Woodstein: How it Felt

bernstein42.jpgWe’ve secured an advanced copy of Carl Bernstein’s account of the denouement following Mark Felt’s outing (the piece appears in the October Vanity Fair). The piece is part timeline of the decision to confirm the Vanity Fair’s article on Felt, part rebuttal of revisionist Nixon history (as espoused by Buchanan, Liddy, et al), and part statement on the Bush administration’s own treatment of the press.

Once word spread that Vanity Fair was going to go forward with a piece fingering Mark Felt as “Deep Throat” (by the way: Perhaps the only thing more impressive than the fact that Deep Throat’s identity remained silent for over a generation is the fact that Vanity Fair kept the Felt story away from its own contributing editor–Carl Bernstein–for over two years), Bernstein, Bob Woodward, Len Downie, and Ben Bradlee went back and forth over whether to confirm the story and how.

Downie seemed the most eager to run something in the Post and fast. Bradlee soon came around and shared Downie’s enthusiasm. But Bernstein hoped that “if we held the line, the Vanity Fair article would go on the shelf with all the other inconclusive Deep Throat hunts.” Ultimately, Downie and Bradlee convinced Woodward and Bernstein–both initially reluctant to betray their vow to protect Deep Throat’s identity (“the most basic of journalistic principles”) until Felt’s passing–to confirm the story immediately.

Woodward and Bernstein caved namely because “with the article coming as close as it had–actually just inside the bull’s eye–we both recognized that time was running out despite our desire to pretend that the shot was wide of its mark.”

Money quote: “I told Woodward, ‘We can’t be the assholes, out there on our own, deying what is readily apparent to everybody else.'”

Woodward, no doubt seeing the potential dollars involved in this story, sought delay more than anyone, hoping to wait a while to confirm the story (a move Bernstein admits was “related to a commercial proposition”) but Downie axed that idea saying “he would not hold news…He could not comprehend how Woodward could consider any delay–nor, in such circumstances, could I.”

“In the end, it was like the beginning. Confusion. Then consultation. Then calm. Then the wait to see where the chips would fall. And in the end, the editors probably had it right. Woodward and I went along with the greatest reluctance, with Bradlee casting the deciding vote…We had forgotten an essential rule of journalism: reporters may believe they control the story, but the story always controls the reporters.”

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Much, much more after the jump.


When the decision was made, the reactions from Bernstein, Woodward, Bradlee and Downie were classic:

Downie: “Bob, it’s over.”

Bradlee: “Bradlee strode in, deeply tanned, wearing a blue work shirt, elegant tie, and tweed jacket, exuberant. ‘Well, how ’bout them apples?'”

“Woodward and I gave each other a long hug, then exchanged looks of ‘Well, we fought the good fight.'”

Yesterday’s Lloyd Grove column seems to exaggerate any tensions between Woodward and Bernstein.

Bernstein writes: “I’d left the paper in 1977, but Woodward and I remained extraordinarily close. The proverbial tale of two guys who’d been in a foxhole together was part of it, but over the years there had been moments when we’d counseled each other on some big questions. There had been arguments–during Watergate and after, some of them heated–but the bond always held strong.”

Bernstein quickly moves to critiques of the modern media culture, the Bush administration and those who denounced Felt upon his outing. Bernstein also reiterates just how corrupt the Nixon administration was. Highlights:

  • “Deep Throat’s unveiling came at a new media moment, at the apogee of talk TV, which hews to a value system predicated on who can shout simplistic syllogisms the loudest and make the most outlandish ahistorical pronouncements. The new media model routinely accords equal time and weight to two opposing views without regard to whether one might be factually demonstrable and the other off the deep end.”

  • “The Nixon White House, with great success for a disturbingly long time, made the conduct of the press the issue in Watergate, instead of the conduct of the president and his men. Today, a whole political movement–often appearing utterly unconcerned with the truth, seeing an easy scapegoat in the press, angry at its perceived enemies, rapturous at its unprecedented power in all three branches of government–has had great success doing the same.”

  • “The Bush White House operates a media apparatus far more sophisticated in fighting and discrediting the press and political opponents than the little shop directed by Haldeman and Ehrlichman and Colson and Ziegler.”

  • “To be absolutely clear: There is no way our reporting on Watergate could have been done without the use of anonymous sources. In fact, in our first 100 stories, there is not a single named source who revealed anything of substance about the undercover activities of the Nixon White House.”

  • “Today, the press is under assault as never before, particularly for relying on anonymous sources…Inevitably, there wil be a time when those now doing the attacking–usually ideologues or unswerving partisans displeased by real reporting–will be the victims of injustice or a smear of some other offense, and wish for reporters committed to the truth and with the means (including the use of confidential sources) to find it. One hopes the credibility of the press will not be shredded by then.”

    There’s just one itch we can’t seem to scratch after reading Bernstein’s VF piece:

    Bernstein, on the afternoon that the Post was issued a subpoena to hand over his legal papers, was ordered by Bradlee to “get out of the building. Go see a movie.” Bernstein, ironically, went to a theater in which they were showing the porn film “Deep Throat.” Bernstein neither declares whether or not he went and saw “Deep Throat” nor does he explain why he was frequenting the kind of theater that would show “Deep Throat.”

    Update: Thanks to the reader who pointed out that “Deep Throat” played in several art houses, not simply theaters of ill-repute. Still, we’re curious why Carl didn’t categorically rule out “Deep Throat” as his movie of choice that fateful afternoon.