This is what happens when Woodward & Bernstein and Robert Novak and a hotel full of journalists all get together to talk about Watergate and Scooter Libby and CIA operatives and what it’s like to be in a town full of power-players who write books and go to black tie dinners.In journalism jargon, this could be called an episode.
In the Ticonderoga Ballroom of the Hyatt hotel in our nation’s capitol, sat two powerful dinosaurs. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who, 35 years ago brought down a president. Their impact on a generation of journalists is still so significant they can expect to pack the house every time.
Their editor on the Watergate story, Ben Bradlee, joined in on the session, part of a gathering of 1,000 journalists at the annual convention of the Society of Professional Journlists last weekend. There were laughs, there was nostalgia, there was the critique – and warning – over the fast-pace demands of the craft today. Could the unfolding story, that led to Nixon resigning his presidency, possibly be told if it happened right now?
“The two driving forces in journalism today are lots of speed and impatience,” Bernstein said. “Good reporting is the opposite. It’s a slow and patient job.”
(Snarky note: If Britney was president, you betcha that story would be told.)
Anyway, so we’re most of the way through the Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein love-fest. Outside the ballroom, a short, gnome-like character came striding down the hall. He approached someone who appeared to be in charge:
Where, the man asked, was the Ticonderoga Ballroom? “Oh, you mean where the Woodward and Bernstein event is being held? That’s right around the corner.”
The man visibly bristled, until someone across the room recognized him and quickly recovered. “No, that’s where the Robert Novak event is happening.”
The scowl disappeared. The famous syndicated conservative columnist straightened up, got his game face back on and continued on.
Novak was up next. After Woodward and Bernstein wrapped it up, they got a standing ovation. Bernstein adjourned to the hallway, where he moved along to the next phase of his appearance, selling and signing copies of his new book, “A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton.”
Novak, meanwhile, took the stage, joined by former Time editor Norman Pearlstine and TV correspondent Bob Franken. Their topic: Ethics and the entangled roles of journalists in the Scooter Libby case. And more specifically, Novak’s role outing CIA agent Valerie Plame and the subsequent trial of the vice president’s chief of staff on charges of obstruction of justice.
The crowd had thinned out considerably. And no, this session didn’t include a lot of laughs. Novak first complained about how he has been a member of the Society of Professional Journalists since 1950. It wasn’t until 57 – 57! – years later that the organization bothered to ask him to talk to the group, he said.
Then Novak moved on, reading a prepared statement. His participation in the Plame affair was grossly distorted, he said. Plame’s husband, Joe Wilson – who had written an op/ed that questioned the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – was a “political partisan,” not a whistleblower, Novak said. During the ensuing storm after he outed Plame, Novak said he was unfairly attacked by other journalists who demanded he reveal his sources. He was stunned at the lack of solidarity exhibited by other journalists. Luckily, he had one of the best lawyers in Washington. Luckily, the Chicago Sun-Times agreed to pay his legal fees. And you can read all about it, Novak plugged, in his memoir, “The Prince of Darkness.”
Perhaps the most telling part of the discussion came as the graying all-male and white panelists talked about the conflicting challenges of being in Washington, themselves in positions of power and social prestige, covering powerful figures.
“It’s impossible in this small town, to not know people you cover,” Franken noted.
Should they stop attending black tie dinners? Stop saying hello to the neighbors? Where does it stop?, they wondered.
Such quandaries. Perhaps this is what happens when too many powerful dinosaurs are crammed into one space.
Cara DeGette is a senior fellow at Colorado Confidential and a columnist and contributing editor at the Colorado Springs Independent. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org