Max Holland on the Nixon Library; Asking Questions, and Watergate

By Posted in - Watergate scandal on June 12th, 2014 0 Comments

I’ve been asked to talk to some journalism students this week about investigative reporting, and specifically to get into the importance of asking good questions. Also to discuss my involvement in Watergate coverage. By coincidence, yesterday I saw an essay that gets into these areas. It is by Max Holland, author of the book Leakabout Deep Throat.

Holland’s article savages a former curator of the Nixon Library in California and a failed Oral History section of the Library that could have been so worthwhile. The essay is more than 9,000 words, not counting extensive footnotes. There’s a lot in it.

Oral histories for presidential libraries are serious matters, expected to be read forever. As Holland writes, the Oral History Association has guidelines for them, including that “interviewers are obliged to ask historically significant questions…reflecting careful preparation for the interview and understanding of the issues to be addressed.”

Holland writes: “Achieving such lofty goals requires extensive research on the person, topic(s), and the larger context in both primary and secondary sources. It might not be too much of an exaggeration to assert that the oral historian going in has to be as well-versed in the subject as the narrator is, or was.” (The narrator, in oral histories, is the person being interviewed.)

In fact, being well prepared is the distinctive trait for all good journalists, not just oral historians or investigative reporters. It’s the job of the beat reporter to get immersed in his or her field. It may not be possible to know as much about the subject as the person interviewed does, but that’s the goal. Good reporters ask relevant first questions, and then good follow-up questions. Because they are prepared they don’t get brushed off easily. Good journalism is like art in that people know it when they see it.

Regarding Watergate, Holland’s piece deals with some Nixon era figures who were interviewed – and many who weren’t.

“Marked imbalances and gaping holes,” Holland writes;  “several critical interviews that should have been conducted but weren’t—these are earmarks of a program not dictated by scholarly considerations, or even budgetary restraints, but other factors, most likely a presidential library director who was unwilling to delegate responsibility and share the presumed limelight.”

“That these criticisms are accurate is underscored by the substance of the histories that were conducted. They are not useless; it would be difficult to interview Earl Silbert or William Ruckelshaus about Watergate and come away with a worthless transcript. Rather, the oral histories fall short because in too many instances they fail to ask difficult questions, or do not appreciate what narrators have just said by asking appropriate follow-up questions. The tone and content of the interviews is too often superficial rather than scholarly; frequently the questions seemed designed to flatter rather than probe, and when at a loss, the focus often is ‘how did it feel.’”

“These deficits are traceable to a lack of familiarity with the subject matter, or a casual attitude about being prepared for the interview, and probably both. Most people, aside from top officials, have little or no experience being interviewed in depth and tend naturally to be wary. One of the few ways an interviewer may be able to elicit frank recollections during what is, more often than not, a one-time opportunity, is to demonstrate an excellent grasp of the history, including, but not limited to, the narrator’s perspective on important issues.”

Holland takes issue with who from the press was interviewed for the oral history and who wasn’t. It gets personal here – there’s a bit about me – so I’ll let the piece speak for itself.

…Even allowing for the Post’s foremost role in covering Watergate, one can take issue with a project that conducted interviews with Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, and Ben Bradlee to the exclusion of other print journalists who covered Watergate. Significant articles appeared in Time magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times during the period, June 1972 to February 1973, when the cover-up orchestrated by the White House gave every appearance of succeeding. This Washington Post-centric view of Watergate is a pinched interpretation of who or what was truly important, and decidedly at odds with building a baseline of information useful to future historians. As Clark Mollenhoff, an esteemed investigative journalist in his own right, observed in 1988,

“If you believe the downfall of President Nixon was dependent upon what . . . ‘Deep Throat’ . . . whispered to a young reporter in a Washington parking garage, you are half-informed or the victim of one of the superficial myths flowing from the Watergate experience.”

Indeed, by ignoring Post editors Harry Rosenfeld and Barry Sussman, the oral history project doesn’t even fairly depict what truly went on inside the newspaper during those fateful months. This is particularly true in Sussman’s case. The author of a well-regarded history of Watergate, The Great Cover-up, Sussman provides a sorely needed corrective to the fabulistic account of the Post’s coverage that was presented in All the President’s Men (both the book and the film), and reprised in Robert Redford’s recent documentary, All the President’s Men Revisited.

Sussman was a city editor at the Post at the time of the break-in. He became the special Watergate editor in mid-July 1972, when managing editor Howard Simons decided to go after the story. Sussman put Bernstein and Woodward on the story full-time, and in reality, a troika—not a duo—was responsible for the summer/fall 1972 coverage that won the newspaper (not Woodstein) a Pulitzer Prize. According to interview notes by Alan Pakula, taken as he was preparing to direct All the President’s Men, managing editor Simons and metro editor Rosenfeld thought if any single person at the Post was deserving of a Pulitzer it was Sussman.

According to Pakula’s notes, “Barry made [editorially] acceptable the work of two junior reporters . . . They didn’t understand what they had often and couldn’t write it.” Sussman’s role was to “interpret the significance [of what the duo gathered] and to structure it in terms of news articles [which necessitated] quite a bit of rewriting.” Sussman also played a larger role in guiding the reporters during the critical first months than was commonly understood.

Sussman told Pakula that he regarded All the President’s Men as a “modified, limited hangout” of what had occurred at the Post—intentionally parroting Watergate co-conspirator John Ehrlichman’s infamous phrase. The book Woodstein wrote represented a “copout” at key moments, and was “trivial in terms of what they said happened at the Post . . . and “sentimentalize[d]” the story. Sussman also warned Pakula that several substantive issues were treated inaccurately, i.e., “they’re wrong often on detail”and “some of their writing is not true”—as proved to be the case with respect to the grand juror interview.

Sussman had flatly claimed for years that the Post successfully interviewed a grand juror in December 1972, a time when the newspaper was concerned that the legal process itself had been corrupted. Bernstein and Woodward, just as flatly, always denied they ever gained any information from a grand juror. Sussman turned out to be right, as Bradlee biographer Jeff Himmelman discovered when reading through Bradlee’s papers, in which he found Bernstein’s notes on his conversation with the grand juror.

If the Post’s coverage was going to be featured, different perspectives of what happened at the newspaper during Watergate ought to have been gathered. Instead, Ben Bradlee, Carl Bernstein, and Woodward were interviewed and repeated the hoariest clichés.

Your comments