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Covering Watergate: 40 Years Later With MacNeil And Lehrer

May 17, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
On May 17, 1973, Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer launched public broadcasting's gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings. Forty years later, the two recount their memories after some of the more gripping moments and how their partnership changed not only the face of television journalism, but also their lives.

ROBERT MACNEIL, 1973: Good evening from Washington. In a few moments, we’re going to bring you the entire proceedings in the first day of the Senate Watergate hearings — hearings to bear the truth about the wide range of illegal, unethical or improper activities established or still merely alleged, surrounding the reelection of President Nixon last year.

JEFFREY BROWN: May 17, 1973. Day one of the historic Senate hearings that would a year later lead to the resignation of an American president.

It was also the start of something quite new for public broadcasting, led by Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer.

JIM LEHRER, 1973: We are running it all each day because we think these hearings are the important and because we think it is important that you get a chance to see the whole thing and make your own judgments. Some nights, we may be in competition with a late, late movie. We are doing this as an experiment, temporarily abandoning our ability to edit, to give you the whole story, however many hours it may take.

JEFFREY BROWN: The botched break-in at Democratic National Committee Headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington D.C. had happened one year earlier.

The special Senate committee was set to build on reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post and reporters at other news organizations.

One key question was famously put by committee vice-chairman Republican Howard Baker.

SEN. HOWARD BAKER, R-TENN., 1973: What did the president know, and when did he know it?

JEFFREY BROWN: Forty years after Democratic Committee Chair Sam Ervin, the self-described “old country lawyer” from North Carolina, first gaveled the hearings into session.

MacNeil and Lehrer — Robin and Jim to us — returned to the same studio from which they’d broadcast in the summer of 1973 — for more than 250 hours.

Did you have any idea what you were getting into at that  moment, either for the nation or for your own futures?

JIM LEHRER: I think we did.

Remember, we broadcast live during the daytime as it happened. And then we completely repeated it, gavel to gavel. So it was a double-hit there. And that was a huge commitment for public broadcasting to make. And the reason they made it was because of this premise that the presidency of the United States was at stake. Now, not necessarily that it was going to end in the result of the impeachment of Richard Nixon. But it was going to be a rough time ahead for the whole country.

JEFFREY BROWN: They were, in some ways, an unlikely duo. Robin, born in Canada, began his journalism career with Reuters, before joining NBC and later the BBC.

Jim, born in Wichita, Kan., had worked for newspapers in Dallas before hosting a local public affairs program.

They were brought together in Washington to work for the National Public Affairs Center for Television, or NPACT.

ROBERT MACNEIL: It turned out, we were living quite close to each other in Bethesda. We each had little daughters in the same kindergarten there. We became very good friends.

JIM LEHRER: We sure did, we had no choice. We had to be friends. We spent all day and all night together.

ROBERT MACNEIL: We became very good friends. And colleagues. And as the public perceived it, a team.

JEFFREY BROWN: Robin began each day’s broadcast with a reading of the committee’s 64-word opening resolution.

JIM LEHRER: I thought that was a terrific thing. The first few, maybe the first 30 nights, I even teared up when I heard you. It was just — it set the tone.

ROBIN MACNEIL: Also, it took it out of our hands to characterize what the hearings were about. That would all follow. But it gave the way the Congress characterized it.

ROBIN MACNEIL, 1973: What you’re going to be able to watch this evening is a rare glimpse given by real adventurers into the world of mystery and intrigue we normally hear about in spy novels.

The hearings had gripping moments right from the start. On day two, Watergate burglar James McCord, the former security director for the Committee to Re-Elect President Nixon demonstrated how to bug a telephone.

But the first real game-changer came in late June, from John Dean — former counsel to President Nixon.

Reading aloud a 245-page statement, Dean dropped a bombshell, alleging that the president had direct knowledge about the cover-up.

