My Watergate summer

granberry in cuba

That’s Michael Granberry, posing with Papa Hemingway in El Floridita in Havana, Cuba, in 2009.

By Michael Granberry

This essay is being written because I am blessed to be friends with the great George Rede.

Unbelievably, fate threw us together during “the Watergate summer” of 1973. George and I were lucky enough to share an internship at The Washington Post, where Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were unraveling one of the greatest scandals in American political history.

And now you’re saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Yep.

George and I were scarcely aware of how richly momentous our shared moment would turn out to be. There we were, college kids, surrounded by Woodward, Bernstein and the one-and-only Ben Bradlee, the Post editor, who were blasting their way into history right in front of us.

In 1973, they were our voices of August. And June and July.

watergate washington post

In this April 1973 photo, Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham meets with reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, managing editor Howard Simon and executive editor Ben Bradlee.

Despite the presence of such luminaries, meeting George was the best thing that happened in the summer of ’73, because it resulted in a lifelong friendship. Oh, sure, we got to meet Woodward, Bernstein and Bradlee, but let’s be honest, mates, they were all a tad busy that summer.

Even so, Woodward was kind enough to share his time on several occasions, underscoring through memorable but brief snippets of conversation what Maya Angelou once said:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

My assignment that summer was in the sports department, which, at the time, was undergoing a major transition. Even so, the Post sports section had its own stable of thoroughbred talent. There I was, working alongside and learning from the likes of Shirley Povich, George Solomon, Leonard Shapiro, Thomas Boswell, Kenneth Denlinger and William Gildea, who could not have been kinder. They taught me a lot. I even got to cover a few Baltimore Orioles games, allowing me to meet (at the now-demolished Memorial Stadium) such childhood heroes as Brooks Robinson, the most Herculean third baseman ever, and Minnesota Twins slugger Harmon Killebrew.

In later years, the Post sports section added Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, now known as the hosts of Pardon the Interruption on ESPN. Solomon, who gave me more than one terrific story idea that summer, ended up as sports editor of the Post, where he became one of the best ever.

Luckily, I also got to meet William Greider, one of the best political writers in the country. Through Greider and his mensch-like generosity, I was able to arrange a lunch with Hunter S. Thompson, who was holding court that summer at the Washington Hilton, where he was happily ensconced, covering Watergate for Rolling Stone. I spent the better part of a day with the Prince of Gonzo, the two of us lounging by the pool, where he wore his aviator sunglasses and, OK, drank a few beers but imbibed nothing harder. As far as I know.

hunter-s-thompson

The one and only Hunter S. Thompson.

The late Dr. Thompson was known, of course, for his manic machinations, which propelled his gonzo reputation through such New Journalism classics as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trial ’72. But in many ways, his reputation obscures the truth of who and what he really was. He was a gifted reporter, one of the best ever, with laser-like insights and a style that no one will ever duplicate. The tone, the rhythm, the pacing, all carried along by those piercing insights, one of which I committed to memory:

“It is Nixon himself who represents that dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character that every other country in the world has learned to fear and despise.”

And yet, a la Angelou, I remember him most for his kindness. I was a 21-year-old college kid, in between my junior and senior year, and not once did he show me a shred of condescension or arrogance. I am proud to say I learned a lot from HST, albeit in the course of a single day.

Music was also a huge part of the summer of 1973. I loved going to Merriwether Post Pavilion in nearby Columbia, Md., where just a few years later Jackson Browne recorded much of his 1977 live album, Running On Empty. Last I checked, Running On Empty was anything but, having sold more than 7 million copies.

I saw Loggins and Messina one Friday night but came away wanting to know more about the warm-up act, a guy named Jim Croce. Little did I know that Croce would die in a Louisiana plane crash weeks later, after I’d heard him sing “Operator,” “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” “These Dreams” and “Dreamin’ Again” on the stage at Merriwether. Such a loss.

I saw Hal Halbrook do his Mark Twain imitation at Merriwether, and at the Arena Stage, I saw a gripping theatrical version of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which would later become a movie starring Jack Nicholson in his prime.

I also traveled, and that I shared with Mr. Rede, who went with me to New York City, where we took in a Yankees game at the old Yankee Stadium and rode the entire circuit of the New York City subway system and lived to tell about it.

During the summer, I rented a room in the basement of a Georgetown mansion – for $95 a month.

It was 10 weeks that went by so fast, not a moment of which I’ll ever forget. History won’t let me.

Metro

The legendary writer and fellow Texan, Larry McMurtry.

I do, however, have one regret. On one of my days off, I wandered over to Booked Up, a rare bookstore at the corner of 31st and M streets in my neighborhood of Georgetown. And there, sitting behind the counter was the owner, my favorite novelist and fellow Texan, Larry McMurtry.

