On the 50th anniversary of the infamous Watergate scandal, Frank and Ian dive deep into the lessons from this ugly moment in American history.
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Business Lessons From The Watergate Scandal
Frankie, you dragged me into this episode kicking and screaming. I couldn’t be more excited now that I’m here.
Ian’s positive attitude will no doubt show through in this episode.
It’s the 50th anniversary of Watergate. What is the date? What is the anniversary? Is it when he resigned or when they broke the story?
We are recording this in the middle of June 17th, 2022. 1972 was the Watergate break-ins. That’s the one the burglars were caught in the middle of the morning, breaking into a luxurious place. It’s this concrete monster. That’s a series of half circles that overlooks the DC water down by the river. The Republican National Convention was going on. Some burglars broke in. It was mostly people from Cuba. There was one former CIA agent. The story is 50-plus years old at this point.
I’ve been fascinated with it since I was a kid. I’ll tell you why I’m fascinated by it. It turns out that Nixon had this whole thing called ratfucking. Ratfucking is espionage or counterintelligence against people. The Watergate is a small part of the process, but he pushed and prodded his way into who he ran against for reelection. There was a guy named Muskie. Muskie was this fascinating character who was a good candidate. They wrote this bogus letter. Did you hear about the Canuck letter?
It was a racist letter telling someone that Muskie was a racist against French Canadians. It disqualified him. Before there was Fox News, it made national news. It was a complete fabrication by the people that were inside of Nixon’s employ. The reason this is personal for me is this. In the reelection in 1972, Nixon ran against a guy named McGovern. Do you know how many states McGovern won?
One. Do you know what state that was?
It’s Massachusetts, where my parents lived at the time. When Nixon ended up resigning and all this was going crazy, there was this bumper sticker, which my dad had, that said, “Massachusetts, we told you so.” You talked to my dad. I don’t think he has voted since. He’s like, “I voted for McGovern. I liked that guy. I thought Nixon was a crook.” I don’t know what it is about this particular thing, but I’m interested in it. It spurred a great movie that was nominated for eight Academy Awards. It won four. It has no superheroes or people with capes, so Ian hated it.Watergate is now kind of a metronome for any kind of major scandal with lots of intrigue behind it and complications. Click To Tweet
The point of the matter is it’s something unique history-wise. What we’re going to talk about isn’t the actual break-in or why or all that, but there are 4 or 5 storylines that work very well with what we talk about here. It talks about the company, management, and young employees. It talks about being a man of integrity, protecting your word, and where those things go. To me, this is a fun episode because it’s timely. I’ve read 6 or 7 books on the subject. It’s interesting.
Frank brought this up to me because the 50th anniversary was coming up in 2022. He was excited. He already wrote an outline. Loyal readers of this show will know that Frank almost never writes an outline without me starting it or telling him exactly what he needs to do.
I write an outline as frequently as Ian saves a password to a place he can remember it.
I was like, “Frank wants to do this.” The problem was I’ve never been super excited about the Watergate story. It happened a long time ago. I know the details of it. I’ve been to The Watergate Hotel and done the tour where they take you into the actual room. Someone walks you up there and they walk you around the room. I’ve done it all. It’s vaguely interesting to me, but I had never seen any of the movies. I haven’t read anywhere near what Frank has read on it. To show you how ludicrous my life is, I downloaded All the President’s Men because Frank told me to.
At 10:00 in the morning, I started watching a movie. The highlight of my work day was watching All the President’s Men. It took me three and a half hours to watch a two-hour and fifteen-minute movie because I kept falling asleep. I would have to rewind to the last part where I was at. Some of the pieces are vague, but probably the hardest work I’ve put out in weeks was grinding through this movie and getting through it. I am prepared because I am a professional. I am ready to talk about Watergate, Nixon, and The Washington Post.
There are two funny anecdotes before we get into the heart of this. Ian’s son is also named Ian. He goes by a moniker. Ian and his son called me from a speakerphone in the car. We almost had a fill-in with Ian Jr., not Ian, because Ian was so unenthused about this. I told my wife, “Ian doesn’t want to do this show.” She’s like, “Why don’t I make a cutout of him? We will put a yarn wig together and you can do it by yourself.”
I asked Frank, “Can I have IJ show up? I’ll put him behind the mic. He will have as much to add about Watergate as I do. He has been to the hotel and the actual room. IJ can sit behind the mic and you can talk to him the whole time about how much you love this story.”
I’ll let you do what you do, which is lead. Push me through it.