JOHN DEAN, 1973: I began by telling the president that there was a cancer growing on the presidency and if the cancer was not removed, the president himself would be killed by it. I also told him that it was important that this cancer be removed immediately because it was growing more deadly every day.

JIM LEHRER, 1973: Alright, the question of course is what more is there to say. Regardless of the time zone where you live, it’s very late. And the testimony of John W. Dean III has been very hot, despite the several gallons of water he consumed while reading that lengthy and very historical document of his.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re watching things unfold. A lot of it is droning on, let’s face it, right? And then something like that happens.

JIM LEHRER: And he talked for a very long time. You could hear a pin drop in that room the whole time he was talking. And my guess is, that throughout America it was the same. He was the showstopper. There was no question about it.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Some of these things came out quite unexpectedly. In a very casual, almost off-hand manner. Everything is underlined nowadays. Everything has arrows pointing at it. This is going to be a great day today and we’re likely to–. We didn’t have any of that kind of buildup. The hearings spoke for themselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: When the committee took breaks, guests would join Robin and Jim in the studio for analysis.

STEPHEN HESS: Mr. Nixon has to do something i would think now in response to very serious charges that Mr. Dean made.

JEFFREY BROWN: Testimony continued, but by mid-july, there was still no proof that John Dean had been telling the truth. That is, until Fred Thompson, the chief Republican counsel and a friend of Sen. Baker’s from Tennessee, put questions to a little-known former White House aide named Alexander Butterfield.

JEFFREY BROWN: And at day’s end, the team put their own questions to committee members outside the hearing room.

ROBERT MACNEIL, 1973: You may have noticed that tempers are getting shorter and the arguments are longer as the committee tries to wrap up this phase of the investigation. After today’s hearing, NPACT’s Peter Kaye asked Lowell Weicker if the long hours were getting to him.

FRED THOMPSON, 1973: Mr Butterfield, are you aware of any listening devices in the office of the president?

FRED THOMPSON, 1973: Were you aware of any devices installed in the executive office building office of the president?


FRED THOMPSON, 1973: Were they installed at the same time?

ALEXANDER BUTTERFIELD, 1973: Yes sir, they were installed the same time.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Well that was a bombshell. Also, it became the bomb that eventually did destroy the presidency.

ROBERT MACNEIL, 1973: Butterfield revealed that all of President Nixon’s conversations in his two White House offices had been tape-recorded for the past two years, and so have his office phone conversations. The stunned Ervin Committee, which discovered this fact only last Friday, immediately began planning to demand the tapes of the crucial Watergate-related conversations. Those tapes could settle once and for all how much the president knew and when.

JEFFREY BROWN: After the Butterfield revelation, the committee issued a subpoena for the tapes. But President Nixon refused to release them.

ROBERT MACNEIL: A lot of station managers in particular at that time of the public television community, that had grown out of educational television, didn’t think that PBS should be in the news business at all. They thought we should be in culture and education. And the networks do news and current — public affairs.

JEFFREY BROWN: And not only that, but of course the political context of the administration, the Nixon Administration also thinking that public broadcasting shouldn’t be in public affairs.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Not perhaps, very definitely they thought so.

So you were very aware of this?

ROBERT MACNEIL: We were very aware and we were trying, and I think succeeding in being very even-handed about the Nixon presidency. And I’d covered the president, I’d covered Nixon for NBC and BBC for several years before all this came about. And I had done my best to be as evenhanded and fair-minded as I think we have gone on to make it an essential attribute of our program since.

JIM LEHRER: Absolutely. And I think that’s where it all started. Is with Watergate.

ROBERT MACNEIL: I think we knew immediately that public– we and public television was doing something that commercial networks for all their brilliance in news wouldn’t and couldn’t do. Couldn’t destroy their evening programming for the Watergate hearings.

JIM LEHRER: That was before there were things like C-SPAN. Going gavel-to-gavel, the way we were going, in the daytime — and in particular repeating it at night. This had never happened before.

