It has become American mythology: two young, maverick reporters break the biggest scandal in modern political history, bringing down the President of the United States with the help of a mysterious source who bears a striking resemblance to Hal Holbrook.
But that’s not the legend Alicia Shepard knows. Having studied Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and their landmark reporting on Watergate for years, she’s able to separate reality from media mythology — she used to write letters clarifying the facts when columnists and commentators would heap too much credit on the duo for the demise of the Nixon White House.
A journalism professor at American University, Shepard, 53, had always been fascinated with the reporters’ role in American political and journalistic history, but that most accounts of their lives ended with their work on Watergate. "I felt there was a ‘rest of the story’ to tell," she said.
She began to tell that tale in a Sept. 2003 article for The Washingtonian magazine, interviewing both Woodward and Bernstein about their lives following the career-defining fame of the Watergate investigation, and the books and film that followed. Shepard had plenty of information left over from her research, but it paled in comparison to what could be found at the University of Texas, where the reporters had recently sold their "Watergate papers" for a reported $5 million. "At that point I knew I had a book," she said.
"Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate" (Wiley, Nov. 2006) is the first book to follow the duo through their Watergate work, the multimedia mania and cult of celebrity that surrounded them in its "All the President’s Men" aftermath, and their professional triumphs and tragedies over the next three decades. "It was such a significant time politically and journalistically," she said, "and I wanted to tell the story for future generations."
Michael Isikoff of Newsweek has said that Shepard’s work "is likely to endure as the definitive account of the lives of two men who changed journalism forever."
SHEPARD TOLD both Woodward and Bernstein that she would be turning her article into a book, but they opted not to participate in the new effort. This didn’t concern Shepard. "As I was going along, I realized that the archival material was more reliable and accurate than if I were to interview them," said the Arlington-based author, who had previously co-written "Running Towards Danger: Stories Behind the Breaking News of 9/11."
"People have very set ways of remembering things. Carl has said he can’t remember what really happened and what happened in the movie."
That line has been blurred for Woodward, too. Shepard relayed a story in which Woodward was asked to find the place in his book "All The President’s Men" where the famous phrase "Follow the money" could be found. He searched, but couldn’t find it. "It turns out it had come from [screenwriter] William Goldman," said Shepard.
The production around the 1976 film provides some of the more fascinating tales in Shepard’s book, as she interviewed star Robert Redford and had access to the personal archives of director Alan J. Pakula, who had conducted in-depth interviews with everyone from Washington Post editors to Nora Ephron, the Hollywood screenwriter Bernstein eventually married.
Some of the book’s most intriguing revelations involve the influence Redford had in crafting the "Woodstein" legend. More so than Watergate, he was fascinated by the reporters and their relationship — in their late-20s, describing one as a "bland, boring [and] Waspy Republican" and the other as a "radical, Jewish, intellectually inclined" liberal. When Redford first wanted to secure their story, he attempted to contact Bernstein to no avail; Woodward called him much later, apologizing and saying the duo was "a little paranoid. We didn’t feel you were legitimate."
It was Redford who planted the seed that eventually led to a seismic shift in the way the reporters wrote their Watergate tale: away from the scandal and onto their work and relationship. As Shepard said: "They would write a howdunit about the whodunit."
REDFORD ADMITTED that he had difficulty in capturing the essence of Bob Woodward, and Shepard faced the same obstacle. While Bernstein’s very public post-Watergate life — which included dalliances with famous starlets and a spectacular divorce from Ephron that resulted in her confessional book and film "Heartburn" — had been an open book, reporting on Woodward’s personal life and thought processes wasn’t as easy.
"It’s a fascinating dichotomy — that somebody who tries to get other people’s secrets is so protective of his own," said Shepard. "And yet I was blown away by how much he shared with Alan Pakula."
While the director’s analytical, nearly psychiatric writings proved valuable, Shepard also used incidents throughout Woodward’s post-Watergate career to draw parallels and shed light on the enigmatic journalist.
For example, the Janet Cooke scandal at The Washington Post — a journalistic hoax about an 8-year-old heroin addict that caused the paper to return her Pulitzer Prize. "I thought there were interesting parallels between Woodward and Janet Cooke," she said. "She had only been at the paper for about nine months when that story came out, and she was very ambitious. There were people there who were doubting her, and the same thing happened to Woodward and Bernstein."
Coverage of the Cooke affair, Bernstein’s flop as Washington bureau chief with ABC News and other tales make Shepard’s book as much about the business of journalism as it is an account of "Woodstein’s" post-Watergate celebrity and its pitfalls.
"They faced the problem of having gotten to the mountaintop at 30-years old, and what do you do after that? They tried on big jobs they weren’t prepared for because everything else was mundane," she said.
And she doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the benefits and drawbacks to their influence on the business. "I’m not a Woodward apologist. I think the lack of identifying who his sources are is not good for journalism. I think that he can get away with some things — because the American public trusts him — that aren’t really a role model for future journalists," she said.
Yet the revelation of one of those anonymous sources couldn’t have come at a better time for Shepard.
"What a lucky break."
ON MAY 31, 2005, Shepard was in a teaching fellowship in Texas and working on "Woodward and Bernstein," when her story was irreversibly altered by Vanity Fair magazine and a 91-year-old former FBI man named W. Mark Felt.
The identity of Deep Throat had been revealed
Shepard immediately started getting phone calls from those who knew her as a Watergate scholar. She thought, for whatever reason, that the revelation "was going to ruin" her book. "And then I realized, ‘Oh my God, I have the natural ending of my book.’"
The guessing game surrounding Deep Throat’s identity had fueled interest in both Woodward and Bernstein for decades. But it was a game Shepard never chose to play.
"This is going to disappoint you, because I never cared," she said. "The one thing that I always believed was that there was a Deep Throat. As much as I think I know Bob Woodward, I was sure he wouldn’t base his career on a lie."
Of course, one of the most interesting aspects of the Deep Throat revelation was that Woodward was scooped on his own story. Such is life in an Internet age; an age that would have greatly changed the way the reporters had approached the Watergate investigation had it occurred today.
"They had the luxury of time, and nobody breathing down their throats," said Shepard. "They really had time to develop the story; today the Post would be wanting them to get it on the Web."
But they had the time, they had the editorial support and, above all else, they have a mythic place in American political history.
"We really love the idea of the David and Goliath story," said Shepard.