Editor's note: "Integrity & Trust: Lessons From Watergate and Today" is a Deseret News event featuring legendary journalist Bob Woodward and Elder D. Todd Christofferson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
SALT LAKE CITY — Bob Woodward literally wrote the book on Watergate. Five books, in fact, including "All the President's Men" with Carl Bernstein, his partner in the landmark reporting on the presidential scandal that led to the resignation of Richard Nixon.
So what now, after 45 years and all that reporting, does Woodward hope to learn about Watergate from Elder D. Todd Christofferson, who once called it "a scandal's scandal?"
And, what do the lessons of Watergate teach us about the need for honesty and integrity today and the threat to the nation if either are compromised?
On Monday, the Deseret News will host a discussion between the legendary investigative journalist and the member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
The roots of the reason Woodward, 75, and Elder Christofferson, 73, will meet (for the first time) date back to February 1971, when Nixon ordered his deputy assistant to install a voice-activated taping system in the Oval Office of the White House. Alexander Butterfield and Secret Service agents installed five microphones in Nixon's desk, two in lamps over the office's mantelpiece and others in Nixon's phones.
The existence of the taping system was a closely held secret known only to Nixon, his chief of staff, the chief of staff's assistant and those who installed it. The system remained under wraps for more than a year after five burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee office in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., in June 1972.
Woodward and Bernstein's Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting soon implicated White House officials in a cover-up of the burglary, which was designed to remove wiretaps previously placed in the Watergate office. The question was how high up did the conspiracy go?
On a Friday in July 1973, Butterfield revealed the existence of the tapes to a small group of members of the Senate Watergate Committee. The committee members swore each other to secrecy, but Woodward learned about the tapes on that Friday night.
"Two people had told me that Butterfield had come in for a confidential interview and disclosed this taping system," Woodward said this week on "Therefore, What?," a Deseret News podcast hosted by Opinion Editor Boyd Matheson. "I was stunned. I finally called Ben Bradlee on Saturday night and said, 'Nixon taped himself.' I said, 'What do you think? Should we do a story? Should we pursue it?'"
Bradlee said no, adding. "I think it’s just a B-plus."
Woodward took Sunday off, but on Monday, Butterfield "electrified Washington and triggered a constitutional crisis," in the words of one historian. He revealed the taping system live on national television during testimony before the committee.
"It was an explosion," Woodward said. "Talk about a bombshell. Bradlee came by my desk and knocked it and said, 'OK, it’s more than a B-plus.'"
The bigger bombshell loomed in what was on the tapes. A young Todd Christofferson would wind up right at the center of that revelation.
Nixon went to court to block a subpoena to produce all tapes relevant to Watergate. The legal argument landed in the courtroom of Judge John Sirica of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Elder Christofferson was then Judge Sirica's 28-year-old law clerk. He began his clerkship two weeks before the Watergate burglars were indicted in Sirica's courtroom. Due to events and the clerk's contributions, Sirica asked him to extend his one-year clerkship to what eventually became 28 months.
"Both the judge and I were really surprised to hear that tapes existed," Elder Christofferson said. "We didn't have the initial sense there would be a subpoena he would have to rule on. But just the fact they existed ... if the meetings between John Dean (Nixon's White House counsel) and the president were taped, this would tell us who was telling the truth, because they had directly opposite recollections."
Sirica ruled that the Senate Watergate Committee couldn’t subpoena the tapes but the special prosecutor could, according to "Watergate," a six-part History Channel series that aired in November 2018.
"The whole role of Judge Sirica in this was incredibly significant," Woodward said on the podcast. "He was very tough when he sentenced the Watergate burglars and others who at the middle level were involved in this. He was the one who said, no, Nixon had to turn over the tapes."
Nixon appealed Sirica's ruling, citing both executive privilege and national security — Nixon was worried that he might look weak to Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev in the midst of the Arab-Israeli War. A compromise emerged: Judge Sirica would screen the tapes.
Sirica asked his law clerk to join him and listen to the tapes. They borrowed one of the Oval Office tape recorders.
In a jury room next to the judge's chambers, the law clerk slipped a tape into the machine and stuffed paper under the record button to protect against an accident that might erase evidence. He and Sirica slipped on headphones and listened in stunned silence as the president of the United States engaged in criminal conduct by instructing Dean that payments to the Watergate burglars for their silence should continue.
Nixon agreed to pay the blackmail and acknowledged it was obstruction of justice.
"On the money," he told Dean, "if you need the money ... you can get $1 million and you can get it in cash. I know where it can be gotten."
This is what Woodward wants to talk about with Elder Christofferson. What was it like to hear a U.S. president commit a crime when the world waited to know whether he had?
Woodward spoke to Sirica, who died in 1992, but he has never received a firsthand account of the moment when the two men listened to the tapes. He said he wants to ask Elder Christofferson, "what was it like?"
"I’ve heard stories of the first moment Judge Sirica heard some of these tapes, and what his reaction was. His reaction was, as I understand it, he was appalled that the president of the United States was ordering all kinds of illegal activity. He said, 'we can’t have this.' There was a trial subpoena for the tapes, and Sirica said it had to go forward."
Elder Christofferson spoke about the experience in 2017 at Oxford University. The Deseret News covered the talk and interviewed him about what happened.
"Judge Sirica and I were shocked," he said, adding, "The judge and I couldn’t believe, didn’t want to believe what we were hearing, and he passed me a note suggesting we rewind the tape and listen again. Up to this point we both still hoped that the president was not really involved, but this was indisputable."
Sirica told his clerk it felt like punch in the gut. They finished listening to the conversation, put the tape away and went home early.
"Even now, I remember the sense of disillusionment and sadness," Elder Christofferson told the Deseret News at Oxford. "This was some months before Nixon’s resignation, but we knew then that the president would be impeached if he did not resign first."
In fact, Woodward said, "It was just two weeks after the Supreme Court ruled in Judge Sirica’s favor that Nixon resigned."
Sirica and his law clerk guarded the tapes carefully. Editorial pages said the tapes would leak if given to the judge. They didn't.
"We kept the tapes in a metal filing cabinet like a safe," Elder Christofferson said. "It had a dial on it for a combination lock. Only the judge and I knew the code. It was his wife's birthday backward. Instead of day-month-year, it was year-month-day."
Elder Christofferson said he followed the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein as the Watergate story unfolded.
"They didn't get everything right, but they got it mostly right," he said.
He looks forward to talking with the famed journalist.
"He's obviously a very thorough and intellectually curious individual who wants to get to the bottom of things and learn all he can about things," Elder Christofferson said. "That's an admirable trait."
Woodward said Sirica praised the reporters in the aftermath and said their reporting prompted him to ask his own questions of witnesses during the Watergate trials.
"He of course presided at the first Watergate trial where the prosecutor said it was the five burglars and their two operation directors, Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt, who did all this on their own and Gordon Liddy was the mastermind," Woodward said this week. "Carl Bernstein and I had written in the Post before this trial that no, higher-ups were involved, were approving the money, including the former attorney general, people in the White House, people in the Nixon campaign.32 comments on this story
"Sirica said to me it was very important as he saw the total contradiction of what was appearing in his courtroom (and) what we were writing in The Washington Post. So he started questioning people as judge in the case, and eventually one of the burglars, the lead burglar, James McCord, wrote his famous letter to Judge Sirica saying there was a cover-up, higher-ups were indeed involved."
Woodward concluded, "The pressure that he applied was critical to getting to the truth here."