Give the Wikipedia summary. Watergate is a metonym for any major scandal with lots of intrigue behind it and complications. When Tom Brady deflated a bunch of footballs in the Super Bowl, everyone called it Deflategate because there was a big conspiracy and a lot of lying going around. There’s a lot of double-crossing. There was the destruction of evidence. There were a lot of similar things to Watergate. Watergate has become synonymous with scandals, double-crossing, and a lot of backdoor and creepy dealing. Give everyone the Wikipedia two-minute summary of exactly what the Watergate scandal was.
In its simplest form, there were burglars who were caught breaking into the Democratic National Convention or the offices. Nixon was a Republican. These were the Democrats. The Democrats had rented space inside The Watergate Hotel. What happened was at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, there were burglars in there. There was a security guard that noticed something was off. They called 911.
At the beginning of the movie, All the President’s Men, which Ian referenced, a group of people show up in there. They look like hippies. The reason is they were non-plain clothes. They were the closest people there. They send this group in. The group is police officers, but they’re dressed in what’s called a vice squad. A vice squad is working the hookers, the drug beats, and all that stuff. They were the first crew available, so they’re the ones who busted up.
There’s an arrest. There’s a simple burglary. The Washington Post is headquartered eight blocks away from The Watergate Hotel, at least at the time. There were a couple of young, hungry reporters who thought that this was something bigger. They refuse to let it go. There was a period in the movie, in the book, or in history where there were 5,000 reporters in Washington, DC, five people all working for The Washington Post, following the story.
This story almost got swept under the rug. One of the things that you’re hearing a lot about now is the January 6 trials. It has come out. Something that I read is like, “If Fox News existed in 1972, Richard Nixon probably does not resign and get impeached.” This is something pretty unique and neat because someone was doing something wrong and the free press is the one that caused it to come to light.
We’re not going to talk about what side of the politics we’re on or all that. I want to talk about the guys, The Washington Post, Bob Woodward, Ben Bradlee, and Katharine Graham. That’s the business side of the story. We watched The Godfather, which is a gangster movie, and talked about the business component. The business component is what I’m interested in talking about here, not what side of the politics are you on.
The Post forced it to light. What were the guys doing in breaking in? Were they there to wiretap? What were they going to use that information for?
That’s what was such a mystery. Nobody knew. He was running against this dipshit McGovern who couldn’t win. They knew he couldn’t win. He was ahead by twelve points in the polls when this happened. They’re like, “Why would they break in? It makes no sense.” This is what The Post uncovered through all their incredible research. This is just one thing. This break-in isn’t it. There’s a whole counter-espionage thing happening here directed by the White House. They’re doing it in multiple facets of governance.
They were doing it in elections. They were doing it in departments of the government. It became this whole thing. Nixon did not resign because these guys broke in. He resigned because there were all these atrocities that were committed. These people who had a conviction stood up, went in, researched it, and pushed very hard on something they believed in that almost everybody else thought was ludicrous.
It was the tip of the iceberg that they figured out. Had that not come to light, they wouldn’t have been able to drill into the fact that the Nixon administration was using the FBI, CIA, and IRS as political weapons. You have to separate all that, but he was weaponizing all of it. It brought a lot of ugliness through all the trials and everything that came out of how ugly that administration was. It forced him to the point where he lost all political support. It’s wild how long he kept support all the way through all of it.
Ultimately, before he can even be kicked out of office, he gets impeached and resigns. This is a David versus Goliath story, in my opinion, where a newspaper that was still relatively regional at the time went and took down an administration that was that powerful and popular. It’s the only time you’ve ever had a sitting president resign. I never understood why they did it because it’s not like he was losing by six points in the polls and he was desperate. He found out some info and sprung it on them. He was going to kill them no matter what. Is that hubris gone wild? “Just because I can, I’ll do whatever.”
I’ve nerded out on this. The reason is Richard Nixon was an incredible narcissist and an insane warrior. He was paranoid. He recorded everything. He did all of these crazy things. He was a paranoid guy. This went back decades. Here’s a fact. Do you know the wiretapping of the White House or the Oval Office? Do you know the story?
Someone who predated Nixon, it was either Kennedy or LBJ, wired the Oval Office. If there were ever meetings in there, they could use it as an espionage tool. Nixon didn’t like it, so he removed it but then he started thinking, “I’m going to get reelected. I want this reinstalled to protect my legacy.”There's a lot to be said for having good partnerships in your career and having people that you can really rely on that have the same skin in the game. Click To Tweet
Those are the tapes that ended up hanging him. That’s where he ended up busting himself because he’s giving the order to do some of this stuff.