JEFFREY BROWN: Was there a point somewhere along the way where you realized ‘hey this can work?’ I mean this being your partnership and what’s happening on the picture.

ROBERT MACNEIL: I think we realized that right away.

JIM LEHRER: We felt that right away. We felt two things.

We felt that — and we talked about it — that there was role for public broadcasting. A serious, needed role within public broadcasting to do news and public affairs type programming.

And that we felt that we worked. In other words, that you and I ‘cause — even though he’s a very sophisticated and I’m very unsophisticated, we were, I was the country boy and he was the urban boy. But we were absolutely in sync about journalism.

JEFFREY BROWN: The viewers agreed. Mail started pouring in by the bagful — some 70,000 letters expressing support for public television’s coverage.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Suddenly this new public television, which very few people knew anything about —


ROBERT MACNEIL: Suddenly the whole nation seemed to know about it. And, for many, many stations who carried it both in the daytime and again in the evening, their audiences doubled, tripled, quadrupled. And people spontaneously began to send money to the public television, taking up memberships in the stations.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you feel that the future in some sense of public television was riding on this? Was it that strong?


JIM LEHRER: We were so busy doing it that —

ROBERT MACNEIL: And we were so enthralled by the hearings. As were everybody I’ve spoken to.

JIM LEHRER: It was a peanut, just like eating peanuts.

JEFFREY BROWN: Meanwhile, on July 31, the Senate hearings took another sharp turn.

ROBERT MACNEIL, 1973: Good evening. H.R. Haldeman, often described as once the most powerful man next to President Nixon, today politely and modestly denied a long catalog of charges by others, witnesses implicating him in Watergate.

H.R. HALDEMAN, 1973: President Nixon had no knowledge of, or involvement in either the Watergate affair itself or the subsequent efforts of a coverup of the Watergate. It will be equally clear despite all the unfounded allegations to the contrary, that I had no such knowledge or involvement.

JIM LEHRER, 1973: Unless the tapes are made public or some other revelation should come, the senators as well as the rest of us who are following are going to have to eventually make a choice of believing John Dean or Bob Haldeman. That’s the way it looks to me, at least at 3 or so in the morning. Feel free to disagree.

JEFFREY BROWN: Three or so in the morning


We’re working day and night and that explains why I have not gotten a haircut.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s what you most notice now, 40 years later.

JIM LEHRER: How could I have let my hair go that way, as they say.

What’s so interesting here, just as a matter of history, we laid it out. I mean unless those tapes become public, that argument could continue to flow. But the tapes did become public and then suddenly boom, it was all over with.

JEFFREY BROWN: By the end of the summer, the fight over the tapes had shifted to the courts.

The following July, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered President Nixon to turn over 64 Watergate-related tapes and documents, and the House Judiciary Committee began its formal public debate on articles of impeachment against the president.

Once it became clear he would not survive an impeachment vote on the House floor, President Nixon announced his resignation.

PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES RICHARD NIXON: I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow.

JEFFREY BROWN: Many years later, what do you think the impact that Watergate was on this nation? How do you — can you sum it up?

JIM LEHRER: The way I would sum it up is that it’s good news, bad news situation. It showed the government of the United States at its absolute worst and then it showed it at its absolute best.

It corrected a wrongdoing, a series of wrongdoings that was unprecedented. But the way it corrected was also a series of unprecedented doings.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the impact it had on you personally, and professionally?

ROBERT MACNEIL: Well it made us a team. People perceived us as a team and suggested we do a nightly program. What happened 40 years ago, made possible what we’ve done for the last 40 years, professional journalists. No question about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: What have they done?

Well, the Robert MacNeil Report — soon to become the MacNeil/Lehrer report — was launched in 1975. A partnership, a format, an approach that has seen some changes over time, yes, but led directly to the program you’re watching today — 40 years after Robin and Jim first teamed up to cover the Watergate hearings.