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Feinstein: Bob Woodward Remains A Friend

John Feinstein became an intern at The Washington Post 41 years ago. Then he met Bob Woodward. The rest is history.

November 01, 2018 - 6:30 pm

It was 41 years ago today—June 20, 1977—that I walked into the newsroom at The Washington Post for the first time.
       
To say that I was awed is a vast understatement. It looked very familiar to me because I had seen All The President’s Men four times—three times on the day it opened.
       
Seriously. I drove from Durham to Chapel Hill on a Friday morning on the day the movie opened to see a noon show. The book had convinced me once and for all that I wanted to be a reporter. Beyond that, I wanted to work at The Post. The movie took that feeling to another level.
       
When the movie ended with the words, “Nixon resigns. Gerald Ford to be sworn in as 38th president at noon today,” clattering across a teletype machine,  I sat there in the near-empty theater with chills running up and down my arms. I decided to just sit there and watch the movie again.
       
My reaction was the same. I drove back to Durham, picked up my girlfriend and we went to dinner. After that, we went back to the theater and I saw the movie for a third time—this time in a packed theater.
       
As I walked into the newsroom for the first time, I was almost hyperventilating. I had made it a goal to get to The Post by the time I was 30. Now, because I was one of 20 summer interns, my foot was in the door. I had decided it would take a bomb to get me to pull it out.
       
I was assigned Robert Fachet’s desk at the edge of the sports department. Fachet covered the Washington Capitals—not to mention Navy football and basketball—and was off the for the summer since he had so much vacation and comp time built up.
       
I was sitting at "my" desk trying to track down Bob Ferry, the general manager of the Bullets to confirm a story that the team was about to sign Bob Dandridge. George Solomon, the sports editor, had been told that was the reason for the Bullets press conference the next day and I should call Ferry to confirm it. David DuPree, the Bullets beat writer, was also on vacation.
       
Ferry, naturally, wouldn’t comment. I was about to hang up and report my failure to Solomon when I remembered something from All the President’s Men.
       
“Mr. Ferry,” I said. “If we wrote a story saying you’re going to announced Dandridge is coming here, would we embarrass ourselves?”
       
Ferry laughed. “Who are you kid, Bob Woodward?” he asked.
       
He’d seen the movie. I waited.
       
“Write the story,” he finally said. “But my on-the-record comment is ‘No comment.’"
       
I hung up and was about to tell Solomon what had happened when I saw Woodward. He walked to within three feet of where I was sitting, turned left and walked into what I learned soon after was his office.
       
I WAS SITTING FIVE FEET FROM BOB WOODWARD’S OFFICE. I almost forgot about Dandridge. I might have started hyperventilating again.
       
I was lucky that Solomon believed in treating his interns like real reporters—peppering Mary Schmitt, the other sports intern—and me with one assignment after another. My primary job was to cover the Washington Diplomats, the NASL soccer team. Donald Huff, the beat writer, was also on a long summer vacation.
       
The first three games I covered, all in what even THEN was creaky RFK Stadium, resulted in the Dips—as they were called—scoring zero goals.
       
That’s zero.
       
After the third shutout loss, this one in overtime, I casually said to Terry Hanson, the team’s PR guy, “Any chance Dennis might be in trouble?”
         
Dennis Violett was the team’s coach. Much to my surprise, Hanson—who remains a good friend to this day—said, “You might want to make some calls tomorrow.”
       
I did. And, for a long time, no one would call me back. That told me something because soccer people NEVER failed to take a call—especially from The Post, even a summer intern.
       
Finally, at 9 o’clock at night, Steve Danzansky, the team owner, answered his phone at home. When I identified myself, Danzansky said, “You’ve got a lot of nerve calling at this hour of the night.”
       
Even after 10 days on the beat, I already knew that Danzansky was about as nice a person as you’d ever meet. It was 9 o’clock, not midnight. Something was up. I told him I was hearing that Violett might be out.
       
“Well,” Danzansky said, “he’s not exactly a coach-of-the-year candidate right now is he?”
       
Bingo.
       
We danced around for a few more minutes. I then called Violett at home. His wife answered and I told her I’d just hung up with Danzansky. Violett, also a sweetheart, came on the phone and said, “So I guess Steve told you then?”
       
Steve hadn’t told me directly, but he had told me. “How do you feel about this?” I asked.
       
He said he understood, that when a team is struggling, changes are made.
       
My next move was a call to O.D. Wilson, the night editor. When I told him what I had, he said, “Start writing.”
       
I did. Meanwhile, O.D. called Solomon to tell him that the kid intern claimed he had a scoop. Nervous, even though this wasn’t exactly a huge story, Solomon called Hanson, who wouldn’t confirm anything but said there was a press conference the next morning and commented, “I think you’ve got a good one there, George,” referring to me. Hanson told me that later.
       
That was enough. It was early July in Washington. There was no baseball team. Training camp for the football team hadn’t started yet. So, George, who loved a scoop—ANY scoop—stripped the story across the top of the sports page.
       
I was sitting at "my" desk the next day writing my story on Alan Spavin taking over from Violett, when I looked up and saw Woodward approaching again. But he didn’t turn into his office.
       
He walked up, hand extended and said, “John, hi, I’m Bob Woodward.”
       
My instinctive answer to that was actually, ‘No s----.’ Instead, after searching my brain to remember my name, I stood up and said, “Mr. Woodward, John Feinstein, it’s an honor to meet you.”
       
“It’s Bob,” Woodward said. “Just wanted to tell you, really nice job on the soccer coach this morning.”
       
My answer was something like, "Um, yeah, well, you know, got lucky I guess."
       
It was only a few minutes later that I realized I had totally blown the moment. What I should have said was, “Yeah, thanks, Bob. And, nice job on Watergate.”
       
At that moment, though, I felt faint, and neither my mind or my tongue were functioning very well. Bob has been a friend and a mentor almost since that day.
      
I haven’t been at The Post for all 41 years. I got hired at the end of my internship as the night police reporter—the best learning experience I ever had in journalism—and ended up working for Woodward when he became Metro editor. I returned to sports, always my great passion, in 1984 and that led to me getting to know Bob Knight and writing "A Season on the Brink."  I left in 1988 to go to Sports Illustrated and then went with Frank Deford when he started the ill-fated, National Sports Daily.
       
Solomon asked me back as a contributor (by then I was writing books) in 1992 and I’m still there. I will work there as long as they will have me in part because I still get a rush from doing daily journalism; still feel the adrenaline when I’m at the NCAA Tournament and I’ve got 47 minutes to try to write a column in readable English.
       
But it goes beyond that. The Post has changed a lot since those heady days when I was a summer intern. There’s a lot more cheerleading on the sports pages, which makes me very uncomfortable, and I know I come across as the "get off my lawn" curmudgeon when I suggest to younger writers that they try to sound more like reporters than fans.
       
But I still love the place and what it stands for. The attacks from the White House are, as far as I’m concerned, a badge of honor.
       
I’m still in touch with many of the interns I met that hot June morning. Nine of us got together for a 40th anniversary celebration a year ago. I hope we have a 50th nine years from now. I hope I’m around. And I hope I’m still writing for The Post.
       
The newsroom isn’t even in the same building anymore. But, if my memory fades even a little, I can always go back and watch the movie again.
       
Follow the money.
 
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,” spent five months on the New York Times bestseller list. His new Young Adult mystery, ‘The Prodigy,’ is set at the Masters and received a rave pre-publication review from ‘Kirkus Reviews,’ earlier this month.

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