A long, long time ago, Bob Woodward was a hero to me.
I was 21, a copy aide/writer at the Washington Post doing anything to get by-lines. Most were printed above three-paragraph coverage of high school basketball games. A big step up was covering the Alexandria Dukes, a minor league baseball team in the Carolina League. One night, I covered a darts tournament for the sports section. Another Post copy aide/writer, Mike Sager, was covering the event for the DC Weekly section. We became lifelong friends even while competing for the most Tom Wolfe-ish lead paragraphs.
The route from the fifth floor elevators to the sports section went right by Woodward's glass-enclosed office. One day, Robert Redford was in there talking to him. The Washington Post was a glamourous place. Woodward's office was, second only to Ben Bradlee's, glamour central.
Another day, an elderly woman freaked out on the DC Metro Red Line. There were maybe 10 stops on the whole system then. The cars were spotless. This was one civil subway. So people were shocked when this woman screamed about Washington, politics, crime, racism. After a few minutes, she suddenly went quiet and said, "Oh, but that Jack Kennedy was such a wonderful man." Then she sat down and nodded off while the rest of the passengers looked around trying to make it seem like nothing happened.
I went home and wrote a super-relevant, impressionist account of the event. The next day, I dropped the piece in the mail slot of Richard Cohen, the preeminent Metro columnist at the Post. Previously, I'd spoken to him exactly once. Somehow, we'd gotten into a conversation about the Beatles. I thought their music was sophisticated right from the start. He wasn't so sure.
A day later, I got Xerox of my piece from Cohen with a note attached saying, "This is good. Very good. Let's work on it and we'll try to get it in the paper."
I was out of my head.
Cohen and I worked on the piece. He made me take out some stuff about how I didn't mind people smoking on the Metro. I'd grown up around that smell. Then Cohen gave the piece to an editor of Metro who liked it too (euphoria) and bumped up it to a higher editor who liked it even more (ecstasy) and bumped up it to Woodward who sent it back with a note saying: "This doesn't move me. Woodward."
I'd vacillated in my admiration between Woodward and Bernstein. Woodward was known as a crummy writer so I liked Bernstein. Then I saw Bernstein on multiple occasions hitting on girls I should have been hitting on at Kramer Books, so I swung back to Woodward.
Now I'd swung back to Bernstein. I told Cohen I wanted to leave a copy of All The President's Men in Woodward's box with a note saying "I'm not moved by this. Mehlman." Cohen laughed and said, "Don't do that. Do not do that. You said it to me, you got a laugh, now do not do that."
Two years later, Janet Cooke wrote the now infamous, front page story about an 8-year old heroin addict named Jimmy. I read the piece and was sure it was totally concocted. That was the atmosphere at the Post: the right piece could make you a star. That atmosphere was created by Woodward and Bernstein. Of course, they created it with brilliant work. If you were less painstaking than them, less talented, not as smart but more into instant gratification, an 8 year old heroin addict would be among the first spectacular fiction you would come up with.
Groups of writers started slinking about the newsroom whispering the same suspicions: The Cooke piece was bogus. Sager was dating Janet Cooke and he privately agreed. Some reporters were shocked that Woodward didn't have the same suspicions. Some weren't. One writer said, "Woodward deals in facts. Humanity is not his specialty."
When Janet Cooke won the Pulitzer Prize for the piece and, in response to some publicity about her, Vassar called to say that no one by that name had graduated from their esteemed college, leading to the exposure of the piece as a work of fiction, I was gone. Living in New York. Friends from the Post called and told me that Woodward looked bad. He should have known.
I felt bad. I was over the "I'm not moved by this. Woodward" episode. Now that he's in Plame-Gate hot water, I feel bad again. Woodward inspired millions of people to get become reporters by elevating journalism to new heights. Some people he inspired have torpedoed journalism to new lows. They didn't diminish Woodward's achievements. I kind of hope Woodward didn't diminish Woodward's achievement.