On March 23, 2007, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein talked with University of Texas government professor Bruce Buchanan and Ransom Center public affairs assistant Alicia Dietrich about their papers, their relationship with Mark Felt, and about presidential accountability.
Bernstein: I had thought early on that somehow our papers, individually or together, ought to go somewhere. It was unclear to me how we could do it together, because Bob, at the time, had some notion what he wanted to do with his, and then a gentleman named Glenn Horowitz told me about this amazing place, and I said, "This is quite remarkable. This sounds like it's the perfect place." And at the same time, Glenn came down and saw Bob, and for the first time Glenn said, "Look, do it together."
Woodward: Because Carl had a separate filing system, I had a separate filing system, and that they needed to be merged.
B: We were both, first of all, knocked out by this incredible collection and the attention that it's received and the care of records and materials. But then, in Larry Faulkner and Tom Staley, we found two people who understood what our values were in terms of protecting our sources and our methodology and helped us come up with a way to continue that methodology into the archivistic process. And that obtains today as papers are released upon the death of our sources. We were both, I think, really struck by, right away, the commitment of Tom and Larry to this notion.
W: In fact, we realized that when we got done with the process that they would ensure the protection of sources better than we could—than something just floating around in the attics...
B: We could. If something happened to us. Well, that was the other consideration was what was gonna happen? What if something happened to us, and I can't identify this, and he can't identify that?
W: And so it got us to turn over the vast bulk of the material to the Ransom Center here, but then we have a temperature-controlled, humidity-controlled space and archive-like vault out in Virginia where we have the papers and information from sources who still are alive. Now, we would not have done that had we not realized that we're getting old and we better set up a process. And it was Faulkner and Staley who really came up with the idea that we retain in this vault in Virginia control over the material until the sources die.
B: I'd love to see mine come here.
W: Yeah. They should be in one place, but that covers four years of our work, and as we pointed out today, we're adding new interviews that we just did a couple of months ago because the theme here is "Watergate never stops."
W: Amen. Boy, you have to date everything. Some of the stuff we have, we would put a date, October 9, but not a year. We were reporters living in the daily story, and so now I've taken all of my materials—well, in fact I hired somebody—to go though and systematically date it and file it—
B: Drafts as well? Boy, mine is not that well...
W: Well, I've got hundreds of boxes in this vault in Virginia, in addition to the Watergate stuff, from all the books I've done about the CIA and Bush.
B: I have all my stuff, but it's not in as good of organized condition.
B: We didn't use a tape recorder at any point in our original reporting. The first time we used a tape recorder, we didn't use it in All the President's Men, we used it in Final Days. I think it was Bob's idea. I don't know who the first taped interview is, do you?
W: I think John Rhodes, who was the Republican leader in the House. This was for the second book—
B: Then it became evident it was—
W: But to answer the question, the idea was to have these meetings or discussions, and then I would go back and type a note, a memo, from memory.
How do you rate your memory, accuracy, and thoroughness?
W: It's good, but it's not a tape recording.
W: When it got serious in the fall of 2000—not 2000—September of 1972. You know, we were writing about Mitchell, and it was getting very serious—
B: Oh, you mean, yeah...in the vending machine.
W: Yeah. Carl said, "I've gotta know what's going on here. Who this is."
B: Yeah, and because I one day—we would have coffee together every morning and kind of try to organize our presentation for the editors, good-cop, bad-cop fashion, and suddenly I was pressing the button to the coffee machine, and I just sort of felt this chill, and I said, "Oh my God, this president is going to be impeached." And I have no idea where it came from, because nobody had mentioned a word, it hadn't even occurred [to anyone] as far as I know, and Woodward said, "Oh my God, you're right. But we can never use that word around this newspaper or newsroom because somebody will think we have an agenda." But I think that at that point, we both recognized that this was going somewhere that no story had ever gone before, and so I needed to know everything, and we couldn't have any secrets from each other.
How long had you had that contact before you brought Carl in?
W: Well, it goes back to the first day, or I guess maybe the second day after the Watergate burglaries.
B: I knew he was in the Justice Department.
W: He knew he was in the Justice Department. We called him "My Friend." I called him "My Friend." You called him "My Friend." Which it was a, either conscious or unconscious, abbreviation—
B: Acronym. M.F.
W: —for Mark Felt.
