“Has post-Watergate been a life of hardship? Hell no. It’s been wonderful and then every once in a while you get hit in the face.”
Question: Is it hard to have had such a major success with Watergate so early in your career?
Carl Bernstein: Both Bob and myself have had the most incredible opportunities as a result of Watergate. And hopefully we’ve both taken advantage of those opportunities to, you know, in our very different ways, explore the same things that really we did in Watergate, which is the use and abuse of power.
I’ve written five books, I guess. Two with Bob, doing another one now, and you know, from the Biography of Hillary Clinton to the Pope, John Paul II, or memoir about the McCarthy era and my parents. But almost all the work is focused on that, though I still every once in a while I’ll do a little bit about rock music, because I was a rock music critic at one point. But we’ve had great opportunities.
And sure, there have been times when I think that, hey, you know, you can’t be judged on this one thing every day because there’s not going to be another story like that. And... but look, people have been extraordinarily wonderful by and large, you know. You walk down the street, I walk down the street, people come up to me all the time, they’re grateful about what we did, about our continuing work, my continuing work.
And look, has post-Watergate been a life of hardship? Hell no. It’s been wonderful and then every once in a while you get hit in the face.
Question: Were you relieved when Big Throat revealed his identity in 2005?
Carl Bernstein: Not at first. We were both horrified. And had... our instinct was not to confirm the report because it was a weak report in some regards. And we were not convinced that Mark Felt had actually given his permission. That we knew at the time that he had serious dementia and that we thought that this had perhaps been coaxed... and had more to do with his family and a lawyer who purported to represent him than it did with his own wishes. And I don’t think that if he was not in his advanced state of dementia, I doubt seriously that he would have, since he was so adamant during all the time up until then that he not reveal and we not reveal his identity.
At the same time, and meeting with him afterwards, and I think that we were able to sense some real connection despite the dementia. I think he was genuinely relieved in some way, or happy at the attention and that he must have had some sense that he was being regarded somewhat heroically.
And I think it’s important to understand what Mark Felt did and what he didn’t do. There’s a myth about our coverage, The Washington Post coverage, and that Deep Throat threw all these secrets over a transom and gave us the keys to the kingdom. Not quite the case. We, Bob especially, had to pry information out of him. Most of what Deep Throat did was confirm information we had gotten elsewhere from other sources. And it was invaluable that confirmation because it gave us a certainty that we were right, even as everyday the leader of the free world got up and attacked us, a 28- and 29-year-old kids really, at the time. You know, and that was kind of a heavy experience to have that going on. And yet, we had the certainty, partly because of Deep Throat, that we knew our information was good and unshakable. But in terms of original information, it came from other sources. And so this was not then... I think there’s a little bit of revisionism that goes on about this.
What really is extraordinary is that we were able to keep this secret for 30-something years, you know. That the Russians knew pretty much every thing about us and we knew everything about the Russians. And this was the one real secret in the world, and only three of us knew, Bradley, Woodward, and myself and we were smart enough, the two of us not to tell our ex-wives who it was and—that would have been the end of it. And so.
And one other thing that is apparent in retrospect, you were asking about so-called investigative reporting. We were young, we were not national reporters, we were local reporters and we went about this story very much like the kind of police reporting you do and learn when I first got into the business at The Washington Star, you worked your way up. We interviewed secretaries and clerks before we even knew any higher-ups. We got tables of organization of the White House and the Nixon Reelection Committee and we studied them and getting them was like getting classified information.
So we used this very basic methodology and knocked on doors, hundreds of doors, most of which were slammed in our face. So it’s about shoe leather in terms of this commitment of resources more than anything else. It’s about the management and reporters who are willing to keep going... and days without a story in the paper. And can you do that in the environment of the Web? I don’t know. That’s one of the questions. There’s so much pressure to get it in print, get it out there, get it on the wire very quickly.
And the other thing is, we were single at the time. We did most of our work at night, our reporting at night. We visited people in their homes, away from the pressure of the White House or the Committee to Reelect the President. So, we went... we started interviewing people and knocking on doors at 7:00 in the evening and we’d go to till 11:00 at night. So that became our methodology and being single made that easier.
Recorded July 22, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman