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Watergate Reporting, the Second Draft

Douglas Caddy

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Watergate Reporting, the Second Draft

The New York Times


April 2, 2012

Rarely does reality intersect with role playing the way it did two Sundays ago in Bob Woodward’s living room.

Meeting him there were Carl Bernstein, his writing partner at The Washington Post during the Watergate scandal in the 1970s; Ben Bradlee, their top editor at the time; and Robert Redford, the actor who played Mr. Woodward in “All the President’s Men,” the 1976 film that dramatized The Post’s presidential detective work.

Jokes were cracked about the four decades that had passed since Watergate — “You guys, we’re really lucky we recognize each other,” Mr. Redford said — but the men were together for a serious reason. Mr. Redford was starting work on another project on Watergate, this time as a documentarian.

Commissioned by the Discovery Channel, the project, “All the President’s Men Revisited,” will be a two-hour television documentary about the scandal that doomed Richard M. Nixon’s presidency and will explore its effects on politics and the media in the 40 years since. It will have its premiere in 2013 but will be announced by Discovery this week at its annual presentation for advertisers.

“To be able to pull the fabricated and the real together, for the first time, is kind of a juicy opportunity for us,” Eileen O’Neill, the president of Discovery, said in an interview.

Discovery’s interest speaks to the enduring news media fascination with the scandal, which seems to inspire a new television special every 5 to 10 years. Discovery’s previous effort, a collaboration with the BBC, was a five-part series in 1994. The fixation endures in part, said Stanley I. Kutler, a pre-eminent Watergate historian, because “of all the presidents in the last 50 years, it is Nixon that’s the most interesting.”

For Mr. Redford the project represents the start of Sundance Productions, a new business that will make shows for television and the Web. His producing partner in the business will be Laura Michalchyshyn, a former executive at Discovery Communications and the Sundance Channel. Mr. Redford remains the creative head of that channel, but he sold his ownership stake in it four years ago; going forward, he said, his production company will be pitching shows to many channels.

“Television is just booming,” said Mr. Redford, who had a few television roles in the early 1960s before shifting to film, his medium of choice since then. On Monday, on a break from post-production of “The Company You Keep,” a thriller he directed and starred in about former members of the Weather Underground, he sounded passionate in a phone interview about the Watergate documentary, which he will produce and narrate.

Sometimes in life, he said, there’s reason not to look back, but as he talked through Watergate and its consequences in Mr. Woodward’s living room in Washington, he said, he felt increasingly confident that “it’s the right time to take a look at this moment in history to inform the present.”

Mr. Woodward, in a separate interview, said that the men discussed: “What’s the legacy of Watergate? What do we understand? What are some of the lessons? It’s been a long time.”

The answers not only change over time, but they also remain up for debate. One of Nixon’s wars, Mr. Woodward said, “is a war against history” — intentionally speaking in the present tense. He cited a book review in The Wall Street Journal two months ago by Frank Gannon, a former Nixon aide, who asserted that many questions about the scandal remain unresolved. “How did a politician as tough and canny as Richard Nixon allow himself to be brought down by a ‘third-rate burglary’?” Mr. Gannon wrote. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

Mr. Woodward was having none of it. “The voluminous record shows that there are answers to some of those questions,” he said. “When I read the review, I thought, the war continues, and it should be met with facts.”

He said he had guided Mr. Redford and the other executive producer of “All the President’s Men Revisited,” the media executive Andy Lack, to new material about the scandal, like information about the 2005 disclosure of Mark Felt, the onetime associate F.B.I. director, as the so-called Deep Throat source. The producers also plan to seek interviews with politicians and media leaders.

Ms. Michalchyshyn called the documentary “a look back, but it’s very much a look forward as well” at changes in the journalism industry, in campaign finance regulations and in political discourse, among other subjects.

The documentary comes as Discovery appears to be trying to out-history the History channel, a chief competitor, which has set ratings records with shows that stray far from the confines of history, like the reality show “Pawn Stars.”

Ms. O’Neill, Discovery’s president, said she had directed the channel’s staff to “make sure that we’re delivering in the history space,” particularly in what she called “baby boomer history.” In the presentation to advertisers this week her channel will promote specials about Amelia Earhart, Area 51 and Osama bin Laden, as well as “The Gatekeepers,” a series about White House chiefs of staff — including Nixon’s. H. R. Haldeman died in 1993, and Alexander Haig died in 2010; in their place, the producers have interviewed Mr. Haldeman’s deputy, Lawrence Higby.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: April 3, 2012

An earlier version of this article misstated the year of Alexander Haig's death. It was 2010, not 2004.

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