On Face the Nation last weekend, it was good to hear the two reporters who broke the news of the Watergate burglary 40 years ago expose the folly of certain historical revisionists who claim Watergate was nothing more than a misguided political caper. They followed up on the excellent job they did in their Washington Post article June 8.
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, reiterated their claim on television that the scandal itself was only one of five "wars" President Richard M. Nixon had launched during his term of office.
The first, they said, was a war against the anti-war movement that had risen up over U.S. intervention in Vietnam. The second was a war against the free press in the U.S., and the third was a war against Democrats who threatened to take back the White House, denying Nixon a third term. The fourth war was a war against justice. Woodward explained that when the Watergate burglary occurred the administration went into full cover-up and obstruction of justice mode.
Then Woodward spoke of Nixon's "fifth war," which he described as a war on history itself. "He (Nixon) was saying, 'oh, no, it really is not what it shows on the tapes and all the testimony and evidence.'
"The crimes were enormous, and that's what the tapes show, and they go back to the first days of the Nixon administration," said Woodward, who explained how presidential orders resulted in the set-up of the burglary squad and extensive and illegal wire-tapping. "But really, what we found is that the White House became, to a remarkable extent, a criminal enterprise such as we've never had in our history."
The two talked about their famous mystery informant "Deep Throat." For many years after the break-in no one knew the identity of the person on the government's inside who kept giving the young reporters clues that allowed them to unmask some of Nixon's crimes. He was later revealed to be Mark Felt, a former FBI associate director.
Bernstein noted, however, that the stories that actually ran on the pages of the Post were the result of hard work and plying of many sources, extensive old fashioned police reporting, knocking on doors at night, and finding people who worked in the Nixon re-election campaign who were willing to talk.
The two reporters found that there was a secret fund that paid for the Watergate burglary and all the other illegal Nixon activities. They uncovered that Attorney General John Mitchell, Nixon's closest confidante and campaign manger, was in control of that secret fund.
Bernstein described when the two first realized what a big story they had stumbled upon:
"We would have coffee every morning off the newsroom floor, put a dime, which it cost in those days for a cup of coffee, in the machine, and I felt this chill go down my back. And I said to Woodward, 'Oh, my God, this president is going to be impeached.'
"And he looked at me and said, 'Oh, my God, you're right, and we can never use that word in this newsroom because people will think we have an agenda, and we have no agenda except to report this story."
They described how Nixon moved to crush the Washington Post. Bernstein said, "You know, the Nixon administration, the White House, Nixon and his aides' response to Watergate was to make the conduct of the press the issue in Watergate rather than the conduct of the president and his men. And remember, it worked for a long time. People did not really believe what we were writing, including our colleagues, until Walter Cronkite went on the air after four months, and we had written a big story saying, hey, it's not just the burglary; this is part of a massive campaign of political espionage and sabotage directed from the White House. And Water Cronkite put it on the air, half of his broadcast two nights in a row."
After the Cronkite reports Chuck Colson, one of Nixon's closest aides, went to New York where he met with Bill Paley, the CEO of CBS, threatening to put the network out of business.
The Nixon tapes had not yet been discovered. When they were the president could be heard saying the Washington Post too would "have damnable, damnable problems."
Woodward said that in the tapes Nixon "is saying - he is saying things about people - and again, everyone was an opponent, was an enemy."
Bernstein talked about how the tapes revealed Nixon's deep anti-Semitism. He described how after the leaking of the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg, the president was heard saying, "We've got to get that Jew." Nixon then had his people engineer a break-in at the psychiatrist's office where Ellsberg was receiving treatment.
Bernstein said that on a the positive side in those days the Republican Party machinery acted in a much more bi-partisan way than it does today. "There was no real controversy by the end about what had happened here. Republicans lined up. Barry Goldwater, the great Arizona conservative, " said Bernstein, "went down to the White House and said, 'Mr. President, you have to go because you've committed too many crimes.'" The Senate decided 77 to nothing to undertake an investigation.
"Can you imagine the Senate today, passing anything 77 to nothing?" asked Woodward. Sadly, all Bernstein and the Face the Nation moderator could do was laugh.
What they did not discuss was that Watergate was a forerunner of Republican dirty tricks to steal elections. What they did not talk about was how Nixon's Watergate set the stage for Karl Rove, the billionaire-funded groups like Americans for Prosperity, and the media and internet scams put forward by right-wingers like the late Andrew Breitbart .
Photo: Reporters Bob Woodward, right, and Carl Bernstein, whose reporting of the Watergate case won them a Pulitzer Prize, at the newsroom of the Washington Post in Washington, May 7, 1973. AP