Question & Answer

Q: Did you want to be a reporter when you were young?

A: No. When I was in high school I worked part time as a janitor in my father’s law office, and I was able to rummage through everything in the office. That may have sparked an interest in finding out the secrets that people keep. 

Q: Did you study journalism in college?

A: I studied history and English at Yale, which I attended on an NROTC (Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps) scholarship. After college I served in the Navy five years.  

Q: Where were you assigned during your time in the Navy?

A: I was first assigned to the USS Wright, a floating emergency relocation ship for President Johnson in the case of nuclear war. I was one of two officers ordered to be present if the top secret authentication codes for nuclear war orders were handled or transferred in any way. The codes were at that time secured with two combination locks, one of which I had the combination to. I later served on the USS Fox, a guided missile frigate that was stationed off the coast of Vietnam.  

Q: How did you choose journalism for your career?

A: When I got out of the Navy I was considering going to law school, but I decided that I didn’t want to go to school for three more years and be thirty years old before I started a career. So I had to find something to do, and I tried to get a job at The Washington Post. I had no real journalism experience, but they gave me a two week tryout in August of 1970. I wrote about fourteen stories, none of which were very good. The metropolitan editor, Harry Rosenfeld, who I worked for on Watergate two years later, called me in and said, “You don’t know how to do this.” And I said, “Thank you. But I found out something. I love it. I don’t know how to do it, but know that I love it.” And I went and worked at a weekly paper in Maryland for one year, and then they hired me at the Post.  

Q: What was your first reaction when you got the call regarding the Watergate break-in?

A: I had been working at the Post for about nine months as a night police reporter. My shift was from 6:30 at night until 2:30. I was unmarried, so I would often wake up the next day and come in to also work a day shift. My first reaction to the news of the break-in was that it was a routine burglary, and I was hoping that after nine months at the Post I would be moving on to more important and interesting stories. As more details came out it became apparent that things weren’t quite adding up and this could be an interesting story to investigate, to say the least.  

Q: Why did you keep pushing with the Watergate story?

A: There was not one particular piece of information that caused Carl Bernstein and me to keep pressing into the Watergate story. The morning of June 17, 1972, the morning of the Watergate burglary, the five burglars were arrested. It was a beautiful, spectacular day in Washington. Anyone with any sanity was out enjoying the outdoors. And the editors at the Post for the weekend were sitting around. They have this report of this burglary, and one said, “Who would be dumb enough to come in and work on this beautiful Saturday morning? Woodward.” Everyone agreed. So I was called. Bernstein had a nose for news and was working that day. So we, with about eight people, worked on that first day’s story that Saturday. Two people showed up at the office the next day, Sunday. Bernstein and me.
We learned through other reporters that the head burglar, James McCord, who had been head of security at the Central Intelligence Agency, had also been head of security at the Nixon reelection committee. And we thought, What’s going on here? And one clue led to the next, to the next, to the next, and it just never stopped. So we continued working on it.  

Q: Did you really feel that your lives were in danger at the time?

A: This was more my paranoia. I don’t think our lives were really in danger.

Q: How did you deal with your own self-doubts at a time and questioning from your own editors?

A: Carl Bernstein and I probably did not have enough self-doubt. We were confident in our information and sources, but we figured the Watergate cover-up and general intimidation tactics of the Nixon White House would keep the truth from coming out. We appreciated the questioning of our editors; Ben Bradlee is a great editor because of what he kept out of the paper as much as for what he allowed in. Bradlee believed what we had. The problem was proving it and publishing stories that were as credible as possible. That meant sending us back for more reporting, rewriting and focus—an essential part of any news or investigative story.  

Q: You were a young and relatively inexperienced reporter at the time of the Watergate scandal. How did you learn the investigative techniques that you used, and was
there one most valuable technique?

A: I learned the most from Bernstein, who had been a reporter for more than a decade, since he was about 16 I recall. The technique was go back and go back to sources of good information; replow the ground, think of more
questions. Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Post at the time, once asked me when I thought the whole truth about Watergate would come out. I said that Carl and I thought never because the conspiracy in the White House
and Nixon campaign was so tight and effective. She looked at me and said, "Never. Don’t tell me never." It was not designed to scare me (though it probably did). It was a statement of purpose. It was also a statement about technique. She was saying use all your resources and those of this newspaper to get to the bottom of what had happened and what was going on. In other words, keep at it. 

Q: How did you feel after Nixon resigned and Watergate was essentially over?

A: Exhaustion. It was a long two years and three months. But the lessons and the history of Watergate continue to emerge year after year, with new analysis, the release of new White House tapes at the National Archives, and other information. As Bill Geider, a reporter at the Post once wrote, “Will the wonders of Watergate never cease?”  

Q: Do you think Nixon had a role in the break-in beyond the cover-up?

