Pondering Watergate's Impact On Nixon Anniversary

Forty years ago Saturday, President Nixon resigned from office. Leonard Downie Jr. was an editor at The Washington Post at the time and reflects on the reporting that led to Nixon's downfall.

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LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Forty years ago today, August 9, 1974, President Richard Nixon resigned. The images of his final unscripted words from the White House lawn are etched into the fabric of American political history.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: His departure was, to a large extent, the result of a long-running investigation by a Washington Post investigative team - famously, reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and, among others, editor Leonard Downie Jr. Today, Mr. Downie is the vice president-at-large for the Washington Post and a professor of journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. He joins me now. Thanks for being with us.

LEONARD DOWNIE JR.: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What was it like at the Post on August 9, 1974? Take us back to that day.

DOWNIE JR.: Well, for those of us on the staff would be working on starting illustration anti-chromatic because the national staff of the newspaper the metropolitan staff who had been working on the Watergate story, was actually anticlimactic. Strangely anticlimactic because the national staff of the newspaper, the national political staff, which for a long time at the beginning of the Watergate story had sort of denigrated our work, didn't believe what we were doing, now was in charge of the story because now it was about a resignation, it was about politics. And so this was their story now and no longer ours. The newsroom was full of people watching the resignation on television. And to my memory, myself and Bob and Carl and Barry Sussman, who had been their media editor for a long time, Harry Rosenfeld, the metropolitan editor, were just kind of watching, not quite believing that this really was the culmination of this investigation that had gone on for more than two years.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He had a famously antagonistic relationship with the press, you know, you listen to some of the tapes of him. And at one point, he actually barred all photographers, all reported from the White House, refusing to let anyone from Washington Post in there. What was it like to be under so much scrutiny?

DOWNIE JR.: Well, it wasn't just him too, it was press secretary, Ron Ziegler, he was attacking the Post every day, attacking Ben Bradlee, the Post editor, by name. However, as we now know from the - now the public knows from the archives of Watergate notes, as the various confidential sources have died - many, many people inside the administration were actually sources of Bob and Carl's as they began to realize what was going on, became very concerned about what was going on. And so it was kind of a mix of this strong antagonism on the one hand and our inside knowledge that there were a number of people in the administration, very senior in the White House in fact, who were very concerned about what was happening or actually helping us out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This investigation into Nixon's presidency spawned, you know, a famous film, articles, books and generations, I think, of young people who wanted to become journalists, who wanted to follow in their footsteps - Woodward and Bernstein. Do you think this changed the relationship between journalists and the government?

DOWNIE JR.: Profoundly - Watergate was a watershed in American journalism. Up until the Vietnam War and civil rights movement, there was many, many decades in which the press was very differential to the government. And then gradually, through the civil rights movement, opposition to the Vietnam War, critical reporting on the ground in Vietnam, it slowly began to change. Then came the Pentagon Papers and the fact that the New York Times and the Washington Post had to go to court in order to gain the freedom to publish stories about the Pentagon Papers. And then came Watergate, and being skeptical about the government was now part of the American journalism and remains so today.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Forty years on, a lot of retrospectives right now on television, on the radio, about Richard Nixon. Looking back, do you think he deserved the reputation that he has, I mean, given now the passage of history?

DOWNIE JR.: As near as I can tell, his reputation is as complicated as I feel it ought to be, which is to say he was clearly a very smart, but very flawed, human being. And we're now hearing, as we hear more tapes and so on, we hear much more of the flaws - the awful language, the deep prejudices, the contemplation of illegal acts that go way beyond Watergate, on the one hand. And on the other hand, he was the man that you know - the opening to China, his conduct of the Cold War, a very, very complicated man, but in the end, a very serious law breaker, a man who violated the Constitution in a very major way and paid the price for it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Leonard Downie Jr., vice president-at-large from Washington Post and a key player in the investigation which led to Richard Nixon's resignation. Thank you.

DOWNIE JR.: Thank you. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the introduction to this conversation we say that President Richard Nixon’s final unscripted words were delivered from the White House lawn. In fact, he was inside the White House when he made his remarks.]

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Correction Aug. 11, 2014

In the introduction to this conversation we say that President Richard Nixon's final unscripted words were delivered from the White House lawn. In fact, he was inside the White House when he made his remarks.

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