He had all of them taken out, but he had them put back in because of his ego. Why would the Republican White House break into a Democratic Convention if you’re winning by two touchdowns in points? Trump never won the popular vote. These things are usually razor-thin. A twelve-point margin in politics is a landslide. It didn’t make any sense, but Woodward, Bernstein, and the reporters wouldn’t let it go. There was something in there that perturbed them enough to keep digging into it. That’s where everything came out of it.
How does The Washington Post find out about it other than the fact that it was a story on the nightly news that someone had broken into the Democratic National Convention at The Watergate Hotel?
There are news organizations. They didn’t wait for Walter Cronkite. They have someone that monitored the police blotters. They’re like, “Five people got arrested at the Republican National Convention or the RNC. Let’s send the reporter.” They send a reporter. That reporter is Woodward. He gets there and he realizes the five people who got arrested didn’t call an attorney. They’re all dressed in suits. They have $2,300 in sequential bills, which means they got it directly from a bank. Back then, that was a lot of money to have in hundreds.
They went to court and never made a phone call, but there was an attorney there to represent them. There was enough stuff pretty early where they’re like, “This is odd. They’re in suits. They’re breaking in at 3:00 in the morning. They have bunches of money and an attorney happens to show up.” That’s how it started. They thought it was maybe a story. What was interesting is that 2 of the 5 people that got arrested were arrested with address books. In both of the address books, they had the name of somebody who worked in the White House. In one, it said WH and the other one had put W.House.
It started the curiosity, “Why would they have these people’s names and an address book?” What the president and the office of the White House did was they flatly denied everything. There’s that scene in the movie about the denials. There was no dialogue and communication. There probably was a creative answer they could have worded, but instead, they were arrogant and they said, “It didn’t happen. Go away, you peasants.” These people got pissed off and dug in.
Bob Woodward gets randomly selected because it wasn’t a real big story and he was still relatively new with The Post.
He’s 28 years old. He has been there nine months. He interviewed a year before. He was ultimately hired. They’re like, “You have no experience. You’re out of the Navy. You’re smart, but you can’t write.” He had to move to Maryland to learn his skill and craft. He worked for what was called a weekly paper back then. It’s not nearly the type of clout. This was the ’70s. Newspapers were important.
Most newspapers had two copies that would go out a day because that was the way you got your news. There wasn’t cable news. There were three television channels. This was important. He went to Maryland, learned how to write, and came back to The Post. He was only there for nine months. He had only done a handful of stories. This is a bullshit story that nobody cared about. They called their rookie guy and said, “Go look at it.”
Woodward looks at it and finds out more detail than people were expecting. When he goes out there, he does some good investigative reporting, sniffs out some of the weirdness of it, and then starts to get some stories. They’re dropping it into the middle of the paper at first. These aren’t on the front page. No one wants to make accusations. It’s out there. When does Bernstein learn about him?
I’m going to say something before we get the Bernstein, which is fascinating. This is where management comes in. It’s a good company. The Washington Post is a family company that’s owned by the Graham family. She got that name through marriage. It was a different name, but the person who founded the company left it to Katharine Graham’s husband. Katherine Graham was the daughter of the founder. She was a socialite.
This is the 1950s and 1960s. It came into the ’70s. She didn’t work. Women didn’t work back then. Her husband ends up killing himself. She’s a socialite, but this paper means something to her. What she decides to do is to say, “Screw it. I’m going to run this paper as the owner.” She’s not a micromanager. She understands this. She has a guy named Ben Bradlee that works for her. He’s remarkable. He’s the editor of the entire paper.
When Woodward finds this story, Bradlee is looking at it. He realizes what’s happening. This isn’t Bradlee’s first fight with the White House. He fought with the White House over the Korean War and something that broke. It was covered in a movie called The Post. What Bradlee did is he looked at the first articles that came out from these guys and said, “You’re making huge accusations. You don’t have great sourcing.”
They asked the question, “Who is this from?” He goes, “Do you want a name?” He goes, “No, rank.” They didn’t have it. What he did is he took the story, neutered it, got some of the details out, and buried it, but there are a couple of lessons there. Ben Bradlee has been in the war before. He’s a good manager. He’s like, “I’m not going to take a shot on something that isn’t substantiated. My guys are green. I need to teach them how to not be green.”
This is the reason I wanted to do this episode. If this was a bad manager, a micromanager, or someone who doesn’t know how to cultivate talent, the story goes away. Richard Nixon walks. We never talk about this again, but because Bradlee knew the fight, how serious the fight was, and how 1 or 2 early stories would win the war, he made them a little bit less powerful. He buried them to get some momentum. As momentum and public interest picked up, and that’s what sells newspapers, then he started moving it from the back pages to the front pages.