A: The best evidence that we have today indicates that Nixon was only involved in the cover-up. Nixon himself would have been the one to answer that question, but he left no public indication before his death that the whole story hasn’t been told. We may never know the extent of Nixon’s knowledge and involvement, but the Congress and leading Republicans decided he had to go, and he eventually resigned in August 1974.  

Q: How did you feel when Gerald Ford granted Nixon a full pardon?

A: My view of Ford’s pardon of Nixon has changed over time. On the morning it was issued in September 1974, I had not heard the news when Carl Bernstein called me, and said “The son of a bitch pardoned the son of a bitch.” The pardon didn’t have the healing effect that some thought it might. Some 25 years later I examined the pardon in detail for my book, Shadow, and interviewed Ford and others involved, and came to the conclusion that it was the right thing to do because Ford needed to get Nixon and Watergate off the front pages. So it was a courageous decision, though it probably cost Ford the election in 1976. When I told this story to Ford, I said, “Mr. Ford, you’re not a son of a bitch. I was wrong.” And he said, “Can I get that in writing?” 

Q: What impact did Watergate have on the field of journalism?

A: Watergate proved that it was worth the effort to dig deeply and spend sufficient time on stories in order to ensure you’re presenting the truth as completely and honestly as possible. Hopefully that will continue and not be diminished by the impact of instant Internet news and 24-hour cable news programming, which tends to focus on breaking news rather than detailed reporting. 

Q: Do you think the lessons of Watergate will carry on to future generations, or fade over time as those who experienced it pass on?

A: Hopefully the lessons of Watergate will be remembered for decades. I believe the lessons of Watergate will always be relevant. 

Q: Do you think your investigation ever "crossed the line" and interfered with the government’s investigation?

A: I don’t think that our investigation crossed any lines, and hopefully it facilitated the government’s investigations of Watergate. Ben Bradlee and the other editors at the Washington Post, along with publisher Katharine Graham, did a marvelous job in ensuring that the stories that we wrote were careful and well-sourced.  

Q: Would the history of Watergate been altered had you and Bernstein and other journalists not persisted with the story?

A: There’s no way to know what would have happened if we had stopped investigating this story, or lost the support of our editors. However, we as journalists were only reporting what we believed had happened. A group of Republicans, probably most visibly symbolized by Barry Goldwater, the conscience of the party, looked at Nixon, listened to him, and just said, “Too many lies. Too many crimes.” The government officials who held the president accountable for his actions and those of his subordinates, and those sources who were open and honest with the press and the public, were the strongest forces in determining Watergate’s outcome. 

Q: Have you and Carl Bernstein stayed in touch?

A: Carl and I are still in touch and friends today. 

Q: Do you feel Watergate and the subsequent cover-up had an impact on the relationship of the president and the press?

A: The aggressiveness of the press since Watergate speaks for itself. 

Q: If a scandal on the scale of Watergate occurred today, do you think the press would get to the bottom of it?

A: I still believe the media, especially newspaper reporters, would be able to get to the bottom of it. The key ingredients are owners who support this kind of in-depth work that takes time, costs money and includes risks, and editors who are tough minded.  

Q: Do you feel that news coverage today digs too far into the lives of individuals at times?

A: It is the responsibility of reporters to be aggressive, as long as they are fair and accurate. The media has a responsibility to question the actions of our leaders and to investigate any concentration of power. But reporters have an equal responsibility to prevent their own biases from influencing coverage. The media today probably does not dig deeply enough or spend sufficient time on stories. The best way to ensure that sources will be open and honest is to treat them fairly.  

Q: How has the Internet changed the news business?

A: The Internet is a mixed blessing. It creates pressure to do things fast, often too fast, and a news organization operates on the continuous deadline, leading to impatience. The incentives for speed are too great. The best journalism involves patience, often a lot of it. Reporters need to spend time against the problem. The Internet has leveled the playing field somewhat, but the facts and backup and documents still matter. I’m still optimistic that newspapers and the more traditional media can provide essential information to people—in context, in depth. But we have a great deal of work to do to prove that on a regular basis. 

Q: Do you think that it should be the duty of the media to help keep watch on political leaders?

A: I agree that it is the responsibility of the media in a democracy to inform the public about what their elected officials are doing and how they are handling their responsibilities, but it is equally important for non-political figures to be held accountable for what they do. Business and community leaders of all kinds can greatly affect the world, and it is the responsibility of the media to ensure that both positive and negative aspects of business and government are made public. It is equally important that the public demands thorough, honest reporting from the media. 

Q: What do you think motivated Deep Throat (Mark Felt) to talk to you about the Nixon administration’s misconduct?

A: I wrote a book that addresses Felt’s motivation called The Secret Man. In brief, he knew there was a cover-up, knew higher-ups were involved, and did not trust the acting FBI director, Pat Gray. He knew the Nixon White House was corrupt. At the same time he was disappointed that he did not get the directorship. And I was pushing him and pushing him.