B: Well, I think we both had a very good understanding. The great thing was where he sat and the information that he was able to look at. But what Bob and I both knew was that what he really was, primarily, was somebody where we could go and say, "Look, this is what we learned. Are we on the right track?" Because he was often very reluctant to impart any original information. Woodward had to drag it out of him.
He seemed to get a little testy, I take...
B: He was not forthcoming, and it was doled out very piecemeal.
W: Yeah, and I mean, reluctance is an understatement. He was, you know, the No. 2 guy in the F.B.I. at a very delicate time, and his career, because he wanted to get the job as F.B.I. director—L. Patrick Gray was just the acting F.B.I. director—if Gray screwed up, then he might get the job. And I think that—
B: Gray sure did screw up, but he didn't get the job.
W: Right, but I think part of Felt's motive was to help Gray screw up. But he was able to do—
B: Didn't require a lot of, a big push.
W: Yeah, Gray was working on that by himself. It was the sense here's somebody at the crossroads of this big investigation, who knows that, like he told me in the early days after the burglary when we found out that Hunt's, Howard Hunt's, name was in, and phone number, the annotation White House, or W. House, was in the phone books [belonging to the Watergate burglars]. I called Felt and said, "You know, anyone can have somebody's name in an address book. Is this serious?" And he said, "Don't worry." In effect, there's no way to libel Howard Hunt and that he's deeply involved. And so he was able to say, "You're on the right course. This is really serious. Keep going." Almost, as in what we've written, almost like a little bit of a father figure and a mentor. But somebody who didn't want to—
B: I didn't realize that at the time.
W: That's right. You did not.
B: I didn't understand the relationship until fairly recently.
It went back to your Navy days, as I recall, from The Secret Man?
W: That's right. Accidental meeting when I was a courier over at the White House.
B: And in fact, it's funny, because before I knew who it was, Bob had said to me, "He sits outside the F.B.I. director's office." So I thought, and in fact you did tell me that it was somebody that you had met in the Navy, so I thought it was a contemporary originally. So I thought it was somebody our age who was a kind of fast-track—
B: Clerk. Through whom all the papers into the director went. And that was my, until I knew it was Felt.
W: And it was such a sensitive thing. There were such sensitive signals on meetings and so forth. I was kind of, I really have to protect this relationship. And so I worked real hard to protect that relationship.
B: I'll tell you an interesting thing, Tom [addressing Thomas Staley], is that among my papers are my parents' F.B.I. files that are the basis of Loyalties. And there are a number of things, every once in a while, that are checked "Hoover." And when I wrote Loyalties, I did not look for Felt's name. And I suspect his name is probably in there.
W: No, no, it would have been too, he was not at headquarters. When were they investigating your parents?
B: No, but there was a point where he was, I thought, involved in the domestic, no? It would have been early '50s.
W: No, no. Not at all. He was out in the boonies, Kansas City.
B: Oh, you know what? No, in fact, it's Colson's name is on it. I mean, I don't know, but it wouldn't have been on there then. He was never in a field office?
W: Well, he was in a field office—
B: In a D.C. field office?
W: No. But he was in charge of the inspections division. But that was later on.
B: Just that Woodward didn't go see him enough.
W: Carl was pushing me, and you know Felt was the reluctant source, to say the least. And we were, to use that cliché, we were drinking out of a fire hose during that period. It was just very busy. Everyone kind of did their own thing, and we would divide things up and harass each other, and where's the story going, and Carl had a much clearer insight into where the story was going than I did. I didn't see the ramifications for a long time.
It's all so complicated, so many moving parts, I can understand how that would be.
B: Well, we had different approaches to things. You could see it downstairs [at the press conference earlier that day]. You know, we're both reporters.
W: You noticed?
B: But I tend to try to conceptualize, and Bob happily stays on track where I go off sometimes. But together, works great.
W: No, there's such a tendency—and some people criticize me for not answering the motive question—but you can't—
B: How can you answer anybody else's? You can't even answer your own! How are you gonna answer somebody else's?
W: Exactly. It's complex, but clearly, there are many tracks in this. He was horrified with what Nixon was doing.
W: But not just in terms of the law and breaking the law, but of trying to control the F.B.I.
B: And he had broken the law. He had a view of the law that was kind of that the F.B.I was its own higher power.
