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Book Review and Author Interview: Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate

Reported by Marie Therese - November 13, 2006 -

In the early 1970s two young Washington Post reporters - Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein - doggedly pursued the story of an "odd" burglary of the Democratic National headquarters and gradually, painstakingly traced it to the highest echelons of power in Washington. By 1974 their names and lives had become inextricably intertwined. In her new book Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate, American University journalism professor Alicia Shepard has written an entertaining, well documented and thoroughly enjoyable account of the lives of both men that ends, serendipitously, with the revelation that former FBI Director Mark Felt was the mysterious "Deep Throat".


As part of her three years of research, Prof. Shepard interviewed over 200 people and pored through the massive Watergate archives at the University of Texas, purchased and made public in 2005. Additionally, she asked for and received permission to use the meticulous notes kept by Alan J. Pakula, director of the movie All the President's Men, which actor Robert Redford produced from Woodward and Bernstein's book of the same name. Shepard also had access to transcripts of a series of interviews done in the mid-1970s by David Halberstam. Consequently, her book is sprinkled with new details and personal reminiscences that make the book an informative and easy read.

Since being catapulted into the limelight in the early 1970s, Woodward and Bernstein went their separate ways, but not without controversy. Most of us have heard about their personality differences and the animosity that is supposed to have grown between them as Woodward went on to repeated success at the Post, while Bernstein seemed to descend into personal chaos. What I particularly loved about Shepard's account is her ability to paint both men, not as mythic figures, but as flesh and blood human beings.

Both men married three times, each wedding their second spouse during the Watergate years. Woodward was a meticulous fact collector but unable to distill his notes into copy that anyone would want to read. Although Bernstein was messy and a chain-smoker he could take Woodward's notes and bang out a story that would grab the reader. Woodward is reclusive and reticent; Bernstein, garrulous and outgoing. In the years since Watergate, both were saddled with the burden of wealth and fame achieved before either man was thirty years of age. Woodward chose to remain at the Washington Post while Bernstein opted to leave and strike out on his own. Woodward husbanded his money while Bernstein burned through his. Yet the men are still good friends, despite rumor mill accounts to the contrary.

In her discussion about the making of the movie All the President's Men, Shepard reveals that it resulted in a life-long rift between Bob Woodward and Washington Post editor Barry Sussman. Sussman fostered Woodward, helping him to organize his notes and teaching the much younger reporter how to craft a readable story. Although credited in the book, Sussman's part in the Watergate reportage was left out of the movie. In the book Prof. Shepard writes: "When I called Sussman three decades later, he was curt. 'I don't have anything good to say about either one of them.'" It is the human details like that that make this book such a good read.

For those of us who lived through the Watergate years, this book offers wonderful little tidbits of information that help the reader to see Woodward and Bernstein - or "Woodstein" as they were known at the Post - not as towering unapproachable icons but as genuine human beings who lived through a tumultuous time in American history and have paid a price for it.

The book would also be a good gift for younger readers eager to learn about Watergate in general and Woodward and Bernstein in particular. I have already recommended it to two of my high school students.

As part of the process of reading and reviewing the book, I was offered the opportunity to interview the author by email. Her responses to my questions are reprinted below.

Interview Questions

Answers from Alicia Shepard (November 8, 2006)

NEWS HOUNDS: In the book you postulate that Watergate was a turning point in journalism, transforming a docile, accepting White House press corps into a much more skeptical, confrontational group. Many of us who lived through Watergate welcomed that change and havebeen distressed to see how easily, in the build-up to the latest Middle Eastern war, the press corps seemed to revert to a pre-Watergate willingness to believe whatever the White House put forth.

In your interviews with Woodward and Bernstein, did the topic of the modern-day press corps come up and, if so, what did they have to say about it? If the topic did not arise, do you yourself feel that there has been a similar docility, at least, until very recently?

ALICIA SHEPARD: Carl Bernstein in particular has been very critical of how docile the press is, particularly in covering the Bush administration and the run-up to the war. He still gives about 15 speeches a year, and often the topic includes what a lousy job the press does. (ex. Though not so recent, Woodward, as you know, is far more reluctant to attack or criticize the president or the press. It’s just not his style. But both Woodward and Bernstein, in the early stages of their Watergate reporting, were quick to criticize the press for not doing enough.

In my book, I note that Woodward and Bernstein began giving speeches to colleges in 1973 and that they would lash out at the media. “There has been an obscene affection in Washington for the official version of the story,” Woodward, then 30, told the Boston Globe. “Big-name reporters were merely stenographers. Watergate has proven that that is not enough.”

