From the staff

Column: Meet ticked-off editor who helped Bernstein make history with Woodward

dbarkin@newsobserver.comMay 30, 2013 

The Watergate exhibit now open at the N.C. Museum of History got me to remembering.

Watergate was a daily journalism textbook for me, a young student newspaper reporter in Virginia, as a couple of hitherto-obscure reporters named Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward slowly, at great risk and facing enormous obstacles, dug out the facts of political break-ins, dirty tricks and cover-ups by the Nixon White House and its covert operatives.

The story was a constant presence as my teens turned into my 20s. In fact, the only part of my 20th birthday that I can remember is watching the networks break into evening programming after President Nixon initiated the Saturday Night Massacre – firings intended to slow down the investigation into the high crimes and misdemeanors that eventually led to his resignation.

I have never lost my fascination for this, the -gate against which all subsequent scandals would be measured.

The irate editor

And so it was, one day in 2000, I found myself in The Washington Post newsroom talking to a genial editor named Tom Wilkinson. He and I were both middle-aged journalists, and I asked if he had been involved in any phase of the Post’s Watergate coverage.

As a matter of fact, yes, he said.

I was the guy, he said, who was responsible for Bernstein being in the office that Saturday morning of the break-in. And, with Woodward, becoming a journalistic legend and being immortalized on the silver screen by Dustin Hoffman.

I knew Bernstein was at the office that day working on a story he didn’t want to do. That much was well-documented in several books on Watergate. Now I was sitting across from the editor who had ordered him to show up. Tell me more, I said.

Well, said Wilkinson, Bernstein was on the hook to do a Sunday story on Virginia politics, and he had messed around all week. Come Friday, it wasn’t done. Bernstein thought he would just tell Wilkinson that the story wasn’t coming together, and Wilkinson would say OK.

But no.

Wilkinson had had it up to here with Bernstein. Everyone had. Bernstein was on the way to being fired from the Post if he didn’t turn things around. Wilkinson told Bernstein he needed the story and to show up Saturday and get it written.

The unhappy reporter

So an unhappy Bernstein showed up on Saturday, June 17, 1972, just as strange reports started coming from the Post’s reporter at police headquarters about burglars being arrested at the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex.

Bob Woodward, another young reporter, was called in to start working on the break-in story, and Bernstein saw all the commotion across the newsroom and successfully pushed his way onto the story that morning. So much for Virginia politics.

As it turned out, having the street-savvy, well-sourced, think-outside-the-box Bernstein on the story was the perfect complement to the methodical, detail-oriented, disciplined Woodward. They didn’t invent investigative journalism, but their work inspired a generation of young men and women to become reporters in the 1970s, many of whom are still running newsrooms across the country.

I expressed my sympathy to Wilkinson, who was just trying to make a point and teach that goofball Bernstein a lesson for his own good that Saturday more than four decades ago. Tough break, I said. He could have amounted to something if you’d only had more time with him.

Dan Barkin is a senior editor at The News & Observer. or 919-829-4562

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