Above the Fold: The One That Got Away | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

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Above the Fold: The One That Got Away

How The New York Times let a Watergate lead slip through its fingers

Former New York Times editors and reporters contacted yesterday were almost uniformly flabbergasted by the news that the Washington news editor of the Times had received a huge leak about the Watergate scandal from a reporter who had gone to lunch with FBI Director L. Patrick Gray exactly two months after the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee–and then did absolutely nothing to follow it up.

The revelation of the editor’s inaction was made by the editor himself, Robert Phelps, in his newly published book, God and the Editor, My Search for Meaning at the New York Times (Syracuse University Press). Phelps’s account has been confirmed by Robert Smith, the former Times reporter who had lunch with the FBI director on August 16, 1972, the day before Smith resigned from the paper to attend Yale Law School. The date of the lunch was also confirmed by Gray’s son, Ed Gray, who found the appointment for it written in his father’s date book.

According to Smith’s account of the lunch, posted on the Web site of the American Journalism Review, the newly named FBI director

told me about a guy who burned his palm, [G. Gordon Liddy] and about [Nixon campaign dirty trickster] Donald Segretti (by name). And when he intimated over the entrée that the wrongdoing went further, I leaned back against the wall on my inside banquette and looked at him in frank astonishment.
‘The attorney general?’ I asked.
He nodded.
I paused.
‘The president?’ I asked.
He looked me in the eye without denial–or any comment. In other words, confirmation.

Smith raced back to the Washington bureau and retreated into Robert Phelps’s cubby-hole office, where Smith turned on a dictation machine and Phelps took notes on everything Patrick Gray told Smith. “ ‘Bob,’ I remember beginning. ‘This is incredible,’” Smith wrote. “And for the next half hour or so–like a jumping bean, unable to contain myself–I told him about the lunch”

After that, there is nothing but a gigantic black hole in the memory of Phelps–and everyone else who was in the Washington Bureau of the Times in 1972.

Now eighty-nine years old, Phelps writes blandly in his book, “We never developed Gray’s tips into publishable stories. Why we failed is a mystery to me. In fact, while I can still picture the debriefing, my memory is fuzzy on the crucial point of what I did with the Tape.” Phelps went on vacation to Alaska for a month soon afterwards, he writes–and he has no idea whether he ever shared the information with anyone else.

“I lead the bafflement brigade,” Phelps told FCP in a telephone interview. “I have no recollection at all; and that baffles me. It is enough to make you question your sanity, of course”

Other former Times men reacted with shock to Phelps’s account. Thirty-seven years later, no other story in journalism retains as much resonance for everyone old enough to remember Watergate–especially if you worked for the Times or The Washington Post when the story unfolded.

“I can picture Abe Rosenthal [managing editor of the Times in 1972] howling in his grave, and howling loudly,” said Arthur Gelb, a former managing editor of the Times himself and one of Rosenthal’s closest friends. “Rosenthal desperately wanted to get the Watergate story. He always believed that management of the Washington Bureau at that time left an awful lot to be desired, but never to the extent that we are learning now. The new facts are truly shocking”

Rosenthal’s son, Andrew, who now heads the Times’s editorial page, said his late father’s reaction to the news “would not have been suitable for a family blog.”

The fact that Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward broke most of the important Watergate stories in The Washington Post in 1972 remained an open wound for the fiercely competitive Rosenthal, right up until his death three years ago. It was only after Seymour Hersh began writing about Watergate for the Times in January, 1973, that the paper began catching up with the Post on the story.

Bill Kovach was brought to the Washington bureau of the Times to head up its investigative unit at the end of 1972, as it tried desperately to match the scoops of Bernstein and Woodward.

“Bob Phelps never said to me, ‘Patrick Gray might be a good guy to hook up on or anything,’” Kovach told FCP yesterday. “Phelps had a little cubby-hole office in the front of the bureau. And he said, ‘That’ll be your office; I’ll clean out my desk and I’ll turn over all my files on the investigation.’ And he never mentioned any tape, he never mentioned Bob Smith. So far as I know, nobody in the bureau and nobody in New York ever said anything to me about it. I can’t imagine how he–thirty-seven years after the fact, when he’s writing his memoirs–remembers this interview with L. Patrick Gray, and it could have been dynamite. And didn’t remember it three or four months later to tell me. Why the hell would you ask someone to run the investigative operation–and we were still trying to catch up with Watergate at the time–and not tell him that? I mean, Jesus, it’s a real surprise to me.”