W: Exactly. That's exactly right. Hoover-trained. He was an acolyte of J. Edgar Hoover's, and there was this idea that Hoover had, which Felt absorbed, and you see it in Felt's own book, where "We're above it all. We are an independent police force answerable to no one, in a way, except to ourselves."
B: Well, Hoover is, aside from an individual president, is the most important American political figure of the twentieth century, in terms of his influence on the country. I mean, he built this institution. He starts with the Palmer raids in 1920 that the whole domestic surveillance really begins with that.
W: But, see, the reason, and this, what became clear as I thought about this and as Felt decided to identify himself, that kind of prissy, moralistic side to Hoover that Felt had, but also this idea that "We're a law unto ourselves." Hoover leaked things all the time.
B: Leaked! Well, I was at the Washington Star when Hoover sent over the tapes—I was a copy boy—of Martin Luther King in a hotel room with women. He had a guy named Deke DeLoach, and the Washington Star was where he leaked to through Jerry O'Leary, Jr.
W: So, in terms of character portrait of him, he's got these two sides of Hoover, and he played it very well for, I think, getting the truth out and for Carl and myself. For himself, he didn't play it so well. He never got the job. He retired in '73—
B: He was a convicted felon.
W: He later became pardoned by Ronald Reagan, of all things.
B: A somewhat ignominious end, or looked like it was gonna be.
Well, I notice also that your relationship with him was such that you felt free to really get in his face once about his obtuseness.
W: Yeah. Well, I don't know, that was the necessity of the moment. That was when we screwed up on Haldeman—we weren't getting anywhere.
B: We were in a mess. We were about ready to quit.
W: Well, he did kind of. As John Dean has pointed out, some of the things he said, we haven't been able to confirm.
B: Well, in fact, there's just stuff in the last meeting we ought to go back and look at actually. It went way into the intelligence community—
W: Well, you know it's kind of all of this—
B: But I guess, again, we don't know. What he was talking about probably had to do with Vietnam.
W: But, as we later found out, all of the black bag jobs that they were doing on the Weathermen turned out that the CIA did at least a couple of black bag jobs in the United States themselves—
B: The whole intelligence community is involved. It still comes back. And we never did anything with it.
W: Well, you go back and look at what came out about what the CIA was up to and what was going on and the NSA and all of the spying on Jane Fonda and so forth, the anti-war movement—
B: When were those hearings? After Watergate?
W: Oh yeah. After all—yeah.
B: Oh, what's his name, the senator from, uh—
W: [Frank] Church.
B: Yeah, Church and [Otis] Pike hearing.
W: So, you go back and look at what he said—
B: That's right. That's when he must have been talking about...
W: It's really a, it's almost Cassandra-like. In what was coming and what was unknown, and the attitudes—
B: What is not clear in our notes to each other and in what's here in the Center is—at least I don't think it is—is the extent to which Watergate was an outgrowth of the Vietnam War. I think that's the piece of it that we don't have, that historians have to deal with. That sound right?
W: Yeah, uh—
B: We have some of it, and a lot of it, the [William] Beecher story in the [New York] Times, but you know, but really—
W: Wire tap on reporters. But, see, this is what's perhaps instructive about this. All good sources never tell you everything. And they operate with a whole highway system of motives that you're never gonna unravel fully. And sometimes it's just that people like to tell the truth, people see your frustrations, sometimes people have personal motives, political motives, or high moral motives. It's, uh—
B: A mystery. This one had a combination probably of all of those.
Most likely did. Most likely did.
W: Well, I don't think he said it was closed. Ben's too smart to—
The last chapter.
W: It's one of last chapters, but as this new thing from the assistant postmaster general [Woodward interviewed Bill Dunlap in January 2007 regarding Dunlap's role as assistant postmaster general under Nixon] suggests—
B: The tapes. I mean, there are gonna be tapes for the next 50 years. Every word that this guy, this president, said practically was recorded. And they're still transcribing. And that process is giving us a record of a presidency such as we've never had. Really, it's interesting this Taylor Branch thing.
W: Oh, about Clinton. I mean, [Ransom Center archivist] Steve Mielke knows. The files we have in Virginia, some sources we had who have not died, and people are going to be surprised at who some of those people are because they're substantially prominent names. And so that's gonna add another dimension to it, and I keep going at it. So, it's never over. And it's gonna be viewed by history very differently at various stages. I'm sure people look at it—
B: Well, it's being looked at again now because of what's going on now, meaning there are now—
W: Yeah. People are going around saying Bush is worse than Nixon. Like you.
