Memories

Watergate – An Editor’s Take

 

By Edward Kosner

 

Note: This is excerpted with permission from “It’s News to Me: The Making and Unmaking of an Editor,” by Edward Kosner, Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006

 

   As a journalist it was my good fortune to work at Newsweek during the years when it seems the nation itself might be self-destructing. Besides the assassination of JFK, the murders of Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King happened on my watch, as did the Harlem, Watts and Detroit riots, the shooting of George Wallace, the Moon landing, Chappaquiddick, the Vietnam war, the anti-war crusade and the campus riots, Richard Nixon’s landslide over George McGovern and the Watergate scandal that brought Nixon down.

   Watergate began horribly for Newsweek, but ultimately became one of its finest hours. Ben Bradlee’s Washington Post owned the story from the beginning, leaving Max Frankel’s New York Times Washington bureau pathetically trying to catch up. Time and Newsweek were out of the early running, too—which Bradlee never tired of pointing out to Kay Graham and Oz. By now, I was managing editor of the magazine and slowly we began to gain some traction.

   The Challenge: We quickly realized that the magazine’s traditional way of running things simply didn’t work in the Watergate world of exploding scoops and tantalizing leads. The news magazine’s great advantage in a huge evolving story like this was its ability to synthesize great gobs of news and present it in coherent weekly installments, a continuing narrative. But Newsweek’s weakness was inherent in its strength: In a story as volatile as Watergate, the magazine risked being overtaken by events, its latest chapter rendered irrelevant or off-track by a late-breaking newspaper scoop.

   So we improvised, establishing an ex-com of New York writers and editors, among them, Larry Martz, who convened each morning for a squawk box telephone conference with Mel Elfin, the Washington Bureau chief, and his increasingly plugged-in Watergate reporters, including Nick Horrock and John Lindsay. That way, we could discuss the latest wrinkles in the story and, more important, try to plan for contingencies.

    High Wire Act: There are any number of metaphors for running a news magazine, which  must close all copy by Saturday evening and then run on presses all over the country—and the world, for that matter—so that more than 3 million copies reach newsstands and subscribers starting Monday morning. Steering a huge ocean liner is one—you’ve got to start turning the rudder well before the great vessel responds and settles into a new course. I prefer the high-wire.

   Your choices shrink with each step in the editorial week. You can’t stop, and at a certain point you can’t turn back. If you want to be able to make choices late, you’ve got to build those options into your progress—with Plans A, B or even C expressed in alternate page layouts for the issue, multiple cover possibilities, even provisions for emergency press and shipping schedules.

   Helter Skelter: With Watergate, we could never know when a major development might break over the weekend, forcing a drastic overhaul of the issue. The infamous Saturday Night Massacre, when Nixon fired  Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, and Attorney General Eliot Richardson and his deputy resigned rather than carry out the order, happened just a week after the Yom Kippur war between Israel and the Arabs.

  Once again we had to scramble. It was nerve-wracking, and as the story stretched over the months, the task seemed to be endless. Amidst all the tension and confusion, I discovered that I had a compass. Early on, I was seized by the conviction that Nixon would be driven from office. I simply knew the outcome in my gut. It was the first time I’d ever felt such certainty about the direction of a big story, and nearly thirty years would pass before I felt that way again.

   Endless Nixon: Between March 26th 1973 when Newsweek published the first cover, rather daintily headed THE WATERGATE MESS, and August 9th, 1974, when Nixon gave his last

weird  salute and choppered off from the south lawn of the White House, we published more than 30 cover stories on the scandal.

   There were cartoons by the cover editor Bob Engle showing the embattled President as Laocoon wrestling with serpents and another of Nixon barely staying afloat at sea in a life preserver. There was Nixon standing like George C. Scott as Patton before a huge American flag proclaiming “I am not a crook.”  There were Haldeman and Ehrlichman [Nixon’s closest White House aides] in their shades looking like banana republic goons out of State of Siege. There was [attorney general] John Mitchell,  and [Nixon secretary] Rosemary Woods, craggy Judge John Siricca, slick John Dean [a White House aide], and Congressman Peter Rodino, chairman of the House impeachment committee, as alert as a sparrow.

   Photo Shoots: On July 16, 1973, on a rare day off, I was out at the beach listening to a portable radio when a previously unheralded Presidential staffer named Alexander Butterfield told Senator Sam Ervin’s Senate committee that Nixon had taped himself in the White House. Back in the office next morning, I told Bob Engle to scare up a tape recorder with reels that rotated atop the machine.

 Then I had the Washington bureau photographer, Wally McNamee, rent a small plane and get permission to fly briefly over the White House—you could actually do such things in those days. Engle photographed the tape recorder and Wally shot the White House from the same bird’s-eye perspective. There were no design computers with their magical effects in 1973, so Engle had to use a retouching technique called a dye transfer. He seamlessly grafted the tape recorder reels onto the roof of the mansion and viola! —the White House as tape recorder. The result is my favorite cover of the several hundred I oversaw at Newsweek.

   Stonewall: But Watergate was a reporting, writing and editing challenge, not a graphics exercise. Most of all, it was a test of stamina. In those days before overnight shipping and e-mail, transmitting documents was more Pony Express than Federal Express. The transcripts of the Nixon tapes prepared for the Congressional committees and legal cases were a sensation, revealing the President, for one thing, telling John Mitchell, “I don’t give a shit. I want you all to stonewall it, let them plead the Fifth Amendment, cover up, or anything else, if it will save it—save the plan.”

