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Barry Sussman, Washington Post Watergate Editor, Dies at 87

Barry Sussman, the editor closest to The Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they covered the Watergate break-in and pursued the subsequent scandal that led to President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation, died on Wednesday at his home in Rockville, Md. He was 87.

His daughter Shari Sussman Golob said the cause was unknown.

Most of the glory for guiding The Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Watergate coverage fell to Ben Bradlee, the paper’s colorful executive editor. But it was Mr. Sussman, as the District of Columbia editor and later the Watergate editor, who was an indispensable partner to Mr. Woodward and Mr. Bernstein.

“Barry was constantly in touch with them, constantly reacting to the things they were finding and where they might lead,” Leonard Downie Jr., who, as the paper’s deputy metropolitan editor at the time, was Mr. Sussman’s boss, said in a phone interview. “He was always looking ahead, trying to figure out where the story was going.”

Mr. Sussman played that inquisitive role for about a year, starting with the break-in of the Democratic National headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington on June 17, 1972. The burglary was a local news story, so Mr. Sussman called Mr. Woodward into the office to start reporting.

Credit…The Washington Post

Mr. Sussman had hoped to be the third author of “All the President’s Men,” but to his chagrin, Mr. Woodward and Mr. Bernstein felt that they did not need a Post editor for the book project. Mr. Sussman decided to write “The Great Coverup: Nixon and the Scandal of Watergate” (1974), which was published a few months later, though not to the fanfare that “All the President’s Men,” a best seller, received.

“It is, if anything, a careful, even understated narrative,” The Los Angeles Times book critic Robert Kirsch wrote. “There is little guesswork. Instead, there is a fastidiously documented revelation of the complex meld of event and character in which Watergate was launched and through which it unraveled.”

When the author Alicia C. Shepard contacted Mr. Sussman for her book “Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate” (2007), the old wound of being excluded from the book seemed to have lingered. He told her that he had not read “All the President’s Men,” adding, “I don’t have anything good to say about either one of them.”

Despite Mr. Sussman’s deep involvement in editing and guiding Mr. Woodward and Mr. Bernstein, he was not a character in Alan J. Pakula’s film version of “All the President’s Men” (1976), which starred Robert Redford as Mr. Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Mr. Bernstein.

The editors portrayed in the movie included Mr. Bradlee (played by Jason Robards, who won the Academy Award for best supporting actor); Howard Simons, the managing editor (Martin Balsam); and Harry Rosenfeld, the assistant managing editor for metropolitan news (Jack Warden).

By then, Mr. Sussman had moved on. He became the in-house pollster at The Post in 1974, and in 1981 he was a founder of The Washington Post-ABC News Poll.

Three days after the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan on April 30, 1981, Mr. Sussman wrote about the finding of a Post-ABC News poll that showed a spike of 11 percentage points in Reagan’s popularity.

“While it is common for a president’s popularity to increase at a time of national crisis,” he wrote in The Post, “the rise for Reagan appears as sharp as any yet recorded.”

Mr. Sussman left The Post in 1987 to be the managing editor, national news, for United Press International. But he left that troubled wire service after less than a year because of his disagreement with planned staff layoffs.

In 1988, his second book, “What Americans Really Think and Why Our Politicians Pay No Attention,” examined the role of public opinion polls in the American political process.

Barry Sussman was born on July 10, 1934, in Brooklyn. His father, Samuel, was a civil servant, and his mother, Esther (Rosen) Sussman, was a homemaker. After graduating from Brooklyn College in 1956 with a bachelor’s degree, he worked for an advertising agency and spent his spare time as a movie reviewer.

He was hired for his first newspaper job in 1960, at The Bristol Herald Courier, a small daily in Virginia, where in 15 months he rose from reporter to managing editor. The Post hired him in 1965 as an editor on its state and suburban desk. He was named the D.C. editor in 1971.

“He had wonderful instincts and calmness,” said Lawrence Meyer, a former Post reporter who worked under Mr. Sussman. He recalled Mr. Sussman being intrigued one day by a short item in The Post about a contested election in a small town outside Washington.

“He said, “There’s something going on there, go take a look,’” Mr. Meyer said, “and it turned out to be a really interesting story about a cultural, generational conflict reflective of something much larger in the Black community in and around Washington.”

After his time at the The Post and U.P.I., Mr. Sussman became an independent pollster and a consultant to newspapers in Europe and Latin America.

He collaborated with Lowell P. Weicker, the former Connecticut governor and United States senator, on his autobiography, “Maverick: A Life In Politics” (1995) (Mr. Weicker gained attention as a Republican critic of Nixon on the Senate Watergate Committee.)

In addition to his daughter Shari, Mr. Sussman is survived by his wife, Peggy (Earhart) Sussman; another daughter, Seena Gudelsky; and four grandchildren.

From 2003 to 2012, Mr. Sussman was the editor of the Nieman Watchdog Project at Harvard University, which is devoted to examining and supporting public-interest journalism.

In one of his columns for the project, he reflected on the role of Mr. Simons, The Post’s managing editor, in the paper’s Watergate coverage.

“It was Simons from the beginning who saw to it that The Post owned the Watergate story,” he wrote. “Among his key decisions was one to have the metropolitan staff, which did not normally cover national politics, do the reporting. By the time Bradlee got involved, The Post was way out on a limb, by itself.”

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