The Watergate complex is located along a sharp bend in the Potomac River. A dozen blocks from the White House, the irregularly shaped buildings seem to be from another era. Designed in the 1960s, the Watergate was sparkling new on June 17, 1972, when five burglars broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, located on the building’s sixth floor.
The ensuing scandal would dredge up a who’s-who list of Republican operatives, officials and eventually President Richard Nixon. The suffix “-gate” would be applied to everything from forged documents to presidential affairs to shadowy real estate ventures. And the two reporters who broke the story wide open in the pages of the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, would become as much a part of the legacy of Watergate as President Nixon himself.
This week, Woodward and Bernstein shared the stage with a host of others whose lives were influenced by the cover-up to take part in a series of panel discussions to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the break-in, sponsored by the Washington Post. On the top floor of the Watergate office building, five floors above the one-time DNC headquarters, they told their stories and considered the effects of the scandal before a group of Washington journalists.
The NewsHour’s Jim Lehrer was among the speakers. “Watergate, of course, has come to be so much more than a building, a Washington crime wave, and a series of stunning political events and personal experiences,” he said.
Watch his remarks:
Former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, who served as a counsel to the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate hearings, called the incident “a high water mark that set the standard of the United States as a country that would engage in critical self-examination when the circumstances warranted.”
Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting proved to be the catalyst for the ensuing investigation, recalled former Sen. Fred Thompson, who came to Washington to serve as the chief minority counsel of the Senate Watergate Committee. “When I came up in February [of 1973] it was just the most rudimentary information that I had, most of it from the Washington Post,” he said.
Bernstein compared covering Watergate to “getting into a warm bath, and then it got hotter, and hotter, and hotter, so you were able to withstand the heat.”
As the story unfolded for the two reporters, Woodward would confirm information with his source, “Deep Throat,” who 33 years later revealed himself as Mark Felt, an associate director with the FBI at the time. The two often met in an underground garage after Woodward would signal to Felt by positioning a flowerpot with a red flag on the balcony of his Washington apartment.
“I was only twenty-nine and I kind of thought this was the way you always met people,” Woodward said jokingly of the clandestine meetings he arranged with Felt.
After Richard Nixon’s landslide victory in 1972, the government’s investigation began to pick up steam. White House counsel John Dean accepted a plea deal from the prosecuting attorneys and implicated President Nixon and former Attorney General John Mitchell, but his testimony was not substantiated until White House staffer Alexander Butterfield testified, revealing the existence of a secret taping system.
“The tapes were essential to proving a credible conspiracy to obstruct justice,” said Richard Ben-Veniste, who served as one of the lead special prosecutors in the Watergate hearings.
Even after the “Saturday Night Massacre” and Dean and Butterfield’s testimonies, Congressional Republicans remained deadlocked on how to proceed. Breaking with his party, a young freshman Republican from Maine, Rep. William Cohen, voted for the president’s impeachment.
“[The vote for impeachment] did two things: number one, I think it pretty much terminated any future I had as far as with a leadership position with the party, and secondly, it was very liberating,” Cohen said. “Once the ambition to do anything more in the party structure was eliminated, I was pretty much free to do what I wanted.”
The president avoided impeachment by resigning on August 9, 1974.
For every career the scandal sank, it seemed to launch another. Woodward and Bernstein went on to become two of the first celebrity journalists, and Fred Thompson became a senator, actor and presidential candidate. After covering the Watergate hearings “from gavel to gavel,” Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil created The Robert MacNeil Report, which today is the PBS NewsHour.
The lessons of the Watergate scandal still resonate today.
John Dean, who was sentenced for his role in the Watergate cover up, offered this: “For those who get involved the lesson is to be accountable, stand up, tell the truth, because the truth is really the only way these things get resolved.”