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Watergate's 'last chapter'

Douglas Caddy

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Watergate's 'last chapter'

By: James Hohmann


April 19, 2011 06:20 AM EDT


YORBA LINDA, Calif.—When the museum at Richard Nixon’s library opened in 1990, the only American to resign the presidency was still alive, and his loyalists were still fighting the battles of the early 1970s.

The museum’s display on Watergate quoted a book accusing Bob Woodward of “offering bribes” to get scoops. The library director made his own views plain: “I don’t think we’d ever open the doors to Bob Woodward. He’s not a responsible journalist.”

On Monday evening, the library did indeed open its doors to Woodward and his old boss, former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee. They flew in to see a new Watergate exhibit—one that aims at last to tell the story dispassionately and portrays the journalists as truth-seekers.

In a remarkable scene that played out on what counts as sacred ground for the dwindling corps of original Nixon true-believers, a crowd of almost 1,000 welcomed Woodward and Bradlee with a standing ovation, then listened with rapt attention and regular laughter as the two men traded wisecracks and reminisced about their roles in bringing down the 37th president.

They spoke in a room designed as a replica of the White House East Room.

Bradlee, leaning on a cane and partly sanitizing his once-legendary profane tongue for the occasion, marveled at how many people still care about a decades-old conflict—one that turned Woodward, his reporting partner Carl Bernstein, and Bradlee into some of the most famous journalists of their era.

“How the hell long ago was it? Almost 40 years,” he said. “It is an interesting story, and it still is: a President of the United States getting his you-know-what in a crack like that and”—here he paused for a moment—“I mean Holy Moly!”

In 2007, the National Archives took control of the library and museum from a foundation privately run by Nixon loyalists. The director installed by the government, a charismatic historian from Canada with an Ivy League pedigree, had the Nixon-approved panels torn out and the videos removed. Tim Naftali then spent years designing an objective display on the break-in and cover-up.

It opened three weeks ago, an illustration of how implacably time marches on and history’s cooling perspective on even the most remorseless political battles.

Woodward is 68, seven years older than Nixon at the time of his resignation. Bradlee, who turns 90 in August, first met Nixon covering the 1960 presidential campaign more than half a century ago. His confrontations with the Nixon White House, on Watergate and the decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, established The Post as a top-tier newspaper. He’s lived long enough since retiring at age 70 in 1991 to see his old home struggling to maintain itself during an industry-wide crisis for metropolitan newspapers.

Meanwhile, a new generation of Nixon admirers believes that telling the Watergate story with more scholarly detachment will allow the rest of his record to be appraised more fairly.

Asked by an audience member if he thought Nixon was a good president, Bradlee made a so-so gesture with his hand. Reflecting on Nixon’s resignation, he said Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater was a “tremendously useful source” in The Post’s Watergate coverage.

“No one thought that Barry Goldwater would have a friend at The Washington Post, but he was my wife’s mother’s – should I say it? – boyfriend,” he confided to the huge crowd. “We saw a lot of Barry Goldwater.”

“Too much information, Ben,” Woodward cracked in return.

The Ben and Bob Show went on. Like stage performers, they repeated classic Watergate war stories that they’ve told countless times since the 1970s. They have the cadence, the dramatic pauses and the punch lines down pat. Razor-sharp for most of the evening, Bradlee occasionally showed his age, forgetting names or dates and asking Woodward to repeat several of the 18 questions from the audience.

Woodward gave the crowd his theory that he sees the term “Watergate” as shorthand for five different wars waged by Nixon. The first was the administration’s campaign against the anti-Vietnam war movement. The second was the war against the press and White House aides suspected of being disloyal. The third was efforts against those seen as abetting the anti-war movement and opposing the president’s reelection. The victims included Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist and the Democratic National Committee headquarters. The fourth war was the cover-up.

The fifth was a “war against history,” which Nixon pursued from the day he left office to the day he died. It includes his efforts to downplay the scandal’s significance and to rehabilitate his image by emphasizing foreign policy accomplishments.

“To a certain extent, the sixth war was fought here at the Nixon library where the question was how are you going to deal with Watergate,” he told the crowd.

He praised the new Watergate exhibit for connecting the dots and telling the full story. He and Bradlee gamely sat for interviews with reporters and TV affiliates before their talk to praise Naftali’s new exhibit.

