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Transcript

Friday, May 29, 2009

BOB GARFIELD: Soon after five men were arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee in Washington’s Watergate office complex in the summer of 1972, New York Times reporter Robert M. Smith lunched with then FBI Chief L. Patrick Gray. Smith was headed the next day to law school but, according to a new memoir by his Washington Bureau editor Robert Phelps, the soon-to-be ex-reporter returned to his editor one last time with an astonishing story. Gray had named names of Watergate conspirators and hinted that the coverup reached as high as President Nixon, himself, whereupon, according to Phelps’ own account, the hot lead died. For reasons Phelps cannot recall, he lost track of Smith’s written and taperecorded notes, and along with them, the scoop of the century. Ultimately, the Watergate scandal story was pieced together by The Washington Post’s Woodward and Bernstein, who rightly claimed credit for toppling a president. Smith, meanwhile, went on to Yale Law School and a new career, keeping Gray’s revelation secret for the past nearly 37 years. But Phelps’ book brought Smith’s story out of the shadows, and now the former reporter is here to shed more light. Bob, welcome to the show.

ROBERT M. SMITH: Thank you.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, since your piece appeared, there has, of course, been a lot of discussion about it, and among those who have chimed in is the son of the former attorney general who says that he doesn't believe that his father would have said to you what you said he said to you. What do you make of his skepticism?

ROBERT M. SMITH: No, I know. I actually talked to the gentleman for the first time just yesterday or the day before, and I was somewhat taken aback by his saying that. And, frankly, I just said, look, you know, you’re free to believe it or not; how do you think that I came by this concrete information if your father didn't give it to me? And he didn't know. But this feeds into my own ethical quandary. When L. Patrick Gray was alive, I felt under a complete obligation, journalistic duty, indeed, to say nothing, and I said nothing and didn't really think anything more of it, until Bob Phelps contacted me and sent me a chapter from his book to confirm that it was all correct. I said, I can't help you; I was given this information on the basis that I would not disclose Mr. Gray’s having given it to me. And about a week went by and I got an email back from Bob saying that once the source had died, the privilege was extinguished. Bob went ahead, published the book, and there was no further point in my not simply telling the story.

BOB GARFIELD: So, never mind the past 37 years, I just want to go back to the immediate aftermath of the lunch you had with Patrick Gray. You get this information which takes the Watergate cover-up clear to the Oval Office. You inform Bob Phelps. You leave The New York Times and then sit and watch as – nothing happens. The world spends two years watching the presidency go up in smoke. At no point did you call Phelps, you know, in the first days after you left the paper, to say, what the hell, Bob? I mean, I'm asking you that now. Bob, what the hell? [LAUGHS]

ROBERT M. SMITH: All right. It’s certainly a fair question. You’re a reporter. Please put yourself in my shoes. I briefed Bob Phelps on what Pat Gray had said during the lunch. He sat there in his office taking notes about it. He had in the room three dozen first rate reporters. It never crossed my mind that he did nothing with the information.

BOB GARFIELD: So, this week, among those who have weighed in on the subject have been Bob Woodward, who, reportedly, anyway, pooh-poohed this whole development by saying that the story of Watergate was not about high level tips, but about old-fashioned shoe leather journalism, which incrementally led a path of corruption and illegality clear to the Oval Office. And I suppose he isn't wrong about that. On the other hand, how do you suppose The Times’ failure to act on your tip changed the way the whole story evolved and might have changed history, certainly [LAUGHS] the history of journalism?

ROBERT M. SMITH: Whatever it would or wouldn't have done, I believe that Bob Woodward is both right and wrong. When the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who is in charge, of course, of this inquiry, tells you these things at lunch, then I don't know whether things are entirely about extended peripatetic effort. This is not in any fashion to take anything away from Woodward and Bernstein, who did a tremendous job, I mean, to – to cite the obvious. But to say that these revelations weren't a monumental leap in information, I, I just can't see my way clear to agreeing with that.

BOB GARFIELD: Let me ask you one final question, on a personal level. You've kept your own counsel on this for the last 37 years. You honored the reporter’s source privilege with L. Patrick Gray, even after his death. But you must have shared this with somebody.

ROBERT M. SMITH: Nobody. I had a girlfriend, and she called and [LAUGHS] said, ah-ha, you know, you wouldn't even tell me about this.

BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Bob, thank you so much for joining us.

ROBERT M. SMITH: Thank you very much.

BOB GARFIELD: Former New York Times reporter Robert M. Smith is a mediator based in San Francisco.

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BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media from NPR.