   But before we could write and edit the story and design a cover, we had to get hold of the goods and read it. Often, the only way to get the material to New York overnight was to “pigeon” it. A Washington staffer would take the stuff to National Airport and arrange for a stewardess on a New York-bound flight to bring it along. A New York staffer would meet her at LaGuardia and deliver the transcripts to [senior writer] Peter Goldman’s and my doorsteps, where we found them when we got up at 6 a.m.

   We’d have it all read when we met at the office at 9:30 for the squawk box conference with Washington. We’d drag to our homes that night in time for a couple of drinks and a late dinner and fall exhausted into bed—only to wake up at 6.a.m. to be greeted by a fresh pile of transcripts.

   Learning Moment: One night, I dozed off in front of the TV to be roused by Charles Sandman, a Nixon loyalist on Peter Rodino’s House impeachment committee, brandishing a copy of Newsweek at a late hearing as he denounced our work to the nation. There were other Nixon scandals that came to the surface in the midst of the Watergate frenzy—and I learned a valuable lesson from one of them.

   At one point, the Washington bureau came up with what I thought was a second-tier story about tax trouble Nixon’s daughter Tricia, who had been married at a splashy White House wedding, and her husband, Eddie Cox  were having over a minor Florida land deal. As was standard practice, we gave Nixon’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, a heads-up on the story on Saturday before deadline.

   Rather than treat the tax story as the minor flap we thought it was, Ziegler went on the attack. He issued a formal White House statement denouncing Newsweek for the article—which hadn’t yet been published—and warning of the consequences. We scratched our heads and went to press.

   Mouthpiece: When I came back to the office after the weekend, my first visitors were the chief

counsel of the Washington Post Co. and a top Newsweek business executive.

   “You guys better have that story nailed down,” said the lawyer, sounding remarkably like Snively Whiplash from the Bullwinkle cartoon.

   I assured him that we did, my fingers crossed under my desk.

   Soon afterward, we found out why Ziegler had so overreacted. It turned out that the President himself had big-time tax problems. He had taken a huge deduction for the value of his papers donated to the federal government, although such deductions had been outlawed, and he owed hundreds of thousands in back taxes and penalties. Ziegler had gone ballistic over Tricia’s taxes to try to scare us away from her father’s.

   Sleeper: The lesson I took from this episode served me well in years to come: Whenever a story triggers a disproportionate response from its subject, it is always a signal that a far bigger story is waiting there to be exposed.

 With Goldman writing most of the weekly Watergate installments and the Washington bureau chipping in ever more useful reporting, Newsweek pulled away from Time and was broadly recognized as the magazine leader on the story. Syndicated research done soon after found more people reading each issue of Newsweek than of Time, so we had a bigger audience even though Time sold a million more subscriptions each year than Newsweek did.

   Bye Bye: Finally, the pressure became too great, and on Thursday, August 8th, 1974, Nixon acknowledged what I’d known all along would happen: He resigned in a brief televised speech to the nation. Next morning, after his tearful farewell to the staff and paean to his sainted mother, he flew off to San Clemente in disgrace. On Saturday, we put the finishing touches on the issue, and on Sunday morning I flew to Nantucket to join my family on vacation. People always harp on how incestuous big-media can be. There was irrefutable proof of that aboard the twin-engine commuter plane that morning. Seated right behind the managing editor of Newsweek on the plane was the chief editor of Time, Henry Grunwald, and his wife, heading for their home on Martha’s Vineyard.

   “How many pages did you do on Nixon?” I asked Henry.

   “We held it to 48,” he said.

   “We did 60,” I said, and smiled to myself.

 

 Edward Kosner joined Newsweek as a writer in the Nation section in 1963, rose to senior editor of the section in 1969, managing editor in 1972, and was named the editor of the magazine in 1975. Fired by Kay Graham in 1979, Kosner went on to be the editor of New York Magazine, Esquire and the New York Daily News.

 

   One note of tribute:  Ed Kosner was as quick to spot a trend or jump forward to what might happen next as any Newsweek editor of the 20th century.  He also had the guts to run exposes of the most powerful, as long as a reporter had the facts.  This reporter had spent weeks digging out an expose of Bert Lance, Jimmy Carter’s best friend and budget director, just months after Carter took office.  The New York editors resisted running the story the first week, citing various small holes in the reporting that really didn’t matter—there are irrelevant lose ends to any scandal. Mel Elfin,  the bureau chief, and I were going nuts trying to persuade an early morning meeting of editors in a conference call the following Friday. They were still balking a whole week later.  Over our squawk box, we heard Ed Kosner arrive (he’d been at an outside meeting).

   “What are you talking about, Bert Lance?” we heard him ask. The answer was yes.

   “That’s a great story.  We should have run it last week.  We’re going to run it this week,” he said.

 For a reporter who has sweat marbles first trying to get the scoop and then get it printed, those words sounded better than Mahler’s Ninth.

--Rich Thomas

 

   One more note: Ed also had the wit to ask this grateful reporter to transfer to Washington, proving that he could spot great talent as well as great stories, maybe.

--Bill Cook