Another thing that I liked was the fact that he took a chance on them. Great managers, especially when you get young people that come in, have got these great ideas. A lot of times, they’re shooting from their gut, “We need to do this. I see a competitor doing this, so we should do it.” You could see that with a young reporter. They want to break some big story. I love that scene where he redlines half of it, “It’s not sourced. Get some more information.”
Good managers and companies do the same thing, “Do you want me to go spend this money? Show me the return and more success than what you showed so far. You can’t just make a bunch of assumptions and ask me to invest in something. Go test it, dig a little more, and get a little bit more factual and analytical. Maybe then I’ll go invest in what you’re asking for.” You can’t go to any strong manager and say, “My gut says we should do this.”
That’s it. He’s not a young manager. He’s an old seasoned manager. In the movie, he’s got a lot of gray hair. In real life, he was probably in his 50s when this all happened. That’s relevant because he knew it wasn’t strong enough, but he didn’t completely take away the story or say, “Stop doing it. Chase something else.” That’s what reporters are supposed to do. That’s how you cultivate a good crew of reporters. You push them and say, “This is weak for these reasons. Go out and do it again.”
There’s a scene in the movie. Woodward is starting on this story. He’s a very good investigative reporter. He’s not a good writer at this point. There’s a scene where a writer by the name of Carl Bernstein who’s played by Dustin Hoffman intercepts his story without telling them. He pulls it and rewrites the first paragraph. Bob Woodward confronts him, “What the hell are you doing in my story?” He has not been assigned to him yet. They’re not friends.
He was like, “I thought the first story could be written better. You’ve got the details right, but you were burying the lead.” They get into a little bit of an argument and Woodward says, “You’re right. Yours is written better. I like your writing better. I don’t like the way you handled it. Don’t go behind my back and try to rewrite my stuff.” I’m curious. Is that Hollywood? Did it happen that way? When you read the book, did it happen where he barged his way in? Did Bradlee, the manager, say, “Go help this kid write better because he’s such a crappy writer?”
It was a little bit more management than the movie. Bernstein is a scrappy kid. Woodward was from Yale and the Navy. Bernstein, at sixteen years old, graduated high school, but he never went to college. He started to write for The Washington Post. He’s a scrappy I-know-how-to-do-it guy. This happened when they were 28 to 29. He has been at the paper for 12 or 13 years by this point. He was better, but he also was a scrapper. He wasn’t blue blood or Yale-educated. There was a combination.
He had something to prove. He always had a chip on his shoulder.A good manager knows they can't do this job for you. They’re going to have to trust that you can do this job yourself. Click To Tweet
It was also finding your shit. He knew he was good at writing, but he wasn’t as good at reporting. Reporting is a skill that takes a lot of smarts. He was street smart. He saw this thing, agreed with what was happening in the tide, and got on it. It was a combination of Bernstein wanting to be the glam-ma like they show in the movie. It was a combination, “Stick the two young kids on it because collectively, they’re better. You’ve got a great researcher and a great writer.” To me, it was a good bit of management that made that happen.
There was something they didn’t talk about in the movie. When Woodward and Bernstein started this whole process, there were somewhere between 5 and 8 people at The Post working on it. The scene they show in the movie that Ian explained is the last moment either of them was attributed to the story, not together. From that moment on, everything they did, even if one of them wrote it, it was both of their names. They started to work on it together and collectively because they had different skills.
Ian and I are very similar in a lot of ways, but we have different skills. I find the real estate deal. Ian writes the story. He’s a better writer than I am. We all know what we’re doing. We have a similar level of understanding, but we have different strengths. That’s why I thought this was a cool and compelling story to talk about because they were allowed to be different.
They were working and circling the same drain, but they were using different skillsets. Woodward has been called the Babe Ruth of investigative journalism. They don’t say that about Bernstein. Bernstein was great at getting headlines. If he had incredible reams of data, but nobody read it, the story goes nowhere. Collectively put the two people together and it works insanely well.
There’s also what I find interesting and a parallel to a lot of things that I’ve done in my career. If you put yourself in Woodward’s shoes before anything came out, it was high pressure. No one believed them. They were 1 out of 5,000 reporters trying to cover this story. When they started getting close to the sun and getting real facts and things that were unsettling to the White House, they started getting death threats and pressure to back off and get out of the way.
I feel like I’ve always had partners in business, even in the big companies. Even at GE, I had MacCauley that was going through the same things as me. We worked on everything together even though we had different regions. I had a few people like that at NVR. Now, you and I are working on this. I do real estate deals with you. With Keep, I’ve got David.
