Barry Sussman, Washington Post editor who oversaw Watergate reporting, dies at 87

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Barry Sussman, the Washington Post editor who directly oversaw the Watergate investigation by reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, providing invaluable — if at times unheralded — contributions to the news coverage that helped force President Richard M. Nixon from office, died June 1 at his home in Rockville, Md. He was 87.

The cause was an apparent gastrointestinal bleed, said his daughter Shari Sussman Golob.

In Hollywood and in the public eye, newspapering is often imagined as a solitary undertaking, the work of shabbily dressed reporters hunched over their keyboards with telephones cradled between shoulder and ear, barricaded in by notepads and papers piled high atop their desks.

In truth, journalism is a far more collective enterprise, with crucial roles played by people whose names do not appear below headlines in the space known in newspaper jargon as the byline. One such person, and perhaps the chief example in The Post’s unraveling of the Watergate affair, was Mr. Sussman.

A Brooklynite, Mr. Sussman began his journalism career scribbling film reviews in the darkened movie houses of New York and came to Washington by way of Appalachia, where he landed his first full-time newspaper job in his late 20s at the Bristol Herald Courier on the Virginia-Tennessee border. Rapaciously curious, and with a savant-like recall of detail, he rose in just over a year to become the newspaper’s managing editor. The Post hired him in 1965 as a suburban editor on the Metropolitan desk.

By Saturday, June 17, 1972, when five burglars wearing business suits broke into the Democratic national headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, Mr. Sussman was The Post’s city editor, in charge of 40 to 45 reporters and editors responsible for coverage of the District.

One standout Metro reporter was 29-year-old Woodward. A button-down former Navy lieutenant, he had been with The Post only nine months but had already distinguished himself with his inexhaustible work ethic and investigative zeal, although not with his literary flair. Mr. Sussman took Woodward on as a protege and personal friend, journalist and Watergate scholar Alicia C. Shepard reported, helping him improve his writing “at a time when colleagues joked that for Woodward, English was a second language” and teaching him “how to take his hard-earned facts and massage them into readable stories.” The morning of the Watergate break-in, Mr. Sussman immediately phoned Woodward at home and called him into the newsroom.

The more renegade Bernstein, 11 months younger than Woodward but with more than a decade of journalism experience, sensed intrigue in the Watergate burglary and wanted in on the action. While other editors at The Post had grown exasperated by Bernstein’s more trying habits — he was allergic to deadlines and once rented a car on The Post’s dime, parked it in a garage and forgot about it — Mr. Sussman recognized his value as both a reporter and a writer and argued successfully to keep him on the Watergate story.

Paired by Mr. Sussman, Woodward and Bernstein — known collectively as Woodstein — became the most famous reporters in American journalism. Their incremental and inexorable revelations of the political sabotage, corruption and coverup that began with the Watergate break-in helped send numerous Nixon associates to prison and ultimately precipitated Nixon’s resignation on Aug. 9, 1974. During their reporting, Mr. Sussman was detailed to serve as special Watergate editor.

“If you look at the reporting, it wasn’t just stringing together facts,” Bernstein said in an interview. “It wasn’t just the knocking on doors. It was also … an intellectual process, and he had his finger on that in a way that none of the [other editors] did.”

The Post’s Watergate coverage received the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for public service, the highest honor in journalism, and was dramatized in “All the President’s Men,” the 1976 movie directed by Alan J. Pakula. Robert Redford played Woodward, convening by night in a parking garage with his highly placed source called Deep Throat. Dustin Hoffman played the shaggy-haired Bernstein. Mr. Sussman was omitted entirely.

In her 2007 book “Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate,” Shepard wrote that the filmmakers excised Mr. Sussman “for dramatic reasons.” The story already had three editors — executive editor Benjamin C. Bradlee, portrayed in an Oscar-winning turn by Jason Robards; managing editor Howard Simons, whose real-life role the movie diminished, played by Martin Balsam; and Metropolitan editor Harry M. Rosenfeld, played by Jack Warden.

If Mr. Sussman was deemed superfluous for the movie — a decision that deeply wounded him, according to Shepard’s reporting — he was by all accounts the opposite in the actual events that inspired it.

“Barry was essential for The Post’s Watergate” coverage, said former executive editor Leonard Downie Jr., who worked as an editor on the Watergate investigation, “just as essential as Bob and Carl.”

Journalist David Halberstam, writing in his 1979 book about American media, “The Powers That Be,” described Mr. Sussman as “the perfect working editor at exactly the right level.”

“Almost from the start, before anyone else at The Post,” Halberstam wrote, Mr. Sussman “saw Watergate as a larger story, saw that individual events were part of a larger pattern, the result of hidden decisions from somewhere in the top of government which sent smaller men to run dirty errands.”

Woodward and Bernstein, for their part, described Mr. Sussman as “Talmudic” in his mastery of the most arcane details of the Watergate affair and “Socratic” in his ability to elicit leads from them through his insightful questioning.

