Breaking down the ‘holy shit’ reporting on Watergate

Keynotes Woodward and Bernstein speak on 50th anniversary of Watergate in D.C.


Getty Images– From left, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein worked on stories together for the Washington Post. They broke the Watergate scandal, which led to the Washington Post receiving the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1973.

Katie Pulvermacher, Managing/News Editor

“Let the silent suck out the truth” was Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s advice for current journalists facing a difficult investigative piece, whether or not it’s as groundbreaking as their Watergate scandal. 

The reporters, whose investigation of the presidency of Richard Nixon led to his resignation, were keynote speakers at MediaFest22 in Washington D.C. on Oct. 28.

“Separately and together Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward have been two of the nation’s premier journalists for half a century,” the Society of Professional Journalists National President Claire Regan said. “Few journalists have had the impact on history and the craft of journalism as these Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporters.”

Bernstein began working as a copy boy at the Washington Evening Star at 16 and eventually got a position at the Washington Post. 

At the time of the Watergate break-in, Woodward had been at the Washington Post less than nine months and had worked as a reporter for under two years. He recalls the start of his time writing on Watergate. 

“June 17, 1972 was one of the most beautiful days in Washington — ever,” Woodward said. “The editors sat around and said ‘Who would be dumb enough to come in and work today?’ and they immediately thought of me.” 

Bernstein said Watergate seemed like a more interesting story to cover than the political story he was currently working on.

“The next day was Sunday and two people came         in to work,” Bernstein said. “Carl and myself. We did the first story together. Carl and I kind of sat around and did that story and exchanged ‘holy shits.’”

The two said their first step was finding people who worked for Nixon and were willing to talk. They ended up knocking on many doors.

“The best sources are forthcoming and not forthcoming,” Woodward said. “There was a hesitancy, so we had to make it appear that we knew a lot more than we did, which happens a lot in reporting. You never know enough.”

Bernstein said an example of this was the assistant to the bookkeeper of the Nixon campaign. 

“It became clear early on that the bookkeeper was intimidated and scared to talk,” Bernstein said. “Yet, she wanted to. People want to tell the truth more often than not. This was one of those occasions where I wanted the source to keep talking. I kept asking for another cup of coffee. I was there for a long time.” 

Woodward said he also was faced with hesitant sources. While in the Navy, he ended up transporting top secret documents on a plane with Mark Felt.

Felt, known as the anonymous source “Deep Throat” during the reporting, was the No. 2 official at the FBI. He helped bring down Nixon by resisting the Watergate cover-up after agreeing to talk with Woodward. 

“[Felt] said we’ll meet in this underground garage and I was new [to reporting] and I thought ‘oh, well that’s typical,’” Woodward said. “He wanted to be protected and those were the terms of the engagement.”

The two said anonymous sources in today’s journalism are valid.

“We did more than 200 stories in the first year and a half,” Bernstein said. “There’s not a single named source. The people we were getting information from were people associated with Nixon in some sort and they were willing to talk with us only if we didn’t identify them.”

Woodward said their editors always had confidence in them in terms of sources, and then-Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham even sent the two a letter with advice all reporters should take note of.

He said the letter wrote: “Dear Carl and Bob. Don’t start thinking too highly of yourself and let me give you some advice. Beware the demon pomposity.” 

Woodward and Berstein studied Nixon and wrote about him for nearly half a century, thinking the United States would not have another president who would undermine democracy in pursuit of self-interest. But they were wrong, they said.

“[Donald Trump] was a seditious president,” Bernstein said. “Trump does not understand the presidency and this is the dimension that is so essential to his character. It’s all about him.”

Bernstein mentioned George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address, in which Washinton said: “Cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.” He said this statement embodies Trump and Nixon.

“This is the weak spot in our democracy,” Bernstein said. “Those unprincipled men put their political gain in front of the interest of the United States. He refused to leave office, coming up with a way to continue to hold office after losing the presidency.”

Woodward recalled 16 phone calls, as well as in-person interviews, with Trump for various stories and books.

“He would call at random hours,” Woodward said. “We worked out an arrangement where I could call him and he could call me. He lied to his son, he lied to me, he lied to the public.”

Woodward, with permission, recorded their conversations, one in which they discussed COVID-19. 

Trump told Woodward he was briefed on the virus in January 2020. By February, he knew that COVID-19 was “deadly stuff,” but Trump said he did not want to scare anyone. 

“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump said in a March 19 call with Woodward. “I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.”

In the same recording, Trump talked about a conversation he had with his son Barron, who asked what was going on.

“I said, it came out of China, Barron,” Trump said in the March 19 call. “Pure and simple. It came out of China. And it should’ve been stopped. And to be honest with you, Barron, they should’ve let it be known it was a problem two months earlier … the world wouldn’t have a problem. We could have stopped it easily.”

On Tuesday, Trump formally filed paperwork for the 2024 presidential campaign. 

Woodward and Bernstein concluded their presentation in Washington D.C. with remarks on Watergate.

“We had a criminal president of the United States,” Bernstein said. “The system worked. The criminal president of the United States had to resign because all of the institutions of American democracy worked.”