You’re feeling all this pressure anyway as an owner, founder, and investor. It’s stressful being out there all on your own. When you’re under that pressure, sometimes it’s better to give up some of your equity and have someone else feeling some of the same pressures and stresses as you. You have someone with skin in the game that you can talk to because it’s a hell of a burden to take it all on yourself.
One of the values between Bernstein and Woodward is they both had skills, but they also had each other. Throughout the movie, they keep showing them in McDonald’s, sitting there, smoking cigarettes, stressed out, eating quarter pounders, and stressing out over what’s going to work. There’s a lot to be said for having good partnerships in your career and having people that you can rely on that have the same skin in the game.
They used to call me the king of insignificant facts. Did you happen to pause it and look at how much the burgers cost? They were between $0.15 and $0.35.
They were $0.30. I did happen to notice it. Was there any product placement? Did McDonald’s pay to have themselves in that movie so much?
No, that was early. The first product placement was in Rocky, which was five years later.
What was the product?
It had something to do with the fight. I don’t remember the product, but that was the first product placement. There’s a quote in the book and the movie that says, “If it’s so important, why did you give it to Woodward and Bernstein?” That’s the way of someone saying, “This is a dog shit story. You should dismiss it. If it was important to you to write this story, it doesn’t go to these guys.” This is the arc of how things go. The unimportant stuff goes to the low people on the totem pole.
This is where something fabulous happened. At this point, when this story is starting to get a little bit of steam, anybody wants this story. This isn’t dog shit anymore. This is now real big-boy journalism. The National Desk, The Metro, and everybody wanted it. People with 20, 30, and 40 years wanted it. Bradlee said, “These are the guys that got us here.” He’s going to say something similar later, “They’re the ones who got it this far. Stick with them.”
This is where belief in someone, even though they’re young or less experienced, matters. This is where giving good guidance matters. We did an episode about micromanagement. This isn’t micromanagement. This is macro-management. These are giving big-context items. I don’t care what you find and where you find it. Source it and double or triple-check it. That’s the type of stuff that happened. This is the type of management stuff that led to two very young and inexperienced people breaking one of the biggest stories in the history of journalism.
They started doing some journalism, reporting and digging. They find some checks from a bank in Miami that are tied to the crooks that were paid through the Republican National Convention, which is big news. Even then, people are saying, “You still don’t have much. The White House is denying everything.” What starts breaking for Woodward is his relationship with an unnamed source who would go unnamed for 40 years. Talk a little bit about Mark Felt, who was known in the public eye as Deep Throat.
This is probably another reason I’ve always found this story fascinating. The point we’re driving out of here with Mark Felt is he was nicknamed Deep Throat. Deep Throat was the pornographic movie of the day. It was in all the theaters back then. It was a very seedy name. They put him on what was called deep background. He was never sourced and cited. His position was never told or known.
It turns out that he was the number two. When Hoover died, he was the head of the FBI. He was the acting director of the FBI for a period of time. Nixon appointed a crony. He was pissed off that he appointed this crony. The reason that this thing all started and how Woodward and Felt or Deep Throat started a relationship is Woodward was in the Navy and he was given an assignment.
This is in the book. It’s not in the movie. He was sent to the White House. He was at the White House for hours just sitting there. This man walked in who he struck up a conversation with, ultimately became Deep Throat. They started talking. He was also in the Navy. They had a lot of similarities. Over time, Woodward would call this guy, “I’m thinking about doing this.”
It was very small check-ins, “I’m thinking about going to law school.” He didn’t even ask him. He built a friendship through written words and phone calls. Years later, when Woodward decided to become a reporter, this guy was pretty high up. They never quoted him, but they would talk about big things. There was an assassination attempt. What happened was it started small.
My biggest private investor has lent me more than $50 million total over the history of my business. It’s a big deal for my business. My business is way further ahead than it would be without this person. It started with one deal. It was a $250,000 loan. That’s what happened. It was one small relationship that was nurtured. There was trust. The relationship was built. When it was time for someone to help, which Ian can explain better than I, Deep Throat was a critical figure in this entire episode.
Woodward kept him as a confidential source all the way until the guy was almost dead. He came out because he needed some money. It was in his dying days. He had some debts to pay. He needed to come out and write a book.If you can be a good communicator and you can be trusted, you can set yourself apart. Click To Tweet
This all takes place from 1972 to 1974. Nixon resigned in early August ’74. Mark Felt came out in 2005 as Deep Throat. His daughter had no money. She encouraged him to come out. He got a bunch of money from a couple of magazines. When he came out, the agreement was, “I’ll protect you until you die or until you admit it,” and Woodward did. We can go down a rabbit hole with Mark Felt or Deep Throat and what relationships mean, but that was a key figure behind the scenes. He was a fact-checker. He wouldn’t give them anything that would tip off it was him tipping them off, but at the same time, he would keep them in line.