“More than any other editor at The Post, or Bernstein and Woodward, Sussman became a walking compendium of Watergate knowledge, a reference source to be summoned when even the library failed,” the two reporters wrote in “All the President’s Men,” their 1974 book upon which the movie was based.

“On deadline, he would pump these facts into a story in a constant infusion, working up a body of significant information to support what otherwise seemed like the weakest of revelations. In Sussman’s mind, everything fitted. Watergate was a puzzle and he was a collector of the pieces.”

The book “All the President’s Men” reportedly contributed to a rift that opened between Mr. Sussman and the two reporters he had supported through the most difficult days of the Watergate investigation, when an error in their reporting involving grand jury testimony invited questions about their credibility, and when Nixon was privately threatening “damnable, damnable” consequences for The Post in retaliation for its coverage.

Mr. Sussman had hoped to co-author the account of Watergate with Woodward and Bernstein, Shepard wrote, but the reporters ultimately moved forward alone with “All the President’s Men,” which became a bestseller. Shepard quoted Woodward as saying that “it was a reporter’s story to tell, not an editor’s,” and that Mr. Sussman’s “role is fully laid out in the book.”

By the time the book was published, Shepard wrote, Mr. Sussman had stopped speaking to Woodward and Bernstein. According to Mr. Sussman, they were “wrong often on detail” in the book and had a tendency to “sentimentalize” the Watergate story.

Mr. Sussman wrote his own book about Watergate, “The Great Cover-Up” (1974), which broadcast journalist Brit Hume, writing in the New York Times, praised as establishing “with clarity the compelling case for Nixon’s complicity in the Watergate coverup.”

Decades later, when Shepard called Mr. Sussman to inquire about his two former colleagues, he replied, “I don’t have anything good to say about either one of them.”

Reached after Mr. Sussman’s death, Woodward said in an interview that “Barry was one of the great imaginative, aggressive editors at The Washington Post during Watergate. We all owe him a debt of gratitude, particularly Carl Bernstein and myself.”

Barry Sussman was born in Brooklyn on July 10, 1934. His mother, an immigrant from what was then the Russian Empire, was a homemaker. His father, who was born in the United States, was a civil servant.

Mr. Sussman graduated in 1956 from Brooklyn College, where he received a bachelor’s degree in English and history, and where he was an editor and columnist on a school newspaper.

His first job after college was at a New York advertising agency. He hated the work but reveled in moonlighting as a movie reviewer. He placed an ad in the trade publication Editor and Publisher — “freelance writer seeks first newspaper job” — and got one at the Bristol Herald Courier, more than 500 miles and a universe away from New York.

In Bristol, he met his future wife, Peggy Earhart, whom he married in 1962. Survivors include his wife, of Rockville; two daughters, Seena Sussman Gudelsky, also of Rockville, and Shari Sussman Golob of Potomac, Md.; and four grandchildren.

At The Post, Mr. Sussman became a favorite among his reporters. One of them, John Hanrahan, who went on to become executive director of the Fund for Investigative Journalism, described Mr. Sussman in an interview as “by far the best editor I ever had on any newspaper or any project I was ever involved with.”

“He was wonderful to work with on deadline,” another, Lawrence Meyer, recalled. “When there were holes in the story, he would send you back to fill them and manage to do everything without any kind of rancor.”

Mr. Sussman had long cultivated an interest in public opinion. After Watergate, he became The Post’s first in-house pollster, helping to found the Washington Post-ABC News poll.

“If presidential elections are the heart of the political process in this country,” he once wrote, “political polls have become the chief instrument through which that heart’s beat is measured.”

Mr. Sussman penned a column on polling for The Washington Post National Weekly edition as well as a book on the subject, “What Americans Really Think and Why Our Politicians Pay No Attention” (1988).

His other books included “Maverick: A Life in Politics” (1995) written with Lowell P. Weicker Jr., the Republican turned independent Connecticut congressman, senator and governor who had served on the Senate Watergate Committee.

In 1987, Mr. Sussman was hired by United Press International as managing editor for national news; he resigned within months in opposition to large-scale staff cuts at the troubled news agency.

He later ran a private survey research firm, was a consultant to newspapers in Spain, Portugal and Latin America and served as editor of the Nieman Watchdog Project at Harvard University. As the Internet upended the newspaper business model and hollowed out newsrooms across the United States, he cited reductions in the ranks of editors as “the single greatest failing of newspaper investigations these days.”

“There’s no cohesion in the reporting,” he told Investigating Power, an online history of investigative journalism. It seemed, he said, that when new scandals arose, “there’s not an editor who is told ‘[this] is your story,’ the way I was told Watergate was my story, and you’re going to get to the bottom of it.”

Decades after Watergate, Mr. Sussman was sometimes called on to speak about Nixon’s undoing and the ongoing role of a free press in a democracy. All those years later — the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in will fall just weeks after his death — Mr. Sussman, ever the attentive editor, still had command of the most granular details of the investigation he had overseen, and had at his fingertips the names of all the president’s men.

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