Memories from inside The Washington Post newsroom
In the early morning hours of June 17, 1972, five burglars with Cuban liberation credentials and clandestine CIA connections were arrested after breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C.
Twenty-five months and 22 days later – 40 years ago today – President Richard Milhous Nixon announced he was resigning as the 37th president of the United States, effective at noon the following day.
The journalistic drama that led to the president’s resignation, authored by journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, kept a nation riveted to the unfolding scandal.
To this day, “Watergate” has become synonymous with political intrigue and corruption, and The Washington Post, properly so, will forever be remembered as the newspaper that brought down the most powerful man in the world, the president of the United States.
I was fortunate to be a reporter and editor at The Post for many years, including those spanning the Watergate scandal and, to this day, the question I get asked most often about my career has nothing to do with a story I might have written or an editorial campaign I might have orchestrated.
No. People want to know whether I knew Woodward and Bernstein. I did (Woodward a bit, but Bernstein much better).
If I may, on this 40th anniversary, I’d like to share with you a few memories of what it was like to be at The Post during Watergate – not the factual material that has been recounted in the dozens of books on the subject – but a personal recollection or two that have stayed with me over these four-plus decades.
One thing I’d like to make “perfectly clear” (as Nixon was fond of saying): While The Washington Post as a newspaper won the Pulitzer Prize for our Watergate coverage, it was Woodward’s and Bernstein’s story from day one. They, not we, did it. The dozens of us who contributed to varying degrees played supporting roles. “Woodstein,” as they were collectively known in the newsroom, deserve all of the applause.
In the Sunday paper following the president’s actual resignation, we published (I edited) a supplement titled “The Nixon Years.” It was the largest special section we had ever put together – 32 full pages uninterrupted by advertising. We had worked on it for months (knowing that Nixon’s leaving office was inevitable), and it included the best writing of our best national reporters who had covered Nixon’s political career for decades.
Ironically, the section was complete, ready to go to press with an important exception. One article was still missing. It was the personal piece written by, you guessed it, Woodward and Bernstein. When they finally handed it in (weeks past their deadline), it was about a yard too long, and Bernstein announced it “couldn’t be cut.”
We had a not-so-civil conversation, and I suggested that either he cut it or I would. He appealed to Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, who told him to start getting his copy in on time. Carl cut the piece.
Just a little P.S.: “The Nixon Years” may have been the finest piece of journalism I have ever worked on. The team that put it together, if memory serves, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize (but we didn’t win).
I recall so many nights leaving The Post building at 2 or 3 in the morning (we published five editions a night and, therefore, were a 24-hour operation), and there would be Carl Bernstein, sprawled out in his desk chair, totally exhausted, trying to catch an hour or two of sleep before getting back to his researching and writing. He did this for months and months.
We had a newspaper vending machine at the main entrance of The Post building at 1150 15th Street NW, and many evenings White House limousines would line up to get their copies of the latest revelations just moments after the first edition came off the press at 10:20 p.m.
Many young people may know of Watergate more from the movie (still played on late-night television) based on Woodward’s and Bernstein’s book “All the President’s Men.” Robert Redford played Woodward, Dustin Hoffman played Bernstein, and Jason Robards played Bradlee.
The Post was approached by the film’s director, Alan J. Pakula, who wanted to film much of the movie in our fifth floor newsroom. While conversations were friendly, frankly Bradlee and others were not comfortable with how the newspaper, or its reporters, would be portrayed, and so they turned Pakula down.
It was agreed, however, to let Redford and Hoffman work with us for a few weeks to learn how to become “real reporters.” More on that in a moment.
In the meantime, director Pakula sent in an army of photographers to shoot photos of virtually every square inch of our newsroom – from the posters on the walls to the books in the bookshelves.
They re-created it EXACTLY on a movie set in California. The movie people became so obsessed that they actually collected “authentic” Washington Post trash from our wastebaskets and sent it to Hollywood for the film.
The first time I met Robert Redford I didn’t recognize him. We had both gotten into the lobby elevator, and he punched the button for the fifth floor newsroom. He was dressed in blue jeans and a casual shirt, and (sorry ladies) his complexion needed makeup.
Most employees who dressed like Redford worked in the composing room on the fourth floor and, frankly, they weren’t encouraged to come up to the editorial department on five.
I asked Redford politely if he hadn’t hit “five” by mistake, and he seemed uncertain. He said he was here to see Ben Bradlee, the editor.
Both Redford and Hoffman immediately fit in well at The Post – just regular guys – but what I recall in particular was the transformation of Dustin Hoffman into Carl Bernstein.
Hoffman began to pick up Bernstein’s mannerisms (they were together constantly and remained friends after the movie came out), walking with the Bernstein gait, adopting his gestures, holding a cigarette just so, growing and grooming his hair just like the character he was about to portray.
Amazingly, syndicated columnist Richard Cohen (he’s still at The Post), who was one of Bernstein’s best friends, actually once mistook Hoffman for Bernstein.
“All the President’s Men,” by the way, is an excellent – and largely accurate – portrayal of the Watergate saga. Pakula was nominated for an Academy Award as “Best Director” for the film.
And so, 40 years ago today on Aug. 8, 1974, we at The Post had foreknowledge that the president was about to resign. Although I wasn’t a Post photographer, I took my Nikon F camera to the office because I knew history was to be made that day at the newspaper.
The photos accompanying this story have just a bit of backstory.
As we were closing out the paper in the composing room, I saw Bradlee staring at the headline “Nixon Resigns” on Page One. Under his direction, the newspaper had just brought down the president of the United States.
I interpreted Bradlee’s somber look as, “My God, what have we done?”
I snapped a couple of photos quickly, and then Bradlee spotted me: “Legge, what the hell are you doing?”
The next day I made a photo print in my home darkroom and brought it to Bradlee. By chance I had caught him at the zenith of his career and at a milestone moment in the annals of governance and journalism.
The photo has been reproduced in many books (including two by Bradlee: “Conversations with Kennedy” and “A Good Life”), dozens of magazines (including People and Playboy) and, of course, scores of newspapers. I just learned that The Post published it again in 2011 to commemorate Bradlee’s 90th birthday.
In the other picture (taken just this we
ek), I am holding the masthead of The Washington Post. What makes it interesting, at least for me, is that when I left The Post in 1976 for Newsweek (which The Post Company owned), one of the printers presented it to me as a going-away gift.
It is the masthead that every single Watergate story ran under on Page One. That masthead had sat atop a lot of history.