They flew a little too close to the sun a couple of times. It grounded the investigation, but this was a key source. When you look at these things long-term, like relationships and accomplishments, young people like Woodward and Bernstein had great ownership, great management, and support. They had different people behind the scenes that were giving them information. Some were being sourced and some were not, but you don’t get anywhere of note on your own. It requires support staff.
There are a couple of things that I took away from the story in general that are similar to our careers. There’s a scene where Bernstein is trying to go down and talk to a politician in Florida about the checks that they had found that were linked. This gatekeeper is not letting him in. She’s like, “I’ll check his schedule tomorrow.” He’s like, “I flew down here because I thought I was going to be meeting with this guy.” He ends up leaving, makes a fake phone call to her, and says, “There’s some shipment of boxes downstairs or something like that.”
She gets in an elevator and goes down. As soon as she leaves her desk, he storms right past her gatekeeper and walks right into this politician’s office. He’s like, “Who the hell are you?” He starts demanding, “We’re going to talk.” She comes back in and gives him this dirty look. He’s like, “I flew all the way down here. I’m going to get some information.” There are multiple cases in this story where they work outside of the rules. Frank calls it getting a little too close to the sun, but they work outside of the rules using deep cover.
That’s standard, but there were some things they were doing to get the story to break. They weren’t playing within the rules, nor was Nixon’s administration. Sometimes to beat somebody who’s not playing by the rules, you can’t play by the rules. I liked the fact that these guys didn’t take no for an answer. They kept going back to the same sources, “That’s a dead end. Let’s go back to it.” They went to that same lady three different times and knocked on her door until one time she was ready to talk.
To me, it’s a story of resilience because they kept getting stonewalled everywhere they went. No one supported them doing the story. There’s a scene also where they’re far along and they have unsprung all this stuff. Someone comes out and says, “More than half of the United States doesn’t know what Watergate even is. You think you’re onto something. People don’t give a damn.”
Everywhere they go, people are saying, “No one cares. This isn’t a story.” They’re getting shunned by every single source, but they had conviction. Their resilience is awesome. It’s the way they keep going back to the same sources and asking in different ways. The amount of persuasiveness they had to show to get to a point where they had a story that broke as hard as it did was fascinating to me.
Warren Buffett has a fascinating quote. He says, “Most people miss opportunity because it’s dressed in work boots and overalls.” These are two of the most famous journalists in American history. They’re famous because they refuse to be ordinary, to be told no, and to believe that they weren’t on to something. They had convictions. They didn’t bring this up in the movie but got called into court.
They thought they were going to both go to jail. They didn’t, but they both admitted, “If we were found guilty, we would have quit this job or profession. We would have gone to jail and stopped,” but they weren’t proven wrong. I’ve gone down this rabbit hole way more than Ian has. There’s a movie that came out called Frost/Nixon. There was this reporter from Britain whose last name was Frost.
Somewhere in the 1970s, after Nixon had left the office, they got into a series of interviews. These things were insanely popular back in the day. Nixon loses his cool in the moment. This happened after the movie too. He loses his cool and screams at them, “If you do it and you’re the president, it isn’t illegal.” That’s the world he lived in. He convinced all these people.
I used to date people on Capitol Hill. They all have an incredible ego. You’re drawn to work at below-market wages because you think you’re into something bigger. You must have incredible conviction if you are going to beat that. That’s what these guys had. There was a gatekeeper, a security guard, and a secretary. Nobody was stopping them. That’s why this ultimately broke the way it did. Their careers are what set them up.
One thing I liked about this story is Bradlee, who is the manager at The Washington Post, and Deep Throat, the untitled source or the number two at the FBI. Both of them take a similar approach to coaching. Deep Throat won’t come right out and give you something that you haven’t earned. Deep Throat asks questions and, at one point, says, “That’s not how this works. You’re going to tell me what you know. I will confirm if you’re on the right path or not. I’m not coming here to give you your story. Do the work.”
Deep Throat knew at that point that if he did that, he would compromise himself. If he gave him the whole story, and there are only a handful of people that know that story, it will come out. He needed Woodward to go do the work piece by piece. There’s a great quote from Bradlee where he says, “I can’t do the reporting for my reporters. I have to trust them.” He paused and goes, “I hate trusting anybody.” I love that because, throughout the whole movie, that’s his style.
