Duo sealed Nixon's fate

Writers discuss scandal with journalist hopefuls

October 18, 2002|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - The two men onstage were old enough to be her grandfather, and neither possessed the Hollywood good looks of, say, a young Redford or Hoffman, but University of Maryland freshman Jennifer Gee listened raptly - and not just because there'll be a quiz Tuesday.

"Woodward and Bernstein?" most of her friends in the dorm had asked when Gee told them where she was going. Law firm? Jewelry store? The names meant nothing.

To Gee, a journalism major from Severna Park, they did. There's hardly a journalism class that doesn't mention the two young Washington Post reporters who, 30 years ago, started investigating the Watergate break-in and its cover-up by the Nixon administration.

A generation or so ago, the achievements of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein - and the subsequent Hollywood characterization of them in the movie All The President's Men, starring Robert Redford as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein - led to a flood of applications in the nation's journalism schools.

Wednesday night, in a rare joint appearance at the University of Maryland, the duo was at it again - talking to aspiring journalists and a packed auditorium about a field that, though most of the conversation focused on what is wrong with it, they still deem a worthy and noble pursuit.

"It's the most wonderful thing you can do, because you get to study life," said Bernstein, who left the Post in 1977. "There has not been a single story that turned out the way I thought it would turn out. ... The truth is complex. It's not black and white. That's what's so wonderful about it."

Introduced as two men who "profoundly and permanently changed journalism," Woodward, 59, and Bernstein, 58, sat side by side, dapperly dressed and looking more like stockbrokers than muckrakers. Although they parted ways after collaborating on their second book, The Final Days, they appeared on friendly terms during the forum.

"I'm sure over the years they've had ups and downs and differences of opinion, but they're very fond of each other," said Thomas Kunkel, dean of the university's Philip Merrill College of Journalism. "With any two people who went through a crucible as intense as they went through for a couple of years, you sort of bond in a way only family members do."

The former reporting duo still constitutes a study in contrasts - Woodward being the more polished, Bernstein the more rough hewn; Woodward speaking in measured tones, exuding reasonableness, Bernstein more off-the-cuff and frenetic.

Despite living in separate towns, pursuing separate interests, they still show signs of having been a team, including, like an old married couple, stealing each other's stories. It was Woodward, for example, who told how Bernstein, showing up in a white suit on one of his first days as a copy boy, was sent to "wash" the carbon paper. "The only other person I know who would have done that is me," he said.

And after Bernstein - grayer and carrying more girth than his one-time partner - recounted how switching from wood shop to typing in high school led to his newspaper career, Woodward paused to explain an old tool to a newer generation of journalists.

"For those of you who don't know ... typewriters are ... mechanical devices where you have to use your own muscle power to press down on the key."

Things gone wrong

Bernstein started as a copy boy at the Washington Star, and worked for a newspaper in Elizabeth, N.J., before joining the Post in 1966. Woodward, a graduate of Yale, worked for the Navy and spent a year as a reporter for the Montgomery County Sentinel before joining the Post in 1971.

Being new, and eager, Woodward was called to work on a Saturday in June 1972 when editors learned of the break-in at Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. Bernstein soon joined him, and the two began treading where few had, investigating a sitting president's involvement in criminal wrongdoing.

"There was no precedent. There has been no antecedent, and hopefully there will never be anything like it again," Bernstein said.

While the stakes were high, the methods were nothing new: following the money, reading records and cultivating sources, including "Deep Throat," the unnamed informant whose identity remains a secret.

"What we did was the basic kind of traditional, non-glamorous reporting that almost always works," Bernstein said. "Sadly, instead of the legacy of Watergate being to have this kind of methodical reporting ... the real trend in journalism in the last 25 to 30 years has been the dominance of gossip, sensationalism and less regard of the truth.

"The bottom line in our business increasingly has become the bottom line - not the truth."

While professing fond feelings for their trade, the two spent most of the talk lamenting what has become of it.

Woodward: "We live in an environment where everyone wants the latest, and the latest often is wrong and is irrelevant."

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