Carl Bernstein Returns To The Post…For A Chat

Earlier today, former Post reporter and journalist icon Carl Bernstein held a chat over at to discuss the death of E. Howard Hunt, organizer of the Watergate break-ins. Some excerpts:

    Washington: Dear Carl: Thanks for taking questions on this complicated man. Do you have any insights or thoughts on the fact that a week ago Howard Hunt announced he was publishing a book in the spring that implicated LBJ and George Bush Sr. in the murder of President Kennedy — and a week later Hunt is dead? Maybe he had some big things to get off his chest?

    Carl Bernstein: I look forward to reading the book. But if the claim is as you state, I would judge it preposterous and not worth further examination. The JFK examination is the most studied murder in modern history; even in all the conspiracy theories that have been floated for more than forty years, the LBJ-Bush Sr. claim seems especially outlandish — with no basis in known fact.

Read more after the jump…

    St. Louis: Off-topic, but I’ve always been curious — Do you ever get tired of talking about Watergate, and how often are you asked about those days?

    Carl Bernstein: Talking about Watergate — in its larger context, with the benefit of hindsight, especially — can be interesting and constructive. Re-hashing old facts long ago confirmed (or assertions proved unfounded) is tiresome and I try to avoid it.

    This seems to me a particularly important time to be talking about Watergate and its legacy — and I’ve written about it extensively in two long articles relating to the Bush Administration and its war in Iraq. Both articles were in Vanity Fair and on its Web site — I’m a contributing editor of the magazine.

    Watergate was about a constitutional conspiracy by the president of the United States and the men around him. Afterwards, it often was said that “The American System worked.” It did. The press did its job as an independent entity trying to obtain the best obtainable version of the truth — what good journalism really is. A courageous judge — John Sirica — refused to bow to conventional wisdom of the day: that no-one with ties to the Nixon presidency would be involved in something like the break-in at Democratic national headquarters. A great Senator — Sam Ervin of North Carolina — and a bipartisan group of senators, led by Republican Howard Baker of Tennessee, conducted one of the most thorough, unbiased and definitive investigations in the history of the Republic. From the beginning, Baker asked the right question: ‘What did the president know, and when did he know it?”

    A truly independent series of special prosecutors pursued the facts and a courageous attorney general refused to carry out Nixon’s illegal orders or be part of the cover-up, and forded the president to fire him — and his assistant attorney general — rather than perpetuate the cover-up.

    A bipartisan impeachment investigation by the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee definitively established grounds for impeachment: the key votes were cast by Republicans. When it was clear that Nixon would be convicted of high crimes and misdemeanors in the Senate, leaders of his party — with Barry Goldwater, the great conservative at the front — demanded of the President that he resign. Nixon did.

    That long answer is intended to show that, yes, the American system worked — including Gerald Ford’s pardon of Nixon, which allowed the country to move on.

    In the case George W. Bush, the American system obviously has failed — tragically — about which we can talk more in a minute. But imagine the difference in our worldview today, had the institutions — particularly of government — done their job to insure that a mendacious and dangerous president (as since has been proven many times over and beyond mere assertion) be restrained in a war that has killed thousands of American soldiers, brought turmoil to the lives of millions and constrained the goodwill towards the United States in much of the world.

    Great Neck, N.Y.: It seems like this is as good a time as any to re-examine Watergate and its place in American history. How do you think future generations will view the scandal and its importance? Do you feel it completely overshadows President Nixon’s legacy, or will he eventually be remembered more for detente and his conducting of the latter stages of the Vietnam War?

    Carl Bernstein: Nixon’s singular accomplishment, it seems to me, was the historic to opening to China. His — and Kissinger’s — conduct of the latter stages of the Vietnam war allowed almost 25,000 young American soldiers to die long after the inevitable realization that the war was not winnable; the parallel there with the situation in Iraq is horribly apt; detente, given the success of Reagan and Pope John Paul II (and the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan) in terms of shaking the Soviet empire, seems less an accomplishment that it might at the time.

    But the basic Nixonian enterprise was “Watergate” — long before the break-in at Democratic headquarters. It lay in Nixon’s psyche, and I suspect the next generation of research about the Nixon presidency will deal with the President’s psyche — not the “facts” as we now know them so definitively.

    Watergate was about a presidential/criminal conspiracy to use the power of the presidency for retribution; to trash the constitutional protections that require the president to act with in the law; to conduct and have presidential authority and authorization for patently illegal acts, from break-ins to firebombings, all ordered in the name of the President of the United States on spurious grounds of national security. The same for illegal surveillance of American citizen, including the wiretapping of journalists.

    From there it is not much of a jump to see that the unthinkable — a generation ago — has happened. That we have another president and presidential cadre — men and women, this time — who believe that they are above the law, that the unique circumstances of their presidency and “the enemy” justify acts that violate the constitution and the laws of this country; that consistent lying and mendacity and misinformation and disinformation — so routine as to use the same techniques from New Orleans to Baghdad — are acceptable.

    The great shame is that our system has failed to restrain their conduct or even mediate it. Perhaps in the coming months there may be a change in attitude to hold President Bush, Ms. Rice, Mr. Gonzales et al to the same standard of law and constitutional authority as Richard Nixon was held to. Thank you.