His style is like, “Go back and get a source. I’m not going to do this, write this, and report this for you. Go do the reporting and the hard, gritty work, get back on the street and get working.” That’s a feeling that every manager has. A good manager knows, “I can’t do this job for you. I’m going to have to trust that you can do this job yourself.” Yet most of us hate having to be responsible for a result and trust someone else is going to do it. It’s not going to be us doing all the work.
We did an episode on micromanagement. Poor managers would do the reporting for the reporters and take credit for it later. Bradlee knew, “I can’t do this for you. If you’re going to own this story and have your name on everything, you do the reporting. I’ll encourage you, point you in the right direction, and tell you when you’re not headed in the right direction, but I’m not going to do it for you. I’m going to have to trust you.”
Bradlee and Woodward won three Pulitzer Prizes for reporting. That’s the preeminent award for reporting. You don’t do that by being a micromanager. You don’t do that without great people. What we talk about a lot here is how you unlock people’s talent. There’s a scene in the movie that Ian and I joked about where they show up at Bradlee’s house because Woodward and Bernstein were afraid their houses are bugged. They’re on the something.
It’s toward the end of the movie. They’re about to break free. Nixon is about to resign. They go to Bradlee’s house at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning. He invites him in. He’s like, “What the hell are you doing here?” They tell him about the bug. He smiles and says something hysterical, but he goes into this line, “You boys are tired. Congratulations. You’re working hard. Go home, take a shower, take a fifteen-minute nap, and get back to the office. Let’s finish the story.” That’s what he said to him.
That sounds like malpractice, overtime, and a thousand things. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein didn’t care about overtime. What they cared about was getting the story right. What they did for a short period of three years in their late twenties is they put in all this insane amount of work. The boss didn’t get him held up in BS. He let them do what they were doing and gave them support because that’s what good managers do.
They say, “You want to work hard. You want to be challenged. You want something else. Go do it. Don’t let me put rules on you.” We always talk about how the sixth reason people leave is the pay. One through five usually have something to do with opportunity, autonomy, and ability to grow. That’s what they were feeling. They had a lot of pressure, but that’s what they were living through.
He has a great line there. I wrote it down. I loved it. He’s inspiring them, “Go take a fifteen-minute nap and get your ass back into the office in the middle of the night.” He says, “Nothing is riding on this except the First Amendment, the freedom of the press, and the future of this country.” He grins at him. It’s an awesome line.
The next line goes, “If you fuck this one up, I’m going to be pretty mad.” He turns around and walks into the house.
A lot of people think about work-life balance day-to-day and week-to-week. I think of it as periods of my life, “Do I have a big mountain to climb that’s super exciting where working sixteen-hour days isn’t going to bother me?” I look back at that moment when they had a chance to write one of the biggest stories in the history of the world and take down a president who was corrupt. They were working twenty hours a day, smoking cigarettes, eating McDonald’s, and worrying about death threats.Watergate is maybe the single greatest reporting effort of all time. Click To Tweet
It was probably the most energetic and motivating period of their life, even though there were frustrating moments. I think about how whenever I’ve worked that hard, it didn’t feel like work. There are very few times where I’ve worked that many hours in a period when I didn’t have an awesome goal ahead of me and I wasn’t excited about it. I haven’t had many of those moments where I’ve had to work twenty hours and grind my way through. I’ve got a few that are coming up on the horizon. I see them coming. I know they’re coming.
Knowing that, I am enjoying my free time because I know I’m going to have some periods that are going to be pretty stressful for me in the next five years, especially with our startup. I’m enjoying it as much as I can, but when that moment comes, I might be right back to the old NVR days of getting up at 3:30 in the morning and not sleeping a lot. That’s cool because I’m going to have an exciting goal to go for. Maybe I’m not bringing down a president, but I’m going to have something big to shoot for. I’m going to have no problem putting in those hours when it’s time.
There’s something worth noting here. There are a couple of scenes where Ben Bradlee is in a tux. Ben Bradlee is established. Ben Bradlee was between 50 and 65 years old during this stretch of time when he was Woodward’s manager. He was going to the Kennedy Center and black-tie galas. These guys were both in their late 20s or early 30s. They were both divorced with no kids. They leaned in hard.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote Outliers about how Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were both born within fourteen months of each other. They were the perfect timing for people who started the internet or the computer wave because it was a very small moment in time. You have to look out for work-life balance and other things. We have talked a lot about recessions.
