Now You Can Write Watergate!


On one page, deep in the small notebook Bob Woodward was carrying on June 17, 1972, there is a notation about James McCord, one of the men arrested earlier that morning inside the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate hotel.

It reads, ” ‘Security consultant’ . . . retired from government service . . . CIA . . . 2 years.”

Basically, it was all downhill from there!

Woodward’s fateful scratching is just one of the nifty little gems posted online by the University of Texas at Austin, which in 2003 paid $5 million for Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s papers from their days at The Washington Post and their work on All the President’s Men and The Final Days. The collection has just opened for business.

Only a smattering of items are visible online, but they’re tasty. A snippy letter from Bernstein to Post national editor Dick Harwood complains about a story that Bernstein thought erroneously linked Watergate to the Republican Party. In fact, Bernstein argues, the break-in was linked to the beautifully named CREEP, or Committee to Re-Elect the President, which was a White House creation. And from the files related to The Final Days is a handy chart of the principle players in Nixon’s denouement (notice Daddy Bush mentioned in the top left corner).

Despite being one of the most searing confrontations of power versus law in American history, the popular treatment of the Watergate saga has been boiled down to a sequence of a doofy burglary, two pain-in-the-ass reporters writing some articles, Howard Baker asking “What did the president know blah blah blah ?”, and then Dick Nixon boarding a helicopter.

In fact, Woodward and Bernstein uncovered a secret effort to undermine the democratic process itself, chase Nixon’s potential rivals from the scene, and intimidate dissidents like Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg. Their revelations triggered a probe that, as it closed in on the Oval Office, prompted Nixon to fire the special prosecutor investigating him—a move so autocratic, Nixon’s own attorney general quit.

The episode was an object lesson in why not to trust the government, spurring campaign finance and special-prosecutor laws. But either the lesson was too jarring, or not jarring enough: By the time Nixon died in 1994 he’d been almost completely rehabilitated. And after one of the men who led Tricky Dick’s hagiography, Bill Clinton, was impeached over his taste for interns, the special-prosecutor law was allowed to lapse. And now when the word Watergate is invoked, it’s usually to chide some reporter hunting for a scandal—or even the truth. (See Fox News’ John Moody’s directive to staff last March concerning the 9-11 Commission hearings. “Do not turn this into Watergate,” he advises.)

For a refresher course, scan the Woodward-Bernstein papers, listen here to some of the secret White House tapes, and rent the Robert Redford–Dustin Hoffman movie. If nothing else, the film will make you miss wide ties.