B: Like me.
W: Yeah. You know, people say things or they do things, and you find that, in fact, it's not true. And it's just basic checking—I mean, I remember Carl once, and we never put this in All the President's Men, and I don't know exactly why this comes to mind, but there was something in the paper during Watergate of the mayor of D.C. making an announcement about something. They're gonna build a new development in downtown and so forth, and you made some comment that stuck with me. And that is that the politicians are always getting up and making announcements about what they plan to do. And what they promise to do.
B: And so much coverage, the traditional newspaper coverage, is duty coverage and has always been about covering announcements and plans, as opposed to what's happening.
W: And then you said, if you went back and checked, half of this stuff is never built, it's never built on schedule, there are always cost overruns, that there's just a difference between what they're saying and what they're doing. It's kind of basic, but—
B: The first speech we ever gave, we did it together, and someone—I don't know which one of us came up with it—but I still talk about it. I haven't for a while, but the best advice to a reporter that I ever heard came from John Mitchell, Nixon's attorney general. He said, "Watch what we do and not what we say." And the problem with the Nixon administration—
W: It was a dare. It was a dare.
B: And the problem with the coverage of the Nixon administration had been that. [Pause] I'm gonna have to go back soon because I'm losing my voice, and I don't want to lose it for this afternoon.
W: Well, people struggle in the political world, and they reach the top, the presidency, and they become like Nixon in many ways. Nixon, as one of the tapes shows, said, "If the president does it, it's legal." That somehow they're above accountability or scrutiny. And you found with many of the presidents after Watergate, in fact with all of them, was the sense that they're untouchable. That they can do things and no one's gonna find out or that there is no day of reckoning. And it is the myth of a big-time president. Gonna be a big-time president, gonna be a leader, do all of these things on a large-scale, and they forget just the basic element in all of this—Carl always said Watergate was about truth. And if what had gone on in Watergate, if they told the truth at early stages, it would have gone away. But it turns out there were so many lies that were dependent on continuing to lie that probably they were compelled to lie.
B: That's the point. See, I think there came to be a mythology about the cover-up. That if Nixon had just confessed—
W: Politically, it might have worked.
B: It might have worked, except that if it did, it would then—you know, it's all hypothetical—but then it would lead you to the plumbers. And it would lead you to the White House horrors that John Mitchell talked about were really what Watergate was all about. And that once this thread started to become unraveled, that's obviously you can see why they were so worried about us in those tapes. We didn't know they were that worried about us, actually, at the time. We had a notion of it. Actually, I guess we did know, somewhat.
W: There's a tape where we've asked to talk to Nixon in the spring of '73, where he literally gets up there—I have an extract from it because it is amazing that this—
B: "The Post is going to have damnable, damnable problems."
W: This is spring of '73. We wanted to talk to Nixon and said we have information that it's gonna explode. And I went to talk to [Ron] Ziegler, who was the press secretary.
B: Was this in March?
W: Yeah, March or April. March.
B: It was right before he conducted his so-called investigation.
W: And Ziegler was out of town or something, so I saw his deputy [Gerald] Warren, and this is in All the President's Men. But then on the tape, Ziegler goes in to report what I've asked, and on the tape Nixon says, "Tell Woodward to stay 100 percent away from it. There's no fact to it." Mainly, that it's gonna explode and that it's gonna touch the president. "There's no substance." And he then says to Ziegler, "Warn Woodward." "Tell him he better watch his goddamn ass. They're going to attack the president's men, but they must not attack the president." Now that's the spring of '73. We weren't even thinking of using the title All the President's Men. We were going to write a book, but there it is.
B: Actually, we never did think of using the title All the President's Men.
W: It was the publisher.
B: It never occurred to us.
W: But that he used the phrase, "They're going to attack the president's men, but they must not attack the president." But, of course, that's perfect Nixon. You know, they can attack my guys, I don't care, just don't let it come to me. Amazing.
Well, he's had obviously a distorted sense of his own invulnerability, or he would have destroyed those tapes. He thought he could use executive privilege to keep those tapes private. So, he had an exalted notion of what he could do. In any case, gentlemen, thank you very much for this—
B: But if you do have more later, just...but we do have to get back.