I recently had the chance to interview Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward during an appearance in Seattle where he was promoting his book on the Donald Trump administration titled Fear, an insider’s look at the function—and dysfunction—of the Trump White House.
Woodward became famous for the reporting he did with his partner, Carl Bernstein, on the Watergate scandal which brought about President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation in 1974. Their Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting was turned into a book and a movie, All the President’s Men. Woodward has since covered nine president’s administrations with books featuring in-depth looks.
Watergate is pretty remote now. I grew up in journalism with it. I was editor of my college newspaper, the Cooper Point Journal at the then brand-new Evergreen State College in Olympia, during Watergate. Woodward and Bernstein were heroes for us budding journos. The Watergate burglary that launched the scandal happened during Nixon’s re-election campaign in 1972—and the scandal unfolded in the two years following. It was all more than 45 years ago!
When we met, I reminded Woodward of some of Seattle’s Watergate connections. For example Nixon’s top domestic aide, John Ehrlichman, was a Seattle land use attorney before he went over to the dark side. He served time for Watergate crimes.
Another guy at Ehrlichman’s law firm, Egil “Bud” Krogh, was also convicted and disbarred. He was head of Nixon’s so-called Plumber’s unit which broke laws in trying to track down government leakers. One operation included breaking into the psychiatrist’s office of Daniel Ellsberg who leaked the Pentagon Papers. Krogh also arranged for the famous meeting between Nixon and Elvis, but did not do jail time for that.
On the good side, William Ruckelshaus, Nixon’s deputy attorney general and onetime FBI director, lost his job when Nixon tried to derail the Watergate investigation in the so-called Saturday Night Massacre. Ruckelshaus moved to Seattle where he has been a major figure in the efforts to clean up Puget Sound.
But there was at least one more connection. Peter Jackson, son of the late Washington Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, reminded me before going on stage with Woodward that Nixon’s re-election campaign engaged in dirty tricks against the president’s potential opponents. He asked me to ask Woodward who had more impact, Donald Segretti, Nixon’s point man for campaign disruption in 1972, or the Russians in 2016.
The reason this is a local question is that one of the men running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972 was Scoop Jackson, and he was targeted by Nixon’s dirty tricksters. For example, they spread false rumors that the senator had an illegitimate child with a teenage girl. According to Peter, they also apparently turned out the landing lights on an airfield where Jackson’s plane was going to set down for a campaign stop. That was no trick—it could have been fatal.
So, I asked Woodward about it. He told me that Segretti’s impact in 1972 was profound, not just for Jackson, but also for the presumptive front runner Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie. His driver was on Nixon’s payroll and fed the Muskie campaign’s internal memos to Nixon’s campaign, Woodward said. Segretti sent a letter on Muskie’s stationary maligning Canadians, and that created an uproar.
The Russians might have tried to mess with the minds of Americans on Facebook in attempts to interfere with the election. Some will never believe Trump’s victory was legitimate. We will be learning much more about that ahead, as various investigations continue. But Segretti’s crimes weren’t tricks either, they were anti-democratic acts that forced some of Nixon’s opponents from the field through malevolent sabotage.
I remember well Jackson’s run in ’72 (he also ran in 1976, but lost in the primaries to Jimmy Carter). In Washington State, Scoop’s political machine was well organized and dominant. He was a popular and superb public servant and would have made an excellent president, though his hawkish views on Vietnam hurt him at the time. I was at a function that year where he couldn’t bring himself to ask Democrats to support the antiwar candidate George McGovern. “Support the Democratic ticket” was the most he could begrudgingly say.
Unfortunately, we’ll never know how that ‘72 election might have turned out had Nixon and his minions played fair, and that question lingers for 2016. It’s a reminder that our democracy is both resilient and very fragile all at once.