Legendary reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein told a full auditorium of students, teachers and political junkies that if the Watergate scandal had happened today, their investigative tactics would remain the same.
The pair had been invited to speak at the university on Oct. 26, as part of the Goodrich C. White lecture series and spoke for nearly an hour about Watergate, American politics and the state of the media in today’s technology-driven age.
“People think the internet is a magic box that can give you the truth,” Woodward said. “If you look at how to get information in any story where it’s hidden, and most stories are hidden, you have to develop human sources and a relationship of trust and get people to tell you things that, believe me, are not on the internet.
“We’re on the edge of a crisis about where we are in terms of getting knowledge about our government,” Woodward said.
Addressing an audience member who asked how discouraged and fearful they were of the ability of Americans to get objective information to make real choices. Bernstein answered, “I’m not an optimist.”
Bernstein then described a journalist’s or editor’s most important responsibility as “making a decision about what is news.”
“One of the things about the internet is we know more and more people are looking for information to confirm their already-held beliefs, prejudices and ideologies, rather than to be well-informed,” Bernstein said.
Woodward and Bernstein explained in detail—albeit sometimes tongue-in-cheek—how they managed to break one of the biggest stories in American history in 1972. The pair uncovered the political scandal that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
“It’s great to be here; we asked Gordon Liddy to arrange the microphones and once again Gordon has failed us,” Woodward said with a chuckle as both he and the shorter Bernstein adjusted the microphones.
In 1972, Liddy supervised a group of men now known as the “White House Plumbers” who broke into the Watergate Hotel in 1972, where the Democratic National Convention Offices were, to gather intelligence on Nixon’s political opponents.
Bernstein ad-libbed that at one point, he got lists of people from an ex-girlfriend in Washington that enabled them to begin their investigation.
“We worked at night,” Bernstein said. “We got hold of some lists of people who worked for the committee of the re-election of the president in the White House and we started methodically to go out at night and knock on some doors and find out what it was they had to say.”
The Washington Post reporters described the first year of their work on the Watergate story as one that was very methodical.
“We went about this coverage very incrementally, a piece at a time. We wrote a couple hundred stories in the first year after the break in,” Bernstein said.
Both described the Nixon-White House as one that portrayed itself as a “fueled, well-oiled White House machine presided over by Nixon’s deputies that could do no mechanical wrong.”
Woodward said they became interested in following the money and Bernstein tracked down the president’s bookkeeper. After that, he said, everything began to fall into place.
The duo also treated the audience to a brief reading of some excerpts of the Nixon tapes, apologizing for the language before reading quotes from Nixon telling FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to blow up a safe at the Brookings Institution, a popular Washington think tank.
In closing, Woodward told a clever anecdote of when he interviewed former President George W. Bush for one of his books about the Iraq war. After the interview, Woodward said he asked the president how he thought history would judge his Iraq war. “History, we won’t know, we’ll all be dead,” Bush said.
Later, Woodward said he returned home and his wife asked him how the interview went. “Well, he answered all of my questions,” he said, “but more importantly, I think I’ve got the ending for the book.”