I had met Woodward, Bernstein, Bradlee, Brooks Robinson, George Rede, Shirley Povich, Harmon Killebrew and the Prince of Gonzo, but in coming face to face with McMurtry, I was too shy and tongue-tied to even be able to introduce myself. He had written one of my favorite novels, The Last Picture Show, which in 1971 became one of my favorite movies, for which he had co-written the screenplay with director Peter Bogdanovich.

“Can I help you?” he asked.

“No,” I replied meekly. “Just looking.”

Oh, well. I did get to have a longer conversation with McMurtry, in an interview I conducted for The Dallas Morning News in 2008. No big deal. I only had to wait 35 years.

***

Michael Granberry was born and grew up in Dallas, where he graduated from Southern Methodist University. He has been a working journalist since his senior year of high school. During “the Watergate summer” of 1973, he interned at The Washington Post. After graduating from SMU, he worked in Anchorage, Alaska, before returning to Dallas for two years, then spending almost 20 years at the Los Angeles Times. He returned to The Dallas Morning News in 1997 and continues to work there as a writer covering the city’s frenetic arts scene. He is working on a book about, what else, the Dallas Cowboys.  

 Editor’s note: I was captivated by the great Michael Granberry from the time we met in the Post newsroom. Here was a freckled, red-headed Texan with a gift of gab to match his prodigious writing talent. He made me feel at ease and took interest in a quiet, long-haired Californian that other interns mistook as a laid-back surfer. Ha! Mike was a groom in my wedding nearly 42 years ago and I love that our friendship remains strong.

Tomorrow: Lillian Mongeau, Waiting

 

 

 

 

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17 thoughts on “My Watergate summer

  1. Deborah, my wife, and I lived in the D.C. area from the winter of 72 thru July, 73. I was in the Air Force, stationed at the Naval Yard Annex. What a time to be had back then – huge anti-war demonstrations on the Capitol Mall, bike rides along the C & O Canal, music and cultural events all over the place – beer and burgers at the Hawk and Dove, concerts at Wolf Trap Farm Park, the Cellar Door where we saw a young Emmy Lou Harris, just starting her career. And Watergate, that was huge. To know that big time political intrigue was occurring just a few miles away.
    If only we had known George back then, it would have capped what was for us a great time in D.C.
    I would say you and George made the most of your time there. Thanks for the memory hit.

  2. They say that print journalism is making a huge comeback in the current age of Trump. Wouldn’t it be ironic if we look back on this era 45 years from now (as you do with Watergate) and talk about how Trump saved journalism?!?!

  3. How lucky for you to start your career at the WaPo during that summer, eh? You have some amazing memories of that time. My only memorable story when I was trying to be a journalist way back in the 80s, when I was a stringer for UPI covering the New Mexico legislative session in Santa Fe. I was there when the Challenger exploded and it was something else to be watching the breaking news as the legislators quickly passed proclamations. I’ll never forget that sad yet memorable day. Thanks for sharing your memories.

  4. Fun. And thanks for making this 45-year-old girl feel younger! And, George, I hope Michael wasn’t a “groom” in your wedding. What would that make you? 😉

  5. Wow! I remember reading “All the President’s Men” when I was growing up in India. Amazing that the two of you were in the same space as all those legendary journalists and authors.

  6. Yes, it was pretty special. I was a copy editor during the summer of ’73 and a Metro reporter during the summer of ’74. In ’73, I worked with two editors who ran the Sunday opinion section called Outlook. Here I was copy-editing members of the Post’s talented staff and assorted contributing writers. The assistant managing editor who supervised us was Haynes Johnson, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting of the civil rights struggles in the South. In ’74, I got to cover congressional hearings, reported on local murders (unfortunately) and wrote a couple of features, All of that was eclipsed by being outside the White House the night that Nixon resigned as throngs celebrated his self-inflicted demise.

  7. Michael, I’ve been re-reading the VOA posts and enjoyed reading your piece as much as I did the first time. You guys must have wet your pants as the country tilted on its axis in ’72. I somehow missed that you were at the LA Times for a heck of a long time, which makes you a Cal-Exan! Lastly, can you believe that’s been 42 years since we made sure George didn’t faint during his wedding? Best to you!

    • Hey, Al, good to hear from you. And many thanks! Meeting and getting to know George really was the best thing about the summer, but as the years go by, the experience seems all the more remarkable, even bizarre! Getting to meet all those historical characters and being right there as history was being written was incredible. And yes, 42 years … Wow. Seems like yesterday to me. Thanks again for your kind note. Much appreciate it. All the best, Michael

  8. OMG OMG OMG! I feel exactly like when somebody says, “Look, it’s Bono at the next table.” Not that anyone has ever said that to me, and I don’t consider myself a starstruck-prone person, but …what!? Interning at the Post in ’73?! Zionks. Beers with Hunter S. Thompson by a pool? Holy F**k! I can’t imagine any living experience in my past nor future could ever compare. Whoa.

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