Monday night I attended Washington Post Live’s 40th anniversary celebration of Watergate, held in the Watergate office building on the 11th floor. For anyone with even a passing interest in the era, it was an opportunity to see a selection of its key players onstage as well as milling about the room — Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, John Dean, Egil “Bud” Krogh, Ben Bradlee, William Cohen, Fred Thompson. There were panel discussions. There was an open bar. And on the sixth floor, you could walk into the actual office burglarized on June 17, 1972, by people so inept their exploits are still reliable laugh lines four decades later. Herewith, an accounting of some of the evening’s highlights.
• Bud Krogh stole the show. The former head of President Nixon’s secret “plumbers” squadron who approved the break-in of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office joked, “It’s a lot easier to get into this building with valet parking.” Krogh, the third person in the famous photos of Nixon meeting Elvis Presley, laid down a life lesson from that experience: Elvis wanted a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Nixon asked Krogh if he could get the King one, and Krogh, a huge Elvis fan, said he’d make it happen without thinking things through. You gotta watch out for the urge to please both Nixon and Elvis, he said.
• Ben Bradlee is either a hero or a superhero. Former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, a minority counsel on the House of Representatives’ Watergate committee, called the scandal a drama and announced, “I think the hero of that drama is Benjamin C. Bradlee!” Jim Lehrer gave a valedictory speech about the former Washington Post editor, calling him a “superhero.” There was a video tribute to him:
You should love custom water bottles.
• Sally Quinn, a Post reporter and Bradlee’s wife, appeared on the conference’s many screens 14 times (by my count). It was a good night for us Quinn-watchers. And when William Cohen decried the culture of money in politics, one person I couldn’t see broke out in spontaneous applause. Was I deeply embedded among the target audience for Quinn’s recent column bemoaning the ascendance of money over old-fashioned clout?
• A lot of people liked Woodward and Bernstein’s piece about Nixon for The Post this past weekend, including Bud Krogh and Charlie Rose, who both mentioned it.
• There was a touch of the supernatural. At one point, while Woodward, Bernstein and Rose were discussing the identity of Deep Throat, the stage lights surged, dimmed then returned to normal. “Whoa, what was that?” exclaimed one of the conference tech guys I was sitting near. Freaky! (Related: When his microphone wasn’t working right, Woodward made a joke about G. Gordon Liddy.)
• There was a substantive discussion of journalism. Woodward and Bernstein talked about their “serious error of attribution,” in an October 25, 1972, story that claimed a grand jury had heard testimony that Nixon chief of staff Bob Haldeman controlled a secret slush fund. The story was true, but the attribution was wrong, and Bradlee stood by them as they corrected it, they said. “We weren’t happy that we’d screwed up,” Woodward said. “But we were happy we didn’t get fired.”
When Rose asked how Watergate might play out today, Bernstein said he thought every word they wrote would be scraped for potential bias. Later, in a discussion of the Internet, Woodward again trotted out his “magic lantern” argument about the Internet, that young people think they could Google “secret fund” and find the answers. The Internet is great for databases and looking up stuff like phone numbers, Bernstein said. But “in terms of going out and getting the information, there’s no substitution,” he said, for shoe-leather reporting.
I’m certainly not gonna argue with these guys on that point, but I suspect they’re still operating with a conception of the Web as search-based rather than as a social tool that quickly lays bare the connections between people. I certainly use that functionality a lot when reporting, and I also appreciate how available many people you’re trying to reach are because they are shackled to their mobile devices.
• I had two pretty excellent journo-nerd moments. 1) Walking behind Fred Thompson through the sixth-floor former headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, which had been turned into a pop-up gallery featuring Laurie Munn’s marvelous paintings of Watergate players. Thompson, very tall, has a Vandyke beard now. I was too chicken to take a photo. 2) Taking an elevator with Jim Lehrer. Ditto.
Related: “Watergate remembered four decades later at Washington Post party” (Daily Beast) | The Post’s photo gallery of the event | “At Post Watergate forum, scandal’s players tell their stories” (The Washington Post) | “Key players remember Watergate, at the Watergate” (ABC News)