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Bob Woodward recounts the Watergate story in an art museum

Updated June 16, 2022 at 10:04 AM ET

In the early morning hours of June 17, 1972, a Saturday, Bob Woodward was asleep. Twenty-nine years old and the lowest-paid reporter at the Washington Post ($165 a week), he'd been on the paper for nine months when the city editor called at 9 a.m. to put him to work on a burglary at Democratic National Committee headquarters. Another young reporter, Carl Bernstein, became his partner. The burglary and everything that followed — the cover-up, obstruction of justice, Senate hearings and resignation of President Nixon — was their story.

Now, 50 years after the break-in, the National Portrait Gallery is showing a new exhibition — "Watergate: Portraiture and Intrigue" — with cartoons, photographs and paintings featuring art from the period. I invited Bob Woodward to tour the show with me.

He looked at a cartoon of most of the president's men, tied up in phone cables and pointing at one another in blame. Their names — Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell, McCord, Magruder, Dean, Hunt, Liddy — became memorized by mesmerized Americans who watched the televised Watergate hearings. All those presidents' men went to jail. Nixon did not; he resigned.

A Time magazine cover in the museum shows a younger Nixon, after his 1972 landslide victory: the new president, a bit sweaty, fingers raised in a V-sign, big grin. In his face, Bob Woodward sees Nixon "trying to force-feed the camera the face of confidence, when you can see behind the eyes the doubt, almost that sense that he was in the wrong business: politics."

The scandal that brought Nixon down was doggedly reported by Woodward and Bernstein, with huge help from a highly placed secret source they called Deep Throat. He and Woodward had hush-hush meetings at 3 a.m. in an underground garage in Virginia — lots of cloak and dagger stuff, like flowers on window sills to signal whether or not to meet. Everyone wondered where the information came from. Even (or especially) Sam Ervin, the North Carolina Democrat who chaired the Senate Watergate Committee.

"Senator Ervin called me up," Woodward says. "It was January 1973, and [he] said, 'we're going to have a Senate investigation. Will you tell me your sources?' And I said 'we just can't do that.'" The reporters were mum: Their editor didn't know their source, nor did the publisher of the Washington Post.

You can know him now, from this Richard Avedon photo at the Portrait Gallery: mouth a bit clamped, eyes a bit narrowed. Some 35 years after Watergate, Mark Felt revealed he was Deep Throat. "This was the man in the FBI," Woodward says, "who was in charge of the Watergate investigation. So if you were going to go down the list of who you want to be your secret source, he'd be at the top!"

Nixon's White House Counsel John Dean became a very public source in the Watergate hearings. He'd run the cover-up for the President. At 35, Dean hoped to protect himself by telling the truth to the Committee. First, he told it to Ricard Nixon: "I began by telling the President that there was a cancer growing on the presidency. and if the cancer was not removed, the president himself would be killed by it."

In his portrait at the Gallery, Dean is painted in a tweed jacket, blue and white striped shirt: a sorry hero, a whistleblower. In the painting, he looks conflicted. "It's a portrait of somebody trying to look innocent, but isn't," Woodward says. Dean was disbarred and spent four months in jail. Nowadays, he's a trusted TV commentator.

Nixon's former law partner and attorney general, John Mitchell, went to jail for 19 months for conspiracy, perjury and obstruction of justice. His late wife, Martha (a chatty Arkansan known as "The Mouth of the South"), is having her moment these days. Julia Roberts is playing her in a cable series. Martha's kidnapped, to stop her from blabbing.

"She knew nothing," says Bob Woodward. "None of the facts about Watergate. But living with John Mitchell, all of her alarm bells went off about the lies and the cover-up." She felt something wrong was going on, "but she knew none of the detail."

Martha's portrait shows a sort of stunned blonde: game, but maybe a little on edge. Woodward has a great story from the early 70s. John gets in trouble; Martha makes trouble. She calls Woodward and Bernstein and says, "come on up to my Fifth Avenue apartment. He's left, and we'll let you go through his office." The reporters found all kinds of useful documents — useful to Martha, too, Woodward says. "She said, 'I hope you get the S.O.B.'"

The fallout from the whole saga was immense: the lies and cover-ups led to divorces, jail time, and a presidential resignation. The Nixon administration fell apart, and America got a new leader, President Gerald Ford — who pardoned his predecessor a month later.

The pardon "was thought to be corrupt," says Woodward. "I investigated 25 years later, and found out actually Ford pardoned Nixon to get Nixon off the front page. It was actually a courageous act, because he knew he was killing himself politically."

But Woodward acknowledges the decision was good for the country; the country was able to move on.

As the journalist inspected the Portrait Gallery exhibition, a crowd had gathered near to listen. When he finished, the museum visitors burst into applause.

There are no pictures of Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein in the exhibit. Curator Kate Clarke Lemay says they haven't found appropriate or affordable ones yet.

Asked what business a group of convicted felons, jailbirds and democracy-damagers are doing on the walls of an important Washington museum, the curator replied: "Well, we like to say we're not a Hall of Heroes. We are a museum of United States history."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susan Stamberg
Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.