My grandkids are learning about Woodward and Bernstein in their history classes.
Before the Watergate break-in in 1972, and the unraveling of the Nixon presidency, no one knew who they were. Carl Bernstein was a young man who dropped out of college when he realized he had newspaper ink running in his veins. Bob Woodward joined The Washington Post with a degree from Yale and a diploma from Harvard Law School, but no real chops in journalism. In one of those fortuitous turning points in American history, they teamed up at the Post in 1972 to follow the thin thread running from a break-in at Democratic national headquarters in the Watergate Hotel to the Nixon White House.
Between 1972 and 1974, as Woodward and Bernstein’s investigative reporting unmasked liars and revealed cover-ups, the two reporters became rock-star journalists, known forever as the team that brought down the corrupt Nixon administration. Both men were barely past 30 when Watergate broke, and relatively inexperienced, but through a combination of intuitive and relentless investigation, the dumb courage of youth, the oversight and backing of a courageous publisher and considerable luck, they changed the trajectory of the American presidency.
“Woodstein,” as the duo came to be known, garnered fame, fortune and a place in history. America’s checks and balances worked, and ultimately proved that no one, not even a president, is above the law. Every generation or so, it seems we need to test this guiding principle of American democracy.
Had Woodward and Bernstein not dug into the Watergate story, had they stepped back when they encountered stonewalling and intimidation, had they been unwilling to risk their professional reputations, Nixon might have lived to see the end of his second term in the Oval Office.
We have a clear perspective on that time because 45 years have passed. The details blurred but the big picture emerged: Our democracy prevailed because people of good conscience were willing to speak truth to power.
It all started with The Washington Post. Hundreds of stories were filed in those two years. The narrative was picked up and investigated further by The New York Times and eventually by virtually every major newspaper in America and around the world.
The point is that when you look at a big picture close up, you see the dots, or pixels, but you can’t grasp the meaning. The stories written during Watergate pushed and pulled readers one way and then another. We couldn’t be sure how it would end, just that an awesome process was under way and we, as American citizens, were in the midst of it.
And that’s exactly where we are now in the investigations into the Trump administration and President Trump’s possible impeachment. We’re still in the weeds. We don’t know how it will end. But if you believe in the democratic process, then your job and mine is to follow the news stories.
Our responsibility as citizens is to educate ourselves, and not be distracted by political sideshows. We need to read the reliable sources and put real mental energy into the process of exploring the documents available to us.
Maybe you voted for Trump. Maybe you gave him every benefit of the doubt, hoping he would take to heart the responsibilities of the office. Now is the time to go to the original evidence. Read the Constitution, read the Mueller Report and read the investigative reporting in our newspapers. Read the actual transcript of Trump’s call to the president of Ukraine, in which he asked for him to investigate the Bidens.
Look for the stories by Michael Schmidt, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for The Times, and the reporting by Peter Baker, Aaron Blake, Rachel Maddow, Sari Horwitz, Robert Costa, Maggie Haberman and so many other tough-minded journalists. Someday they’ll be recognized as the heroes of this moment. Someday our great-grandchildren will read about them in the history books.
Read all you can, and if you respect the work that Woodward and Bernstein did during Watergate, take to heart what Woodward, who still works for the Post, said recently about the Trump White House:
“This is worse than Watergate, in the sense that the system worked in Watergate, and it’s not apparent yet that the system is working in the current situation. No president has done anything like Trump to characterize the American press and its exercise of the First Amendment as the enemy of the people, a phrase associated with the greatest despots of the 20th century.”
Copyright 2019 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.