Monday, May 25, 2009

An accident of circumstance, or why the New York Times didn't break the Watergate story

On August 16, 1972, New York Times reporter Robert M. Smith went out to lunch with Acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray. Technically it wasn't a business lunch - Smith was actually quitting the Times to attend Yale Law School - but the conversation was certainly interesting.

Mr. Smith said he sat across the table from Patrick Gray, listening in shock to details about Donald Segretti, who helped run the Nixon campaign’s “dirty tricks” operation, and John Mitchell, who had stepped down as attorney general to run Nixon’s re-election campaign.

“He told me the attorney general was involved in a cover-up,” Mr. Smith said, “and I said, ‘How high does it go? To the president?’ And he sat there and looked at me and he didn’t answer. His answer was in the look.”

Read the rest of the story, including how Smith rushed back to the office, told the story to editor Robert H. Phelps, and left for law school. Phelps soon left for a pre-planned monthlong trip to Alaska, and the story dropped through the cracks. Or, as Phelps (who taped Smith's account) said, "My memory is fuzzy on the crucial point of what I did with the tape."

Neither Phelps nor Smith have spoken about this until recently, in part to protect the confidentiality of the source, Gray.

Now one may surmise that if the Times had broken the story in August 1972, the country would have been spared its "long national nightmare." Or perhaps not - while the Washington Post would report many of these issues in the fall of 1972, even joint publication by both the Times and the Post may not have hastened Nixon's resignation. Even with the Post's reporting, it took nearly two years from the initial Watergate revelations to Nixon's resignation.
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