Video: Bradlee relives Watergate

By Chief foreign affairs correspondent
NBC News
updated 6/1/2005 7:33:38 PM ET 2005-06-01T23:33:38

The day after W. Mark Felt revealed he was the Watergate source known as "Deep Throat," NBC's Andrea Mitchell sat down with Ben Bradlee, the editor in chief of The Washington Post when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein reported the story. What follows is a transcript of that conversation, edited for continuity.

Andrea Mitchell:  Mr. Bradlee, what is the significance of Deep Throat?

Ben Bradlee: Well, I mean, let's start with the much maligned anonymous source.  He was anonymous for, virtually anonymous, for 32 years, so don't let us hear any more about we can't keep secrets.  And I think that's good.  Some stories just require anonymous sources.

Mitchell: You know, there's a lot of talk about, oh, they could have done it without Deep Throat.  As the guy in charge, how important was it for you to know that the source, Woodward's source, was so high up that he was bulletproof?

Bradlee: Well, of course I didn't know how high up Deep Throat was.  I knew that he was high up, but when you say, "so high up," I really didn't know how high up.  I knew the bona fides.  What I appreciated was that he was right.  You know, there was never any information given that came from him that was denied.

Now this said, I think that all of the excitement about his being revealed shouldn't make us lose sight of the fact that there were a lot of other sources, there were a lot of other papers that did some wonderful reporting about this, and the Senate hearings and the momentum — Deep Throat couldn't have stopped it.

So one, I think once the tapes came out, that was the real curtain.  But Deep Throat was vital to us, in the start that we got, and in the lead that we got.

Mitchell: When did you learn his identity?

Bradlee: Some time after Nixon resigned, I thought that I sensed the beginnings of a movement to discredit the source, and to get myself in a position where I could be useful in fighting that.  If it happened, I had to know, obviously.  So Bob and I took a walk down to McPherson Square here (in Washington, D.C.), sat on a park bench, and I said, “Who the hell is he?  I've got to know.”  And he told me, right away.  Lasted three minutes, the whole conversation.

Mitchell: And who did you tell?

Bradlee: I didn't tell a soul, and if you want to know, did I tell Sally?  No.  I didn't.

Mitchell: In fact we've talked to Sally Quinn — your wife, your partner in life, and she said you didn't tell her.

Bradlee: Well, I didn't.  I just told you I didn't.

Mitchell: And how awkward was that?

Bradlee: And to her credit, she never asked me.  She was extremely interested, but she never asked.

Mitchell: Didn't want to push that button.

Bradlee: She didn't.

Mitchell: Would you have told her if she had asked?

Bradlee: No.  No.  It had nothing to do with how I feel about her, but I'd given my word, and I didn't.

Mitchell: How hard was it not to tell Sally Quinn?

Bradlee: Not very hard.  I mean, I got no pressure from the Graham family (owners of The Washington Post).  There was a lot of pressure about, “Are you sure you're right, are you sure we're right?”  But neither Don nor Katharine, who was very much alive and fascinated by this story.

Mitchell: Let's try to recreate what the stakes were at the time.  How big was the pressure on Katharine Graham, the Graham family, the Washington Post?  How tough was it?

Bradlee: Well, you never know how tough it was, cause you don't know — you know, you don't know what the Gordon Liddys of this world are up to, and you don't know what the president — in our case, we didn't know what President Nixon and the people closest to him were up to.

But once, I mean, once it got going, it was very important that we be right, obviously, if they were to keep the momentum in this story.  You know enough about this business to know that stories have a life span, and if they disappear they disappear and it's hard to revive them, and we almost lost Watergate.

It seems to me, toward the end of 1972, the election result when Nixon was returned with this fantastic majority, and it wasn't until Judge Sirica showed up and, you know, in the early weeks of '73, that it began to move a little.

Mitchell: Is it hard for a newspaper to go up against a popular reelected president?

Bradlee: It's my kind of hard.  I like that.  If you're right, it isn't hard.

Mitchell: And —

Bradlee: And you have a good onus.

Mitchell: It really mattered that the Graham family stuck with Woodward, Bernstein and you, and the rest?

