How An Unlikely Pair -- Woodward and Bernstein -- Broke Watergate

By: Alicia C. Shepard Today, he?s on the road hawking his new book on Hillary Clinton and getting A-list treatment because of something he did 35 years ago.

On this date, June 17, 1972, Carl Bernstein, then an unknown reporter who covered Virginia, was in the Washington Post newsroom because he hadn?t finished an overdue story. His editor was fed up and had ordered Bernstein to work the weekend that an odd burglary would be discovered at the Watergate hotel that would change his life forever.

It was on this date that five men in business suits wearing surgical gloves and carrying sophisticated electronic gear broke into the Democratic national headquarters inside the Watergate complex. It was their second attempt. The burglars had gotten inside a few weeks earlier but the bugs they placed were defective, so they went back. This time police caught them around 2 a.m.

Bob Woodward, 29, a cub of a reporter, was called that morning at his nearby apartment to work the break-in story. He eagerly went to the office to help. Woodward was the kind of young, hungry reporter that any editor loved. He never turned down a chance to work.

Bernstein, on the other hand, was losing patience with the Post and they with him. At 28, Bernstein thought that after six years as a Metro reporter, he should be elevated to rock critic or covering the Vietnam War. In fact, the Post was closer to firing Bernstein for being lazy and unreliable than rewarding him.

?Stories he didn?t particularly like, he waltzed around a lot, procrastinated, dawdled, found small crevices that somehow became big problems,? said Tom Wilkinson, Bernstein?s editor at the time of the break-in. ?All the kinds of roadblocks, real and otherwise, that creative reporters can dream up.?

There?s no doubt, though, that Bernstein knew a good story, and he quickly insinuated himself onto the Watergate break-in that day, getting a tagline along with Woodward and six other reporters for the first-day story. The byline for the nearly 2,000-word front-page story belonged to legendary Post police reporter Alfred E. Lewis.

?I think Bart Barnes actually wrote it because Al never wrote his own stories,? Woodward told me in 2003.

Even though nine reporters worked the story that Saturday, only Woodward and Bernstein showed up the next day to report on the strange story. Neither was thrilled to see the other.

To Bernstein, Woodward was a suck-up. He?d only been at the paper for nine months. He?d moved up the editorial food chain way too fast for Bernstein?s liking. Bernstein thought of him as the ?rat turd? reporter for all his front-page stories on failed restaurant inspections. Bernstein figured Woodward?s meteoric rise had nothing to do with talent and everything to do with his establishment credentials: WASP, Yale graduate, navy lieutenant.

?I thought Woodward was a prima donna, and an ass kisser, a navy guy, green lawns of Yale, tennis courts,? Bernstein told the late author, David Halberstam in the mid-1970s. ?I didn?t really think a lot of most of Woodward?s stories. I thought they were from the wham-bam school of journalism, making a lot out of very little.?

To Woodward, Bernstein was a quasi-counterculture journalist, a long-haired freak who rode a bicycle, didn?t own a car and smoked cigarettes incessantly. He was either constantly borrowing money and never paying it back, or out womanizing while still married to his first wife. Besides, he was a Democrat and Woodward was a registered Republican who had voted for Nixon in 1968.

Everyone knows how the rest of the story goes. The pair were thrown together by their editor, Barry Sussman (who doesn?t speak to them today), and they made history, helping the Post win a Pulitzer in 1973 (they didn?t win it, the paper did) for its Watergate reporting.

By many standards, Bernstein has lived a successful life, but compared to his prolific and productive Watergate partner, Bernstein comes up short. Today Woodward is virtually the fifth branch of government; the most famous investigative reporter in the country. Since the pair wrote "All the President?s Men" (1974) and "The Final Days" (1976), Woodward has written 12 more books ? practically one book every two years. Bernstein just published his third book, "A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton."It took him eight years.

But what most people don?t know, or don?t remember is that Woodward was a neophyte who depended a great deal on Bernstein?s well-developed skills as a reporter. Woodward learned from Bernstein. It was Bernstein who knew how to get credit card and phone records; how to work sources; how to work the system. Woodward owes a lot to Bernstein. He has said several times that he was able to capitalize on Bernstein?s talents better than Bernstein could.

?When we started working together besides being young I had precisely one year and nine months experience in the newspaper business,? Woodward told me. ?He had 12 years. Carl taught me an immense amount. He knew the ropes. Twelve years versus less than two year experience. He taught me an immense amount about keeping notes, and going back. When Carl gets into something there?s no more talented journalist.?

Each man brought separate strengths. Woodward was the plodding, disciplined one. Bernstein the street-smart one who could see the big picture. Together, they did something neither could have done on his own. Through months and years of reporting, they were able to help expose the corruption and criminality of Nixon and his administration.

But by the end of 1976, after four intense years, the polar opposite personalities could barely stand to be in the same room or talk to one another, and so their partnership came to an end when Bernstein left the Post in December 1976. They were millionaires. They were celebrated. They were in demand, and they had the kind of fame, fortune and respect that most journalists hope to achieve by the end of their lives.

Woodward was 33; Bernstein 32.

?Their careers have played out very much the way they were as young reporters,? said Peter Osnos, a former Washington Post correspondent and founder of PublicAffairs Books. ?Bob is prodigious and productive and formidable, and Carl is brilliant in spurts. The combination at the early stages of their careers created something historic.?


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