At a Virginia Film Festival screening of Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 movie, All the President’s Men on Friday, November 2, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose investigative journalism formed the basis for that film and wrote the book of the same name, discussed the Watergate scandal and the legacy it left for American politics and culture.
Woodward and Bernstein answered questions posed by former Virginia Governor Gerald Baliles, one of the founders of the Virginia Film Festival and now director and CEO of the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, which describes itself as “a nonpartisan institute that seeks to expand understanding of the presidency, policy and political history.”
Near the end of the wide-ranging discussion, Woodward pointed out that he and other journalists are not always correct in their judgments – “sometimes you get the wrong answers” – and thus need reassessment.
Woodward, who has remained at the Washington Post for more than 40 years as reporter and editor, recalled how he had learned about President Gerald R. Ford’s pardon of his predecessor, Richard Nixon, one month after Nixon had resigned in disgrace in August 1974.
Ford, he said, chose to announce the pardon on TV early one Sunday morning. Woodward was awakened by his reporting partner, Bernstein, who asked if he had heard the news.
No, Woodward said, not knowing what the news was.
“The sonofabitch pardoned the sonofabitch!” Bernstein exclaimed, and Woodward needed no further explanation.
‘Aroma of a deal’
“For a long time, we thought the pardon was dirty,” Woodward said. “Why does the guy at the top get off? There was an aroma of a deal, an exchange of the presidency for a pardon. There was a question of justice: why one guy gets a pardon, forty people go to jail, and so forth.”
Woodward asserted that Ford lost the election to Jimmy Carter in 1976 “in large part” because of the pardon and suspicions about it among American voters.
About 25 years later, Woodward wrote a book about Watergate and the legacy it had on the presidencies of Ford through Clinton. He had never met Ford previously, but spent several hours with him, as part of his research, with a specific aim to learn about the Nixon pardon.
Ford told Woodward that Nixon chief of staff Alexander Haig had, indeed, offered a deal, but that he had rejected it.
“I pardoned Nixon, not for Nixon, not for myself, not for the political system,” Ford said to Woodward, “I pardoned Nixon for the country,” because the United States had to get beyond Watergate. A criminal trial of Nixon would prolong the scandal by three or more years and would be “unacceptable.”
Years later the Kennedy family gave Ford a Profiles in Courage award for his pardoning of Nixon. This event, Woodward said, was “a very important cold shower to get, because we had it absolutely wrong.”
At this point, Bernstein interjected, with Woodward nodding his agreement, that “it was the right thing to do for the country. It cost this man the presidency, because he did the right thing.”
After the discussion, Woodward and Bernstein autographed copies of their various books, including All the President’s Men, for festival attendees.