Bradlee: Vital.  Vital.  Not only stuck with us but was so supportive and so interested.

Mitchell: In terms of Mark Felt and his motivation, do you have any sense of why he decided to pick on the White House, the leadership at the FBI, and go to the Washington Post?

Bradlee: Well, I don't know why he chose the Post.  I mean, I think it was a very good choice, but I don't know why he took it.  I've never met him, but he plainly felt that the stakes were incredibly high, and that it was up to him to act.  I think he's a great hero of this story.

Mitchell: It's interesting to read that Woodward had cultivated the source back when he was covering D.C. police corruption and the FBI were investigating, when he was a Metro reporter, a local reporter, way down in the hierarchy here at the Washington Post, and again, when Arthur Bremer shot George Wallace, a month before Watergate, he used him as a source.

Bradlee: But you've got to understand, you know Bob, you've got to understand that he never stops working, and that he has a sixth sense for who can be useful to him some time, and he  cultivates people.

Mitchell: How important was it that Woodward's source was so well-placed and had access to so much information?

Bradlee: Well, it was obviously important.  It wasn't as important as his being accurate was important.  I don't know if he was bulletproof.  I mean, Hoover — he worked for Hoover for quite a while in this time and you have this feeling that Hoover, if he had displeased Hoover, Hoover could have done something about it.

I think the important thing was that he was right.  That he did it, not how powerful he was.  He plainly had access to that information.  It wasn't the height of it, but it was how right he was.

Mitchell: The information just kept checking out?

Bradlee: Just kept checking out.

Mitchell: Did it take a while for Woodward to convince you that his source was so good?

Bradlee: It took him about 20 minutes.  It took one story.  And then, you know, once we went with — I've forgotten what it even was.  But then we very seldom went with them alone, toward the end, because the stakes kept getting higher and higher.

Mitchell: You know, you mentioned, and other people have mentioned, that Judge Sirica really broke things wide open.  But do you think there would have been Watergate hearings if the Post had not kept up on this story?

Bradlee: I don't know.  I don't know.  Yeah, I think.  It took the hearings to get them going, but once they got going they were unstoppable too, and the forces of good were pretty strong at the end.

Mitchell: But for a while, you were out there all alone.

Bradlee: Yeah.  Don't overestimate the — I mean, I love to hear all about the Post, but the others — Sy Hersh and the Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe — they had some good stories in there that advanced the ball game.

Mitchell: How did this change investigative reporting?

Bradlee: Well, I think it reinvigorates it.  I think, you know, so much of reporting is investigative.  It's almost, in my mind, repetitive, the phrase, investigative reporting.  You can't report without investigating.

Mitchell: But did Watergate and what Bernstein and Woodward and you did, here, at the Washington Post, did that change the dynamic for the rest of the Washington press corps, and in what way?

Bradlee: Well, I think it changed it among editors and owners.  I think they thought, “My God, if the Post has gotten a lot of kudos out of this, maybe we ought to open our eyes to it.”  I think there was a danger while — and I think one that I succumbed to a little bit — that after Nixon left there was a feeling that, you know, let's just take it easy for a while.

That's a very high level of responsibility and you don't want to be known as somebody who brings down governments, not that the Post brought Nixon down.  Nixon brought Nixon down.  But I think — I remember Scotty Reston once said that he thought the press eased off after Watergate for a little, and I think he was right, and he was urging the press not to.  It's just now the time to go on, and I think they did after a while, maybe we wasted a little time; but it seems to me that the press has been nose to that grindstone pretty well.

Mitchell: Looking back now, Watergate sort of gets softened and shaded in people's memories, at least those, especially those who were younger, who didn't live through it.

How mean and ugly was it?  You know, we now see some of these post-Watergate people as pundits and commentators and it seems to be sort of a moral equivalency.  How does that make you feel?

Bradlee: It makes me sick to hear Gordon Liddy talk about morality in government.  I mean, he hasn't been out of jail all that long.  I mean, it's just — it makes me sick.  And why people, why the press goes to him to get quotes about the morality of it all surprises me.  Chuck Colson, the same way.

Mitchell: Well, Pat Buchanan said, repeatedly, in interviews in the last 24 hours, that Mark Felt was a traitor and that he was responsible for the loss of Vietnam and the, “holocaust in Cambodia,” because by bringing down Richard Nixon...

