By: Alicia C. Shepard
Thirty years ago this month, Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein cemented their status as two of the most famous journalists of the 20th century. They?d gotten plenty prominent when their book “All the President?s Men” came out in 1974. But in April 1976, several things happened that sent them into a stratosphere of fame and celebrity that few, if any, journalists have ever known.
In that April three decades ago, the pair performed a neat hat trick: No. 1 best-selling hardback, No. 1 movie and the No. 1 paperback.
It all began on March 27, 1976 — sooner than planned — when the Washington Post and its sister publication, Newsweek magazine, began running explosive excerpts of “The Final Days,” the Woodstein sequel to “All the President’s Men.” A week later, on April 4, the film version of “All the President?s Men” debuted before an audience of 1,100 at the Kennedy Center, next door to the Watergate hotel, where the story had started on June 17, 1972.
Either event alone would have turned the month upside down for mere mortals. Woodward was 33, Bernstein 32, and it altered their lives forever.
All this is plainly apparent in the reams of Watergate-only material that Woodward and Bernstein sold to the University of Texas in 2003 for $5 million. Aside from scores of interview notes and galley proofs for “The Final Days” and personally annotated movie script drafts of “All the President?s Men,” there are seven boxes of newspaper and magazine clippings in English and at least a dozen foreign languages. That?s almost three feet of articles about them, their books and the now-classic movie.
For the Post, in the early spring of 1976, it was a no-brainer to plaster their star reporters? work on the front page heralding a week of Watergate revisited. For Newsweek, it was a first. The newsweekly had never before run a book excerpt. Five months earlier, Newsweek, Esquire and Playboy had battled to be the first to publish two 15,000-word excerpts. Newsweek won, paying $60,000 for exclusive rights.
Newsweek?s hand, however, was forced by the enterprising, young Kitty Kelley, today best known as the celebrity biographer of Frank Sinatra, Jackie Onassis and Nancy Reagan.
Kelley, then a reporter for New Times magazine, was slipped a prepublication copy of the “The Final Days” manuscript, which was to have been a tightly held secret. Woodward and Bernstein had kept it locked up during the writing. Simon & Schuster had refused to send review copies knowing the contents would make front-page news, which they did.
The manuscript was burning hot in Kelley?s hands but New Times had closed its issue. So Kelley called Liz Smith, then a fledgling gossip columnist at the New York Daily News, who got a big scoop. ?When Liz ran her column, Newsweek had to rip up their issue and run it sooner than they wanted, and the same with the Washington Post,? said Kelley.
Robert Redford was furious. The plan had been for the movie to debut before the “The Final Days” pub date of May 3, 1976. Redford feared that the book might create a backlash of sympathy for Nixon that would hurt the movie.
As it turned out, “The Final Days” helped the movie and outsold “All the President?s Men” almost two-to-one in hardcover. ?It flew out of stores,? said David Obst, then Woodstein?s agent. ?Simon & Schuster didn?t leak it. It wasn?t in their interest to leak it either because books hadn?t been shipped yet when the Liz Smith item ran.?
The New York Daily News publicity didn?t hurt. When Newsweek?s first installment came out, it was the fastest selling issue in the magazine’s history. The magazine sold out within 40 minutes of its delivery in DC. Woodstein got this letter from then-New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh, their arch nemesis during the incipient Watergate reporting:
?Just wanted to say that I read the excerpt (Part 1) in Newsweek just now and it was terrific; I wished I had written it (which as I told David Obst, is the ultimate compliment anyone can get from me?the last book I daydreamed about writing was ‘Humboldt?s Gift’). And keep out of Las Vegas. Sy?
Hersh?s note was not the norm. Before the hardback even appeared in stores, critics were after Woodward and Bernstein. The reception was not nearly as warm as for “All the President?s Men.” The attacks came quickly and ferociously.
Few disputed that “The Final Days” was a compelling, fast-paced narrative about the disintegration of a once-proud president fighting to stay in power. But what Newsweek ran, and lots of papers picked up, focused on the salacious details of a presidential family in crisis: A lonely Pat Nixon drinking on the sly; a presidential couple who hadn?t had sexual relations in 14 years, a despondent Nixon kneeling to pray in the Lincoln bedroom in the White House with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger sobbing. The 480-page book was far more nuanced.
Woodstein responded to some of the vitriolic letters, according to their Watergate archives at the University of Texas. There were no negative intentions in writing the book, they said. ?Beyond this, I can only give you my personal assurance that our sole motivation in working on ‘The Final Days’ was to report the truth: neither money nor any preconceived disposition regarding Mr. Nixon was a factor in our reporting,? said a draft letter on Washington Post stationary filled with typos and cross outs that they asked their secretary to retype. ?Incidentally, no suits have been filed against us in any of our Watergate reporting ? for the paper, for ‘All the President?s Men’ or for ‘The Final Days.’?
While many claimed to object, they bought the book. “The Final Days” become an instant best-seller on the day of publication. It became known as ?The Book.? One store in New York City reported selling 100 copies a day. ?The biggest initial printing in our history,? then-Simon & Schuster president Richard E. Snyder told Parade on April 18, 1976.
By the month?s end, the book had gone into its sixth printing, making it one of the fastest sellers in publishing history. Eventually, ?The Book? sold more than 600,000 copies.
The movie did equally well.
On the night of the glitzy movie premiere, limousines arrived at the Kennedy Center. Out stepped Redford, his wife, Lola, Dustin Hoffman, Woodward, Bernstein, Bradlee and his girlfriend, Sally Quinn. A crowd of about 1,500 fans ?- including a couple hundred striking Post pressmen — watched from behind velvet ropes while WTOP radio broadcast live and collared the stars.
For Bradlee, the premiere was a defining event. He knew then that he and Woodstein had crossed over into another world. ?Think about how amazing it was for Woodward and Bernstein,? said Bradlee. ?But it was for us too. I had never been before a target of people?s sort of whispering and pointing. I was miserable. I hated it. And I couldn?t pay any attention to the movie. The photographers were always trying to get me to pose with somebody.
“It was the first public time where I really understood that we were enroute to becoming public figures at that time. The movie hammered home to me that there was an awful lot of fuss being made about us. I?m used to coping with the good run now. I wasn?t used to it then.?
Bradlee?s predecessor Russ Wiggins had told him repeatedly that the job of a journalist was to stay off the stage. But when the movie came out, Bradlee knew life as they had known it was over. They were all stars thanks to Robards, Redford and Hoffman. The movie solidified Woodward and Bernstein?s status as American folk heroes. ?They had not been viewed as demigods in the newsroom,? said Quinn, a Post reporter at the time. ?Only after the book, and really after the movie, did it become clear that their celebrity was a little over the top.?
The movie offset the pummeling they were taking for their new book. During the first week it appeared in 604 movie theaters, attracted ecstatic reviews and earned $7 million, a high number in that day.
In an unusual twist, by April 1976, Woodward and Bernstein, through their reporting, their two books and the movie, had become more famous than many of the people they wrote about. TV and radio commentators and a few newspaper columnists enjoyed some celebrity at the time, meaning they or their names were known to the public. But never before had two regular-Joe newspaper reporters, not covering a war and with little seniority, become so well-known. Millions saw the movie. Hundreds of thousands read their books–and hundreds of them, at least, followed them into the journalism profession.
?I tend to reject the term celebrity,? Woodward said at the time. ?Celebrity is a fleeting thing, like the new hit TV show of the fall. There, and then it?s gone. But what I really think you?re asking me is ?When are you going to screw up???
Ten days after the movie premiere, Bernstein and Nora Ephron married in New York City. The rest, as they say, is history.