NEWS HOUNDS: I was fascinated by the contrasts you painted between Woodward and Bernstein. In the "Acknowledgments", you make reference to interviews they gave you, yet they are not directly thanked. Have they received advance copies of the book and, if so, have they given you any feedback?

ALICIA SHEPARD: They were not given advance copies. That wasn’t necessary since I was not writing an authorized book. To date, I haven’t gotten any feedback from either of them. I hope they will read the book. I think it will surprise them how much I dug up and how hard I worked to recreate what were incredibly heady times for both of them.

NEWS HOUNDS: As someone who has difficulty organizing her own desk, I was amazed when I read that over a two-year period you immersed yourself in three major archives - the huge Woodward-Bernstein collection housed at the University of Texas as well as the David Halberstam and Alan Pakula papers. The book is full of these wonderful, revealing references to notes scribbled on napkins or thoughts dashed off in a notebook. On a purely practical level, what process did you use to organize your research?

ALICIA SHEPARD: I began doing research on what happened to Woodward & Bernstein in late 2002 for a piece that eventually ran in Washingtonian magazine in Sept. 2003 (SEE BELOW. There’s a problem with Washingtonian’s links as they remodel their website). I used an oral history format. So first, I read as much as I could about them, creating files about the different chapters of their lives. Then I did scores of interviews. By the time the book was done, it was almost 200. After I got the book contract my files began to grow exponentially. I used green for Carl and purple for Bob and red for Watergate materials. I also kept every electronic file on a jump drive backed up by a second jump drive.

I wrote the book on a jump drive while living in Austin, Texas, where I was teaching and where the Woodward-Bernstein archives are located. I actually moved there to be able to really delve in to the 75 boxes there that cover about 40 feet of shelf space. Normally, I live in Arlington, Va.

In the Texas archives, you could only write on yellow paper with pencil while looking through things. I took lots of notes on that yellow paper, and so that meant everything on yellow paper came from the Texas archives. The Alan J. Pakula archives (he was director of All the President's Men) were out in Los Angeles. There, and with the David Halberstam’s archives in Boston, I was able to bring in a laptop and I typed notes right into the laptop.

I have a massive amount of research that would take up about five feet. The question now is, where do I store it?!

NEWS HOUNDS: In the book I was touched by the story of how Washington Post city editor Barry Sussman reacted so negatively to the movie "All the President's Men" because he was upset that his own considerable contributions to the success of the Woodstein team had been left out. Did it surprise you when he refused to speak with you, even though it was thirty years later?

ALICIA SHEPARD: Me too. When I first started the magazine piece, the very first person I called was Barry Sussman. I thought he was the most logical place to start and I’d not read anything in my research to indicate what was to come. So, yes, I was stunned when he said he had nothing good to say about either of them. Frankly, I didn’t press him too much because I thought that spoke volumes. I learned what was behind that antipathy in David Halberstam’s interviews where Sussman spoke freely about his anger at being cut out of writing the Watergate book that came to be All the President's Men. I went back and interviewed him several more times, but it was always about Watergate. He was happy to talk about the details surrounding Nixon’s downfall. He did tell me he had never read All the President's Men, but he had seen the movie.

NEWS HOUNDS: How did writing this book change your life?

ALICIA SHEPARD: Well, for starters I moved to Austin for a year, so I lived in an entirely new, cool city and met new people. But really, writing a book is a very lonely experience. I felt like I’d gone off to a monastery. My publisher decided in early fall 2005 – after the revelation of Deep Throat and Woodward making news in the Valerie Plame case – that we should try to push up the deadline and get the book out in fall 2006 since there was renewed interest in Woodward.

That was a challenge, and I love those. So I worked almost every night that I could at the library on the campus of University of Texas until it closed at 2 a.m. I did have a tiny, claustrophobic office in the journalism school (which I was thankful for), but I couldn’t write there. No windows. No air. So I basically wrote the book in a library surrounded by scores of people half my age (I’m 53.) I’m basically an outgoing, gregarious type so it was an odd experience to spend so much time alone. I said I lived in Austin, but I don’t think I ever got a chance to really experience Austin because I was working all the time. But I actually really enjoyed the single-focus of only writing the book.

NEWS HOUNDS: Throughout the United States, newspapers are experiencing a significant reduction in readership and advertising. Recently, Jeff Johnson, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, was fired because he refused to follow orders from the Tribune corporation that would have required him to reduce staff levels. Do you think it is still possible for newspapers to engage in Watergate-like investigative journalism or is that job passing into the hands of others, e.g., bloggers?