Bradlee: Mark Felt was?

Mitchell: That Mark Felt, by bringing down Richard Nixon cost this country Vietnam and Cambodia.

Bradlee: Well, that's wrong on so many levels.  I mean, Richard Nixon brought down Richard Nixon.  There wasn't anybody else involved.

And I must say that the tape, the Nixon tape about Mark Felt, just fascinates me.  The first thing he says is, “Is he a Jew?”  What the hell does that have to do with it?

Mitchell: Which turned out not to be true but...

Bradlee: No.

Mitchell: It was their false conclusion in any case.

Bradlee: But actually, Haldeman told him that he wasn't — yeah.  Haldeman said he was a Catholic and that's not true either, I understand.

Mitchell: When you think about whistleblowers, is Mark Felt the sort of classic whistleblower?

Bradlee: Well, you know, a whistleblower, that sounds sort of sneaky, and...

Mitchell: Well, going into garages at night and sending signals...

Bradlee: Yeah, the garage.

Mitchell: ...in the Washington Post classifieds.  That's sneaky.

Bradlee: Well, I don't know about the garage, how they chose the garage.  It worked out well in the movie.  I don't know.  But I think whistleblower, the right kind of whistleblowing is a patriotic act.  I have no trouble with that.

Mitchell: Did the whole mystique of Deep Throat become glamorized and perhaps more part of the mythology because of the nickname?

Bradlee: It's becoming that now and, yeah, the nickname — I mean, think of the nickname.  I mean, this wasn't table talk.  You couldn't talk about that when I was growing up, and to have that, you know, that sexual connotation become popular.

Mitchell: And who came up with the nickname?

Bradlee: Howard Simons came up with the nickname.  He was the former managing editor of the Post, who was a joyous man and who saw humor everywhere, and I think — you know — I mean, it's right now that the legend is being perpetuated.  The legend was going to die one of  these days, sooner or later, even though the movie is on television all the time, and I mean, I have people stop me in the streets the next day, that say, “Oh, I saw you on television last night.”

Mitchell: You told them it was really Jason Robards.

Bradlee: Well, I didn't.

Mitchell: Are you, in a sense, relieved that it's out?

Bradlee: I hadn't thought about it.  I'll be glad when the pace of all this rash of publicity is over, but no, I mean, I think that it's interesting and I think it's good for the news business.  It's good for the Post.

Mitchell: How is it good for the news business?

Bradlee: Because we behaved responsibly, and for a long time kept our word; all those good virtues.

Mitchell: And how surprising was it that it would be released in this fashion?

Bradlee: Totally, to me.  I had no idea it was coming and, you know, you don't think of Vanity Fair as the place where that kind a story is — or at least I don't.

Mitchell: So what was it like around here yesterday?

Bradlee: It was just your local madhouse.  Len Downie, my successor, and his successor, the managing editor, were off at some conference, you know, on the Eastern shore, it took them a while to get back.  But, you know, we got going.

Mitchell: And did you tell Sally, or did Sally hear it on her own?

Bradlee: I've forgotten.  I think I probably about, in the middle of the morning, told her that it was gonna break; yeah.  I think I did.

Mitchell: Any other thoughts on lessons for, maybe young journalists who've been struggling, with the over-reliance on anonymous sources, and all of the media issues we've had to grapple with?  We've had some real set-backs lately.

Bradlee: Yeah.  I think that the kids will appreciate that it has come to an end, and that it's a great example of how an important but minor part of democracy works — free press, all that stuff.  Good civics lessons.

Mitchell: Is there an application to the fact that we've got journalists who, right now, may be soon jailed, not only for stories they wrote but stories they didn't even write?

Bradlee: Yeah; that's interesting.  I mean, I hope it has some application, because I think that's a scandal.  But I think it would decrease the appetite to get the press a little bit — temporarily.  Newspaper popularity is very cyclical and it — you know, if they go down, they'll come up.  If they get up, they'll go down.

Mitchell: Has it been fun?

Bradlee: Terrific.

Mitchell: Thank you, Ben Bradlee.

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