August 3rd, 2014

Forty years after Watergate: Carl Bernstein & Dan Rather with CNN’s Candy Crowley

Today on CNN’s State of the Union with Candy Crowley, Carl Bernstein and Dan Rather spoke to Crowley about the 40th anniversary of President Nixon’s resignation, the limits of executive power, and the relationship between the media and the presidency.

A full transcript of this interview is available after the jump.



CROWLEY: Joining me now, Carl Bernstein and Dan Rather. Forty years, gentlemen, since the resignation of Richard Nixon. Dan I want to first bring it to you and say in the intervening 40 years between then and now, has your perspective on Watergate, what it meant to the country, any of that changed?

RATHER: Well of course it will, 40 years. What hasn’t changed. But the fundamental things, no. Not changed. The fundamental things being Watergate, what we call quote Watergate, is shorthand for a widespread criminal conspiracy that was then in part by the President of the United States himself out of the Oval Office. That’s one thing. Second thing, is that we’re committed to the idea in this country that no person, not even the President of the United States, is above the law. In those 2 fundamental ways, nothing has changed in the forty years.

CROWLEY: And Carl, I think Dan is on to something there, because I think the world gate sort of has now been used to sort of trivialize almost anything. And so, in turn, it’s trivialized what happened. This was not just about one man, I mean, in the end, that’s who we talk about, Richard Nixon. This was a widespread conspiracy.

BERNSTEIN: First of all, this was about a criminal presidency led by a criminal president. And what the Watergate conspiracy was is something that began in the first days of the Nixon presidency, when he authorized all kinds of illegal activities by the same people who, years later, broke into the Watergate. Really there are four interlocking wars of Watergate that broke the law that were part of the criminal conspiracy against the anti-war movement, against the press, against the system of, the cover up itself, led by the President of the United States, later, a war against history that Nixon thought might rehabilitate him. But obviously with his tapes and what we know after 40 years is, that this was far worse than what Woodward and I wrote about and what we thought at the time. This was a criminal presidency that just rotted.

CROWLEY: Dan, there has been, I think, some other looks at this revisionists, as Carl is referring to it, where it is framed as the media, the beginning of the media turning against a presidency. It was another sign that the media is liberal, that they went after Richard Nixon, they targeted hm. When you look back at that famous exchange between you and President Nixon, explain that to me. Sort of in site, what was happening at that point?

RATHER: Let’s see it clearly because there has been an effort to change history and in some ways it has been successful the last 40 years saying well, it wasn’t all that bad. Carl is absolutely right because this was a criminal presidency and it still catches my throat to say it because no one will believe it, but led by a criminal president. More than 40 members of the president’s administration were tried, indicted or convicted of felonies and that included his Attorney General, his closest aide at the White House and the head of his domestic policy. Now, what had happened, the President kept trying to get the country to believe his narrative, but a special prosecutor was beginning to close in on him with the facts, so in a news conference in Houston, which was designed to be a cheerleading conference really for President Nixon, President Nixon- if he thought you were going to try and ask a tough question, a rough question he would try to throw you of balance. So I rose to ask him a question, and the question was going to be how do you reconcile the facts presented by the special prosecutor with the frankly this false narrative you’ve been putting out, he tried to throw me off balance by saying well Mr. Rather, are you running for something- it was a big crowd, basically a Republican crowd- and I just wanted to get on with the question so instinctively I just said no sir, Mr. President, are you? Everybody remembers that and nobody remembers the question, which by the way, as he always wanted, he ducked and dodged away.

BERNSTEIN: There’s one aspect to this, and your question was a great one, that it was Republicans who ultimately came to realize Richard Nixon was a criminal president and had to leave office.

CROWLEY: And told him so.

BERNSTEIN: Barry Goldwater, the great conservative, the leader of his party, ran for president in 1964. After the tapes had revealed some of the conspiracy that Nixon led, and how guilty he was in the cover-up especially but other illegal activities, including break ins that he had ordered, then Goldwater lead a delegation of Republican senators and congressmen to the White House and sat across from Richard Nixon who had been subject to an impeachment vote by the House Judiciary Committee was about to be impeached by the full House, and a trial in the senate was looming and Nixon looked at Goldwater and said Barry, how many votes do I have in the senate, thinking Goldwater would tell him you can win, Mr. President, and Goldwater looked at him and said I don’t know Mr. President but you don’t have my vote and you cannot win. And that was the real turning point when Nixon said to himself I have to leave office. So to think this was about liberals or the press, or they tried to make the conduct of the press the issue, the conduct of Woodward and myself, the Washington Post, Rather, whomever, this was the Republicans. Yesterday, or last week, Caldwell Butler, a great Congressman from Virginia, a conservative whom I covered in the Virginia legislature, died. He cast that historic Republican vote on the House Judiciary Committee.

RATHER: That’s true Carl-Candy, go ahead

CROWLEY: I was just going- just to go ahead and finish your thought. And then answer me this, When did you know, I mean, there was a time in the summer where he was either going to get impeached or he was going to have to leave. But still to me it seemed so shocking, when you learned he really was going to resign. It seemed almost impossible, do you remember that moment when you first knew he’d have to go?