I’m no longer in my 20s or 30s. I’m in my late 40s. I’m closer to 50 than I am to any other benchmark birthday. I have a wife and two children. What I need is a little bit more caution than I’ve ever had or I’m going to miss my kids growing up because I’m going to be working so hard. You have to look at these things and understand them. Ben Bradlee knew he couldn’t write the articles and do the research. He didn’t have the energy and the time. He had his family, kids, and dogs.
These are the guys that do it. If The Washington Post is going to win this fucking story, those are going to be the guys who do it. It’s the young, hungry ones, not the ones that are fifteen years older with mortgages. That is brilliant management. That is looking at how we take down a Goliath. We do it chip by chip with people who have incredible amounts of energy. The coolest part of this story is how it happened. If it’s the wrong paper or ownership, this doesn’t happen. That’s what is interesting.
Thank you for enlightening me and teaching me about a political incident years ago. I did take a lot out of this story. It’s a pretty cool movie if you want to see it. I did not watch The Post. I have to be honest. I only watched All the President’s Men. I did not read the book. I did the Jeff Paxson school of CliffsNotes and watched the movie. If there had been a comic book, I would have read it because that would have been faster than the 2 hours and 15 minutes to watch the movie. Robert Redford is a pretty good actor. It was a good flick.
Before we wrap, let’s talk about something else. It’s either reputations or residuals. We can call it whatever you want to call it. Bernstein is great. Woodward is the star. Woodward got The Post another Pulitzer during 911 and became the voice of every Republican for sure, with most presidents after Carter. He was close with Bush I, Reagan, W, and all the way through. He didn’t get along great with Clinton. The point of the matter is he did hard work and protected a source.
There was a quote in here. It’s from a guy named David Gergen. He worked at the White House during Richard Nixon and three subsequent administrations. He said in 2000 in his book Eyewitness to Power about Woodward’s reporting, “I don’t accept everything he writes as gospel. He can get details wrong, but generally, his accounts in his books and The Post are remarkably reliable and demand serious attention. I am convinced he writes only what he believes to be true or has been reliably told to be true. He is certainly a force for keeping the government honest.”
There are two reasons. He ended up there. He does meticulous work and research. He is an investigative reporter. The other reason is he became a reliable source. If you knew something, you called him. Anything that happened in Washington, United States, for about a 30-year period, he was the guy you knew that wouldn’t burn you as a source. He protects you and does the other work. We don’t use the term Babe Ruth very often. What happened is this became the babe Ruth of reporting because he had an incredible work ethic and he was someone you could trust.
If you put those two things together, you can move mountains. We talk about writing letters to our investors. If you can be a good communicator and you can be trusted, you can set yourself apart. We did the episode on micromanaging. What happens in a lot of instances if you’re getting micromanaged is people don’t trust you. That’s what this guy did. He separated himself in a murky world as being someone who could be trusted.
Frank, what are you the Babe Ruth of?
I’m the Babe Ruth of eating peanut butter right out of the jar. I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t eat peanut butter right out of a jar with a fork. I eat a lot of peanut butter. I might be the Babe Ruth of peanut butter eating. It’s an insane amount of jars of peanut butter we go through to the point where Jenny gets pretty pissed off at me because the kids need it for their lunches, but I will eat an entire jar of it. She will be like, “How come there’s no peanut butter this morning? I bought that yesterday.”
I would love to get a bowl, put 2 or 3 scoops of peanut butter in it, throw shaved almonds on top of it or some pistachios, and then hit it with a little bit of honey. It’s delicious.
There are a couple of chocolate chips. Frankie, do you have anything else to take us home with on Watergate?
Watergate has done maybe the single greatest reporting effort of all time. It happened for a few reasons. It happened because of a great paper, a great owner, great management, and we had the right people reporting it. Without all of those things, this doesn’t happen. What we talk about on the show besides Ian and I being fat and our bad dietary choices are management, businesses, and structure. Everything that happened inside of this story and the things that we highlighted allows for it. It’s something newsworthy and noteworthy that we’re still talking about years later because it had the right place to grow.
That’s old news though, that it was the greatest reporting of all time. It is now second behind the show’s reporting of the reporting of Watergate in this episode. It is now the greatest reporting in the history of mankind.
In all of my research, nobody said Woodward or Bernstein. They did any half-ass internet research. It’s not true here.
Frank dug deep on this one. Normally, Frank will hit the Wikipedia page. That’s about all you’re going to get. He read multiple books and saw lots of movies multiple times. He was into it. I hope you appreciate how damn hard Frank worked on this episode. I thought it was fascinating. Frankie, thank you for enlightening me.
Ian, it’s always a pleasure.
You’re a Watergate-loving son of a bitch. See you.