Magazine article The New Yorker

WATERGATE DAYS; INK Series: 2/5

Magazine article The New Yorker

WATERGATE DAYS; INK Series: 2/5

Article excerpt

It was late in the evening on May 16, 1973, and I was in the Washington bureau of the Times, immersed in yet another story about Watergate. The paper had been overwhelmed by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's reporting for the Washington Post the previous year, and I was trying to catch up. The subject this time was Henry Kissinger, President Richard Nixon's national-security adviser. I had called Kissinger to get his comment on a report, which the Times was planning to run, that he had been involved in wiretapping reporters, fellow Administration officials, and even his own aides on the National Security Council. At first, he had indignantly denied the story. When I told him that I had information from sources in the Justice Department that he had personally forwarded the wiretap requests to the F.B.I., he was silent, and then said that he might have to resign. The implicit message was that this would be bad for the country, and that the Times would be blamed. A few minutes later, the columnist James Reston, who was a friend of Kissinger's, padded up to my desk and asked, gently, if I understood that "Henry" was serious about resigning. I did understand, but Watergate was more important than Kissinger.

Alexander Haig, Kissinger's sometimes loyal deputy, had called a few times during the day to beat back the story. At around seven o'clock, there was a final call. "You're Jewish, aren't you, Seymour?" In all our previous conversations, I'd been "Sy." I said yes. "Let me ask you one question, then," Haig said. "Do you honestly believe that Henry Kissinger, a Jewish refugee from Germany who lost thirteen members of his family to the Nazis, could engage in such police-state tactics as wiretapping his own aides? If there is any doubt, you owe it to yourself, your beliefs, and your nation to give us one day to prove that your story is wrong." That was Watergate, circa 1973. The Times printed the story the next day, and Kissinger did not resign.

Access to high-level sources within the government was not so unusual at that point. (I had been given the wiretap information by a senior F.B.I. official, now deceased.) But in the beginning there was only Woodward and Bernstein. In the first months of the scandal, in mid-1972, they had pounded out story after story about the Watergate break-in with little competition from other newspapers, and little support from them, either. To the dismay of Abe Rosenthal, who was then the Times' managing editor, the paper's Washington bureau had at first relied on assurances from Kissinger that the Post's story would not lead to the most senior officials in the White House. I had deliberately continued writing about Vietnam, staying as far away from Watergate as possible. I didn't believe Kissinger for a moment--but I also thought that Woodward and Bernstein were too far ahead, and too conversant with White House officials whose names I didn't even know. Then, just before Christmas, Clifton Daniel was named Washington bureau chief of the Times. He bought me a box of Brooks Brothers shirts and sweaters--he did not think I was up to the Times' dress standard--and told me that I was henceforth assigned to Watergate.

A few weeks later, after one of my early stories, which dealt with hush-money payments to a Watergate burglar, appeared in the Times, Woodward and Bernstein got in touch with me and essentially welcomed me aboard. That spring, when we were all doing a lot of daily reporting on the coverup, I spent a long evening with the two of them, talking about where the scandal might lead. …

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