RATHER: I remember it vividly Candy, because for the longest time I and I think the whole press corps, we didn’t want to believe that the President himself was involved, we kept thinking, well it will stop short of the President. But the facts, and let’s be clear, what Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward did, they were the primary generators of the critical facts that brought us to the point where it became increasingly obvious that at the very least the President was lying, that’s a tough word but there’s no other word for it, but it wasn’t until late spring, mind you the President finally resigned early August, August 9th, but late spring there was a moment when I said to myself, Dan, let’s don’t kid yourself. You know, you’ve experienced the police beat, you’ve worked your way up as a reporter, you know what the facts shout here. And the only question from late spring on was whether he would resign or be impeached. And as we went through June and July, it became increasingly obvious, the indications were you know what he’s going to try and strike a deal, because he doesn’t want to go through an impeachment trial, because in a trial, the facts are going to be much worse than what we already know, which is indeed very bad.

CROWLEY: Carl what about you because there was the night before, when he gave the speech, I’m gonna resign tomorrow, when did you first hear that news, and wasn’t it still shocking, despite everything you knew?

BERNSTEIN: Well there are two aspects. You know, Woodward and I would meet every day to Washington Post before we would go in to the editors with our stories, we had a kind of good cop bad cop routine, you can imagine who was the good cop and who was the bad cop, but eight weeks after the break in, when we learned and wrote in a story that  John Mitchell, the Attorney General of the United States, Nixon’s former law partner, had controlled the secret funds that paid for the bugging of Watergate, Woodward and I were meeting for coffee that morning and I literally felt a chill go down my back. Not figuratively, literally, and I turned to Woodward and I said, this President is going to be impeached. This is eight, nine, weeks after the break in, and Woodward looked at me and said oh my god you’re right. And we can never use that word impeachment in our newsroom, lest any of our editors or publishers think that we have an agenda. But once we knew that, it was clear that some kind of constitutional confrontation was coming. And then, we had been doing reporting at the end, and we knew from sources inside the White House what had happened, that Goldwater, as I had mentioned had gone down there. I’m going to disagree with Dan on one thing about the pardon he’s alluding to. Both Woodward and I at the time of the pardon knew and thought that Al Haig, the White House Chief of Staff had offered a deal to Gerald Ford on behalf of Richard Nixon, which was true, and Ford rejected it. But then Ford decided to pardon Richard Nixon on his own and we thought at the time that it was a terrible thing, we were wrong. It was perhaps the most courageous act by a President of the United States of the last forty, fifty years. Ford knew he could lose his presidency, as he did, to Jimmy Carter, because of the unpopularity of pardoning Nixon, and yet he said, and was right,  the country needs to move on, the idea the President in the dock in a courtroom for another couple years, we had high inflation, we had terrible problems abroad, and Ford did this thing, a great act of courage, of all things, Senator Ted Kennedy, who felt like we did at the time, that the pardon was a terrible thing, later honored Ford and gave him the profiles in courage award for what he did, and it was a great, great moment, would that we have had later such courage in the Presidency.

CROWLEY: Wrap up question to you both, Dan first to you, could a cover up of this magnitude, and going to this level, happen again today?

RATHER: An unequivocal yes. Let us hope and pray it doesn’t happen, could it happen, yes. In some ways, in some important ways, it might be more possible to do it today than it was in the 1960s and 70s.

CROWLEY: Well I gotta ask you why –

BERNSTEIN: Well, the reason, the reason, and let me pick up, is because of the press. And I’m not talking about the reporters, we have great reporters capable of doing fabulous reporting, at the White House, all over America, working for different organizations, on the web, on television, for newspaper websites and newspapers, but they are having great difficulty getting readers and viewers to seriously look at information without coming at it from an ideological perspective and saying, oh, this fits into my prescribed notion of my politics, and let’s put it through the ideological wringer, the partisan ringer, and that is a huge problem today, that’s very different from the time of Watergate when many more people, I think, were open to the best obtainable version of the truth, which really is what real reporting is.

CROWLEY: Dan would you agree with that?

RATHER I would agree with that, plus the fact that the power of the modern Presidency has increased, increased, since the time of the 60s and 70s. More and more power has accrued to the Presidency, which gives him, a President who would engage in criminal acts, a greater opportunity to clad those acts, but as you know, Candy, I’m an optimist by nature and by experience, and I’m hopeful that we and future generations will learn from the Nixon period, and that widespread criminal conspiracy that’s known by the shorthand as Watergate, and that will help protect us against it ever happening again.

CROWLEY: Dan Rather, still hard at work, thank you for taking time out from your day to talk to us. Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame, yes, but now you’ve just completed a book, Woman In Charge, about Hillary Clinton –

BERNSTEIN: Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton –

CROWLEY: We will be looking for that, thank you both so much, I appreciate it.