As the Trump White House seemingly stumbles, almost inexorably, towards its own Watergate, it is worth looking back at the template through the eyes of that great journalist Seymour Hersh, writing here in The New Yorker magazine in the wake of the 2005 unmasking of ‘Deep Throat’, Mark Felt, the No 2 in the FBI in 1973 as the scandal unfolded.
It was late in the evening on May 16, 1973, and I was in the Washington bureau of the Times, immersed in yet another story about Watergate. The paper had been overwhelmed by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting for the Washington Post the previous year, and I was trying to catch up. The subject this time was Henry Kissinger, President Richard Nixon’s national-security adviser. I had called Kissinger to get his comment on a report, which the Times was planning to run, that he had been involved in wiretapping reporters, fellow Administration officials, and even his own aides on the National Security Council. At first, he had indignantly denied the story. When I told him that I had information from sources in the Justice Department that he had personally forwarded the wiretap requests to the F.B.I., he was silent, and then said that he might have to resign. The implicit message was that this would be bad for the country, and that the Times would be blamed. A few minutes later, the columnist James Reston, who was a friend of Kissinger’s, padded up to my desk and asked, gently, if I understood that “Henry” was serious about resigning. I did understand, but Watergate was more important than Kissinger.
Alexander Haig, Kissinger’s sometimes loyal deputy, had called a few times during the day to beat back the story. At around seven o’clock, there was a final call. “You’re Jewish, aren’t you, Seymour?” In all our previous conversations, I’d been “Sy.” I said yes. “Let me ask you one question, then,” Haig said. “Do you honestly believe that Henry Kissinger, a Jewish refugee from Germany who lost thirteen members of his family to the Nazis, could engage in such police-state tactics as wiretapping his own aides? If there is any doubt, you owe it to yourself, your beliefs, and your nation to give us one day to prove that your story is wrong.” That was Watergate, circa 1973. The Times printed the story the next day, and Kissinger did not resign.
Access to high-level sources within the government was not so unusual at that point. (I had been given the wiretap information by a senior F.B.I. official, now deceased.) But in the beginning there was only Woodward and Bernstein. In the first months of the scandal, in mid-1972, they had pounded out story after story about the Watergate break-in with little competition from other newspapers, and little support from them, either. To the dismay of Abe Rosenthal, who was then the Times’ managing editor, the paper’s Washington bureau had at first relied on assurances from Kissinger that the Post’s story would not lead to the most senior officials in the White House. I had deliberately continued writing about Vietnam, staying as far away from Watergate as possible. I didn’t believe Kissinger for a moment—but I also thought that Woodward and Bernstein were too far ahead, and too conversant with White House officials whose names I didn’t even know. Then, just before Christmas, Clifton Daniel was named Washington bureau chief of the Times. He bought me a box of Brooks Brothers shirts and sweaters—he did not think I was up to the Times’ dress standard—and told me that I was henceforth assigned to Watergate.
A few weeks later, after one of my early stories, which dealt with hush-money payments to a Watergate burglar, appeared in the Times, Woodward and Bernstein got in touch with me and essentially welcomed me aboard. That spring, when we were all doing a lot of daily reporting on the coverup, I spent a long evening with the two of them, talking about where the scandal might lead.
The Nixon White House was unable to spin the story, or to control it. In part, this was because of the wealth of information, including documents, that reporters got from sources within the Administration. Many reporters also had sources on the various congressional investigating committees and in the Justice Department and other agencies. One day, newspapers would publish classified C.I.A. memoranda dealing with White House pressure on the agency to help with the coverup; another day, there would be the Senate Watergate committee’s internal assessment of the credibility of Nixon’s men. If the President and his subordinates were upset about a Times story alleging that Nixon had used ethnic and religious slurs, the paper was able to present the White House with a transcript of his comments.
Anonymous sources were essential to the Watergate story. Reporters were in frequent contact with members of Nixon’s Cabinet and with high-level investigative and intelligence officials. Some of the men who met with the President, and advised him, provided scathing details about his demeanor and his often ill-advised outbursts..
I knew little about Woodward and Bernstein’s sources, and nothing about Deep Throat, whose importance was first made known in their 1974 book, “All the President’s Men.” I knew W. Mark Felt, identified last week as the critical Post source, as a senior F.B.I. official who, like others in the demoralized bureau, was talking to the press. In fact, at the time I thought that Felt was a source for a colleague of mine at the Times on at least one story. Felt was a first-rate contact, but Woodward and Bernstein had many excellent sources. Their stories were as accurate as any group of newspaper articles could be. I also suspected that they were talking to many of the same people I was. On one occasion, I visited someone I assumed was a secret source of my own and found a handwritten note saying “Kilroy Was Here” affixed to the outside office door—a token from Woodward.
Many people in government were outraged by the sheer bulk and gravity of the corrupt activities they witnessed in the White House. Reporters were their allies and confidants. Those men, who dealt with the most sensitive national-security issues, had their worst fears confirmed by the revelation, in July, 1973, of the White House’s taping system, which recorded their meetings and conversations with the President. They wondered what else they didn’t know. Some feared that the government might fall, and some talked to reporters about their concern that the President, facing impeachment, might try to hold on to his office by defying the Constitution.
By May of 1973, the White House coverup was unravelling, and the stalking of Richard Nixon by the wider press corps had begun. Woodward and Bernstein had been more than vindicated. The Nixon Administration, mired in a losing war in Vietnam, was also losing the battle against the truth at home. Throughout the two-year crisis, Watergate was perceived as a domestic issue, but its impact on foreign policy was profound. As memoirs by both Nixon and Kissinger show, neither man understood why the White House could not do what it wanted, at home or in Vietnam. The reason it couldn’t is, one hopes, just as valid today: they were operating in a democracy in which they were accountable to a Constitution and to a citizenry that held its leaders to a high standard of morality and integrity. That is the legacy of Watergate.