ALICIA SHEPARD: At some newspapers, it is possible to still do Watergate-type investigations. But that is a small number involving the usual suspects: The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and a handful of others. But the reality is that newspapers seem to be in a perpetual state of budget cutting and the easiest, least painful cut is to get rid of your investigative unit. An investigative unit can spend months on one story, and it might not even pan out. Even if it does, it’s still very expensive when you think of one or maybe two salaries devoted to one story. It’s been said that since the year 2000, some 3,000 journalists have been forced out of the business by budget cuts and restructuring.

Bloggers are great. But let’s not forget that they generally get their material from the mainstream media. You don’t see any bloggers breaking big, important investigative stories. They may, as in the case of CBS and Dan Rather and Bush’s National Guard record, be able to tweak or challenge someone else’s investigative report. But largely any good, ground-breaking investigative work is done by the networks, newspapers or other mainstream mediums, including books.

Btw, you mention Jeff Johnson and just today, the LA Times editor Dean Bacquet was forced out due to his tilting at corporate windmills.

NEWS HOUNDS: In a related question, what is your opinion of blogging? Do you see it as a spontaneous mutation of journalism, a throwback to the 19th century populist press, a complete waste of time or is it something altogether new?

ALICIA SHEPARD: I think I answered the question above. I’m a totally media junkie, and read lots of newspapers and online sites and watch TV and read some blogs. But for me, it’s important to have a clear handle on who the blogger is. There are a handful of bloggers who I like to read – mostly media related – but more for tidbits.

NEWS HOUNDS: For me, the most fascinating part of the book was the improbable friendship that evolved between Woodward and Bernstein. What were the most surprising revelations in your research? In other words, were there times when you had that little intake of breath as you realized that you'd uncovered something new?

ALICIA SHEPARD: At this point, it’s hard to remember what once seemed surprising because it’s all so familiar. As you pointed out, I was taken with the fact that contrary to what I had thought, Woodward and Bernstein were close friends today. We all seem to remember their brutal, public break-up back in December 1976 and few people knew they were close today. I can’t tell you how many people I talked to while reporting and writing who would say, “They are still friends?” with great amazement. Carl is incredibly loyal, and sticks up for Woodward in public any chance he gets. It’s endearing and classy.

I did have that little intake of breath when I saw the Sussman interview that David Halberstam conducted with Barry telling him that he no longer spoke to either man and this was in the mid 1970s. I also remember being excited while reading Robert Redford’s notes on Woodward taken in 1975 when Redford was trying to get a handle on Woodward. (see p. 120)

What floored me in my research in Texas were the scores and scores of fan letters people wrote Woodward and Bernstein. They were only Metro reporters and still only about 30, and yet, so many American’s felt that they were like Batman and Robin (not saying which is which!). People had a lot of faith in them, especially after their book, All the President's Men came out in June 1974. That book put the whole story together in a way that hadn’t been done before. Lots of kids wrote asking for their autograph. One young man asked Bernstein to take a cross country bike trip with him. Others asked for advice on how to get into journalism. Most of it was adoring and adulatory. That had to be really heady. The truth is I can’t imagine any Metro reporter (I was once one for the San Jose Mercury) getting that kind of mail today.

NEWS HOUNDS: You are a Professor of Journalism at American University. As you are undoubtedly aware, there has been an ongoing, concerted, well-funded effort on the part of right-wing pundits - Bernard Goldberg and David Horowitz, for example - to accuse journalists and university professors of "liberal bias". On several occasions, FOX News has booked students who surreptitiously taped their allegedly "liberal" teachers making what the student believed to be anti-American statements. Then, right wing ancillaries - newspapers, radio talk shows and blogs - picked up the story as "news". Within 24 hours it morphed into "fact" and the teacher faced an onslaught of angry parents or a frightened school board. While this is not directly related to the topic at hand, it does relate to journalism in general. How do you feel about "tabloid practices" being used by today's media?

ALICIA SHEPARD: I think any kind of journalism based on deception isn’t good for society. It may make good TV theater. But good journalism should be based on honesty, accuracy, fairness and empathy. I don’t see any of that in your example.

NEWS HOUNDS: Do you have any other projects in the works that you'd like people to know about?

ALICIA SHEPARD: Not yet. I’m mulling over something to do with the two big newspaper families: the Grahams and the Sulzbergers. I am totally fascinated by the media, love being a reporter, and love writing about how the media works. I prefer writing about people rather than dry issues, so exploring those two families and their rivalry seems fun. But writing my book was such a huge endeavor that as I finished it, I sent an email to some friends saying, “Remind me of how I feel right now, if I ever say I want to write another book!”