“It might be the last chapter of Watergate,” he told POLITICO before the speech.

Bernstein spoke solo at the library in 2007 about his Hillary Clinton biography so the presence of a Watergate antagonist on Nixon territory wasn’t completely novel.

What made Monday’s visit so noteworthy was the lack of howling objections from Nixon loyalists.

In the crowd was John Taylor, the longtime director of the museum and a former chief of staff to Nixon during his ex-presidency.

“Mr. Woodward is the most famous journalist in the world, not an ideological figure by any means, and someone who is integrally, along with his editor Mr. Bradlee, part of the story of those times,” he said beforehand. “And eventually it would look strange if the library didn’t invite people like Mr. Woodward and Mr. Bradlee because, again, the visiting public understands that they’re part of the story.”

Taylor approached Woodward when the event ended.

Woodward told him that he didn’t want to sugar coat his message—that Nixon loyalists tried to manipulate history—just because he was speaking at the Nixon library.

Taylor, who stepped down in 2009 and now practices full-time as an Episcopal priest, indicated that he understood and joked with his wife about the two of them being “field marshals in the war against history.”

“History will work it out,” he said, expressing confidence that Nixon will be judged better with the passage of time.

It was a marked contrast to 2009. When Naftali invited former White House counsel John Dean to talk about his memoir “Blind Ambition,” the Nixon foundation protested by withdrawing $150,000 in money they had committed to cosponsor events with the National Archives. “He’s disgraced and has been disbarred,” the foundation’s assistant director at the time said.

This time, the Nixon Foundation released only a terse statement.

“We hope that Mr. Woodward and Mr. Bradlee enjoy their visit to the Nixon Library,” it said. “For another perspective on Watergate, we invite them to our website at nixonfoundation.org where they may see the original Watergate exhibit text with President Nixon’s hand written notations.”

To be sure, tensions remain. If there’s anything, it’s a détente.

Naftali said he’s “delighted” that the pushback wasn’t as strong as in 2009, but he said the foundation refused his offer to cosponsor Woodward and Bradlee’s appearance as a gesture of goodwill. [The men paid their own way, waiving their usual five-figure speaking fees.]

“We weren’t seeking controversy in either case; we were seeking to do the right thing,” said Naftali. “Look, I want healing… I’ve always felt that once the Watergate exhibit went in, it would lead to some tension but then over time the tension would dissipate. That was the biggest thing we had to do to establish our credibility as an institution.”

The foundation objected to the panel on Woodward and Bernstein in the new exhibit. Ron Walker, the chairman and president of the Nixon Foundation, wrote a 145-page memo last August outlining objections to the proposed text of Naftali’s exhibit.

“With the naming of Mark Felt as Deep Throat, some maintain the source of a number of Woodward’s block-buster revelations was not the result of true investigative reporting, but leaks from Felt of what was already under investigation by career Federal prosecutors,” Walker wrote. “It may also be appropriate to point out that much of what was written by Woodward and Bernstein turned out to be factually incorrect.”

Walker didn’t specify his qualms with Woodward’s and Bernstein’s reporting, and the National Archives ignored virtually all his objections.

In the final exhibit, Woodward’s voice can occasionally be heard bellowing from a loudspeaker above one of the touch screens. It’s a clip from an oral history interview he gave for the new exhibit, in which he recalls calling Howard Hunt about his name appearing in the papers of one of the Watergate burglars.

Nixon, of course, hated Woodward. During a recent interview in Washington, Woodward proudly read from the transcript of an Oval Office conversation on April 27, 1973. Nixon’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, told the president that Woodward was calling around the White House asking questions about the president’s involvement in Watergate.

“Tell him he better watch his goddamn ass,” Nixon snapped.

The quote that then-library director Hugh Hewitt gave to the Los Angeles Times in 1990 about Woodward not being welcome still rankles, even though Nixon quickly distanced himself from it in the wake of a public backlash.

“It was thoroughly and purely Nixonian,” Woodward said. “It’s not that we’re going to ban the books. We’re going to ban the person from going to the library.”

Asked about his old quote, Hewitt said: “I try not to revisit the scenes of my youthful exuberances.”

Now a conservative radio host, Hewitt wrote in an e-mail: “Please extend to Mr. Woodward on my behalf a sincere invitation to come to the studio and spend as much of a show as he’d like with me. It would be a fascinating interview.”

