Witcover: The Watergate sleuths target Trump

The two investigative reporters whose work at the Washington Post brought about the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974 now have Donald Trump in their sights, this time separately.

Carl Bernstein, the street-smart liberal New Yorker who teamed with Bob Woodward, the earnest, mild-mannered, moderate Midwesterner, in breaking the Watergate story, has been on television roundtables analyzing Mr. Trump's political strategy to cope with the threat he faces to his own presidency in the Robert Mueller investigation into the Russian elections meddling.

Now Mr. Woodward has written a new book titled "Fear: Trump in the White House," due out Sept. 11 from Simon & Shuster. The publisher says it will reveal "in unprecedented detail the harrowing life inside President Donald Trump's White House and how precisely he makes decisions on major foreign and domestic policies."

The title, the publisher says, comes from a remark Mr. Trump made in April 2016 to Mr. Woodward and another Post reporter, Robert Costa, when asked if he agreed with President Barack Obama that "real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence." Mr. Trump replied first that "real power is through respect," but then added: "Real power is, I don't even want to use the word, fear."

In any event, Messrs. Woodward and Bernstein's mutual interest in Mr. Trump inevitably rekindles recollections of journalism's best-known investigative team. In the 44 years since Nixon's resignation, Mr. Woodward in Washington and Mr. Bernstein in New York have gone their separate ways while remaining good friends and plying their trade in different means.

After Nixon's departure from the White House, they first continued their partnership in two best-selling books about him. The first, "All the President's Men," became an Academy Award-winning movie starring Robert Redford as Mr. Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Mr. Bernstein.

The film was shot in Hollywood, but the two stars visited the Post newsroom, and word of their presence sent employees in other departments, particularly female star-gazers, flocking there. The two rookie reporters were dubbed "Woodstein" by a Post editor, Howard Simons.

A replica of the newsroom, built in the interest of authenticity, led the movie-makers to ship reams of assorted press releases and other old papers on desks of other reporters to it. Aside from that excess, however, the film itself was quite authentic in capturing the intensity of the newspaper's quest of a hot, exclusive story of immense significance of the day,

Since then, Mr. Woodward has ground out a total of 19 heavily researched tomes on presidents, including George W. Bush at war and Mr. Obama at peace, and other political figures, while remaining a Post editor writing occasional major stories.

Mr. Bernstein after leaving the paper was briefly Washington bureau chief for ABC News, and he also wrote the best-selling "A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton" and "Loyalties," an account of his parents' tribulations during the anti-Communist era of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin.

One major difference between the Nixon story and the current Trump saga is that the first started one from a simple crime — the break-in of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex — which Nixon sought to cover up.

In Mr. Trump's story, which could end in the same outcome of the fall of a president, the public has yet to learn what, if any, crime was committed that involved Mr. Trump — although several of his campaign and cabinet associates have been indicted for various misdeeds. Mr. Trump's latest lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, echoes his boss' assertion that there was "no collusion" with the Russians, and indeed has even asserted that "collusion" is no crime at all.

Together, they seek instead to discredit Special Counsel Robert Mueller himself and somehow make the threat to the Trump presidency go away. One of the president's latest gambits has been to tweet that Attorney General Jeff Sessions "should" withdraw his earlier recusal from the Russian meddling case and fire Mueller. The White House says that was only Mr. Trump's opinion and not an order.

The attention now of both Messrs. Bernstein and Woodward as bit players only adds a minor if ironic footnote to this year's high-stakes journalistic tale of the potential breaking of another president.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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