National Portrait Gallery tour with Bob Woodward 50 years after Watergate : NPR

In the early morning hours of June 17, 1972, a Saturday, Bob Woodward was asleep. Twenty-nine years old and the lowest paid journalist in the Washington Post ($165 a week) he had been with the paper for nine months when the city editor called him 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, the obstruction of justice, the Senate hearings and the resignation of President Nixon – was their story.

Now, 50 years after the burglary, the National Portrait Gallery is presenting a new exhibition – ‘Watergate: Portraiture and Intrigue’ – featuring cartoons, photographs and paintings depicting the art of the time. I invited Bob Woodward to tour the show with me.

Jack Davis, The Watergate opens wide. Watercolor and ink on cardboard, 1973. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

© Estate of Jack Davis


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© Estate of Jack Davis


Jack Davis, The Watergate opens wide. Watercolor and ink on cardboard, 1973. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

© Estate of Jack Davis

He watched a caricature of most of the president’s men, tied up in telephone cables and pointing fingers at each other. Their names – Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell, McCord, Magruder, Dean, Hunt, Liddy – were memorized by fascinated Americans who watched the Watergate television hearings. All the men of these presidents have gone to prison. Nixon did not; he resigned.

Dirk Halstead, Richard Nixon. Color photograph on paper, 1972. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Gift of Time magazine

© Dirck Halstead


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© Dirck Halstead

A Time the cover of the museum’s magazine shows a younger Nixon, after his landslide victory in 1972: the new president, a little sweaty, fingers raised in a V, big smile. In his face, Bob Woodward sees Nixon “trying to force-feed the camera the face of confidence, when you can see doubt behind his eyes, almost this feeling that he was in the wrong job: politics”.

The scandal that brought Nixon down was doggedly reported by Woodward and Bernstein, with considerable help from a highly placed secret source they called Deep Throat. He and Woodward had secret meetings at 3 a.m. in an underground garage in Virginia — lots of swashbuckling 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,” Woodward said. “It was in January 1973, and [he] said, ‘We’re going to have a Senate investigation. Can you tell me your sources? And I said ‘we can’t do that’.” Washington Post.

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

Nixon’s White House attorney John Dean became a very public source during the Watergate hearings. He would run the cover-up for the president. At 35, Dean hoped to protect himself by telling the Committee the truth. First, he told Ricard Nixon: “I started by telling the president that there was a cancer growing on the chair. And if the cancer wasn’t removed, the president himself- even would be killed.”

Stanislaw Zagorsky, John Wesley Dean, III. Acrylic and canvas on cardboard, 1973. Gift of Time magazine

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution


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National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution


Stanislaw Zagorsky, John Wesley Dean, III. Acrylic and canvas on cardboard, 1973. Gift of Time magazine

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

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 someone who tries to look innocent, but isn’t,” Woodward said. Dean was disbarred and spent four months in jail. Nowadays, he is a trusted television commentator.

Former Nixon associate and attorney general John Mitchell was jailed for 19 months for conspiracy, perjury and obstruction of justice. His late wife, Martha (a talkative Arkansan known as “The Mouth of the South”), has her moment these days. Julia Roberts plays her in a television series. Martha was kidnapped, to stop her from blabbering.

“She didn’t know anything,” says Bob Woodward. “None of the Watergate facts. But living with John Mitchell, all his alarm bells rang about the lies and the cover-up.” She felt something was wrong, “but she didn’t know any details.”

Jean DeRuth, Martha Elizabeth Beal Mitchell. Oil on canvas, 1970. Gift of Time Magazine

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution


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National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Martha’s portrait shows a sort of stunned blonde: playful, but perhaps a little nervous. Woodward has a great story from the early 70s. John is in trouble; Martha creates problems. She calls Woodward and Bernstein and says, “Come up to my apartment on Fifth Avenue. He’s gone, and we’ll let you through his office. The reporters found all sorts of useful documents — useful to Martha too, says Woodward. “She said, ‘I hope you get the SOB'”

The fallout from the whole saga has been immense: the lies and cover-ups have led to divorces, prison sentences and presidential resignation. The Nixon administration collapsed and America had a new leader, President Gerald Ford – who pardoned his predecessor a month later.

Forgiveness “was seen as corrupt,” Woodward says. “I investigated 25 years later and found that in fact Ford pardoned Nixon to get Nixon off the front page. It was actually a brave act because he knew he was killing himself politically .”

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

As the reporter inspected the Portrait Gallery exhibit, a crowd had gathered to listen to him. When he finished, the museum visitors burst into applause.

There are no photos of Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein in the exhibit. Curator Kate Clarke Lemay says they haven’t yet found any suitable or affordable ones.

When asked what a group of convicted felons, convicts and democracy critics were doing on the walls of a prominent Washington museum, the curator replied, “Well, we like to say we’re not not a pantheon of heroes. We are a museum of United States history.”

Julia P. Cluff