the Post uncovered and exposed, it is logical to ask: Why had the vigil been so lonely at the Post? Where was the rest of the Washington press corps, by reputation and certainly by remuneration the cream of the nation’s journalist crop? Equally important, how did the Post do what others failed to do, and what lessons, if any, are to be learned from it?

To understand the story in context, one must see and ponder two worlds of Washington journalism, two schools of reporting, two approaches to the intricate problem of seeking to tell the public what is going on at the vortex of national power. First, there is the world of Ronald Ziegler, of the handout, the announcement, the statement, the official view; the journalistic approach that “news” is what Ziegler, a carefully trained announcer-a mouthpiece-says. Then there is the world of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, the two reporters who pursued the story and learned in a few months more about some aspects of the White House than Ziegler ever knew. Theirs was a world of painstaking searches for financial records; of knocking on doors in evenings and being told to go away; of lingering in FBI offices after the boss had gone home; of eating hamburgers in the suburbs while waiting for dinner parties to break up.

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