Every presidential library struggles to balance myth and fact. The repositories of documents are managed by the neutral National Archives while the public displays in the museum are typically maintained by the former president’s foundation.

David Greenberg, who has studied Nixon’s attempt to redefine his image, calls the arrangement a “strange, hybrid beast.”

Libraries consequently have varying degrees of problems dealing with families.

Taylor compared Woodward’s trip to Yorba Linda to Robert Caro’s 2003 appearance at Lyndon Johnson’s library in Austin. Caro had spent 26 years researching his biographies on LBJ, one of which won a Pulitzer Prize, but his books were kept out of the library gift shop and he wasn’t invited to speak at the facility until a new director with an academic background took over from a former Johnson speechwriter.

Ronald Reagan’s museum finally added a section this February about the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages deal. But it’s largely on Reagan’s terms, with an edited video of his 1987 Oval Office address explaining what went wrong and a display that stresses it happened “without the President’s knowledge.”

Bill Clinton personally involved himself in discussions with the National Archives about how his impeachment would be handled at his Little Rock museum. A section called “Fight for Power” portrays then-Speaker Newt Gingrich as pursuing a politically-motivated witch hunt.

The newly renovated exhibit shows more of Nixon’s warts than any other presidential library does of its subject. Then again, perhaps Nixon has more warts.

“With all due respect to Bob and Bradlee, this is kind of the cherry on top of the icing on the cake,” said Greenberg, who helped Woodward on a book project in the 1990s and now teaches at Rutgers. “The fact that they were able to bring the public display under the control of disinterested historians, rather than Nixon apologists, was the real achievement…What’s really behind that is a kind of admission that they lost the battle.”

Bradlee talked up The Post’s role in breaking Watergate Monday; Woodward modestly downplayed it, saying official investigators also did a lot of heavy lifting.

Through it all they told lots of jokes.

Bradlee said he didn’t ask Woodward to tell him who Deep Throat was until after Nixon had left office.

“I didn’t tell my wife,” Bradlee said. “That’s a secret.”

“Good decision,” Woodward told him.

When a fly swirled around Bradlee’s head on the stage, Woodward suggested Bradlee swing his “stick” (the cane) at the bug.

Woodward invoked an old saying that great newspaper reporting is done “in defiance of management.”

“Go ahead, give me the finger,” he told Bradlee.

Bradlee obliged.

Many in the crowd were longtime Nixon backers. Republican Linda Wahl goes to the same Quaker church Nixon did growing up in Whittier. She didn’t want to give her age but said proudly that she voted for him in 1968 and 1972.

“I wanted to hear what they had to say, their side,” she said. “They’re to be commended for coming here.”

Democrat Natalie Sellers, a 72-year-old retired teacher, came to see the museum for the first time now that the new exhibit is open.

“I was absorbed, almost hypnotized, by Watergate,” she said. “I watched it religiously.”

In the history books, Woodward and Bradlee’s personas will be as linked as Nixon’s to Watergate. Both recognize that.

On Monday afternoon, before their talk, the pair took a tour of the library’s grounds.

“So here we are, Bob,” Bradlee said, surveying a rose garden outside the library.

They spotted the house where Nixon was born and decided it would be fun to check it out. It was after 5, and someone suggested the docents had locked up for the day. They walked over anyway.

“If not, we’ll break in,” Woodward deadpanned.

When Woodward walked up to the front door, the knob didn’t budge.

“The story of my life,” he said. “It’s locked.”

“To break into Nixon’s house – imagine that,” Bradlee said, chuckling.

He smirked when he saw the helicopter that Nixon fled the White House with on August 9, 1974.

“I remember that picture so well, God,” he said, imitating Nixon’s farewell wave as he left the White House lawn. “I remember that picture of him just like yesterday.”

“We can’t get in the house. Maybe we can get in and fly it away, Bob,” Bradlee said, pointing his cane toward the helicopter and laughing slightly.

“Well, I wouldn’t want to ride in it now,” he told Bradlee once they’d walked over. “Look at all the cracks!”

Naftali met them as they wandered back toward the museum from the helicopter. When he learned they couldn’t get into the house, he rushed off and returned a minute later with a beefy security guard who had a key.

See, all you need is a subpoena,” he joked. “You don’t break-in. That’s the lesson of this whole thing.”

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