When Smith went off to Yale Law School, he continued to read the Times faithfully, but he never saw any stories about what the FBI director had told him. FCP asked him why he never called any of his former colleagues to find out what had happened to his leads. “I assumed they’re working on it,” Smith told FCP, “or they’ve checked it and it’s wrong.”

Smith said, “I’ve always liked Phelps enormously and respected him enormously as an editor.” But he is as baffled as everyone else by Phelps’s apparent failure to follow up on any of the blockbuster leads Smith had given him. “He has absolutely no explanation for it–for not having spilled one syllable. I don’t understand it. This is not a person who took drugs or alcohol. He was sane, conservative, very self contained.”

Max Frankel was the Washington Bureau chief in 1972, and he admitted in his own memoirs that his bureau’s coverage of the Watergate scandal was one of his failures. “We were too sluggish even after the White House was implicated,” Frankel wrote.

So you might expect Frankel to be the most shocked of all by Phelps’s account. But Frankel told FCP that he wasn’t shocked at all.

“I wasn’t around then,” said Frankel, explaining why Phelps might not have told him immediately about the leak from the FBI Director. “I was at the Republican Convention in the period they were writing about.” However, Patrick Gray’s diary says the lunch took place on Wednesday, August 16, and the Republican Convention did not begin until the following Monday, on August 21. “If he had been at the convention, I would have been at the convention, too,” Phelps said yesterday. However, Phelps added that he had no recollection of sharing the leak with his boss at the time.

In any case, Frankel said he did not believe that the FBI Director “was leaking.”

“I don’t know what happened,” Frankel said. “I’m skeptical about the whole thing. I think he was schmoozing”

But didn’t Frankel wish that Phelps had told him what Gray had told Robert Smith over lunch?

“No,” said Frankel. “I think Bob had good news judgment and whatever it was, I doubt that it was very important.”

Informed of Frankel’s non-reaction, Smith said to FCP, “You’re joking. I’m stupefied. Does he not know now that this was important? He was running the Washington Bureau that got trounced on this story, and he went on to run The New York Times! How can he say that?”

Smith said that he had never discussed his lunch with Gray publicly because he felt bound by an implied promise of confidentiality, even after Gray’s death. Three years ago, a Hollywood producer called Smith and demanded that he tell him what he knew about Watergate at the time, but Smith said he has no idea how the Hollywood producer might have been tipped off.

“He became quite threatening,” Smith remembered; but the former reporter, now a lawyer and a mediator, refused to cooperate. Smith said he called the general counsel of The New York Times after being contacted by the Hollywood producer, and asked the Times lawyer whether he thought Smith should continue to be bound by his vow of secrecy, even after Gray’s death. “He agreed that I still was,” Smith said.

Only after he learned that Phelps was going to publish the whole story did Smith decide to write his own version of these events–in an op-ed piece that he submitted to The New York Times. Smith said he submitted the piece without contacting anyone at the paper, and he never received any response to it. Andrew Rosenthal told FCP yesterday that the op-ed page could not find any record of ever having received a piece from Smith. After failing to place it in the Times, Smith offered the piece to the American Journalism Review, which this week posted it on its website.

Four years ago, former deputy FBI Director W. Mark Felt revealed that he had been Woodward and Bernstein’s “deep throat” in the Watergate affair. But Bernstein insisted that Felt’s guidance had been no substitute for old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting–the kind the Washington Bureau of the Times proved incapable of in 1972.

“The difficulty I have with all of this is this notion of leaks,” Bernstein told FCP. “The story didn’t work that way. If you read All the President’s Men [the book Bernstein co-authored with Woodward] the point is, by and large, what Mark Felt did was, he confirmed for us information that we had gotten elsewhere. He gave us very little original information such as Pat Gray was supposedly giving to Bob Smith.”

“I can’t believe we’re still talking about this stuff,” Bernstein continued. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”