The scales briefly tipped in favor of The Times when Nelson received a tip from colleague Ostrow that there was an eyewitness to the Watergate burglary. Nelson began knocking on doors in Connecticut, where Baldwin, the ex-FBI man, and his lawyers lived.
After much back and forth, Nelson was granted an interview with Baldwin, who unwound a fascinating tale of his recruitment by ex-CIA man James McCord, his encounters with G. Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt, and his job monitoring wiretaps on Democratic phones and delivering sealed tapes to Nixon's reelection committee. Baldwin also told of watching from across the street as the burglary at the Watergate complex unfolded and spying Hunt slip away as the police closed in.
When word of Nelson's scoop leaked out, federal prosecutors threatened to revoke Baldwin's immunity, and Baldwin's lawyers pleaded with Nelson to drop the story. Federal Judge John J. Sirica issued a gag order, and then-Washington bureau chief John Lawrence spent a few hours in detention after The Times refused to turn over the tapes of the Baldwin interview.
The Times took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the paper. On Oct. 5, 1972, the paper ran a Page 1 news story by Nelson and Ostrow detailing Baldwin's revelations, as well as a first-person account by Baldwin as told to Nelson.
'A great victory'
Halberstam called the Baldwin story "perhaps the most important Watergate story so far, because it was so tangible, it had an eyewitness, and it brought Watergate to the very door of the White House. . . . It was a great victory for the Los Angeles Times."
Nelson became chief of the bureau in 1975, when it had 15 reporters and three editors. By 1980 the bureau was described by Time magazine as "one of the two or three best" in Washington. By 1996, when Nelson turned the job over to White House correspondent Doyle McManus, it was one of the biggest, as well, with 36 reporters and seven editors.
Known for backing his staff and pushing hard on investigative stories, Nelson made The Times a must-read for Washington's power elite. "The depth and scope of the Washington bureau under Jack was very impressive," said Roberts, the former New York Times managing editor. "We certainly paid attention to what the Los Angeles Times was doing in its Washington bureau."
In a town consumed by politics, Nelson was a well-connected insider who held a coveted seat as a regular commentator on public television's “Washington Week in Review.” He brought presidents, senators and members of the House and Cabinet to The Times' offices for regular breakfast sessions with reporters that were broadcast on C-SPAN. "That raised our profile tremendously. . . . We all got our calls returnedfaster," Cooper said.
A Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and founding member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Nelson served as chief Washington correspondent until he retired at the end of 2001. In recent years he taught journalism at USC and produced a report on government secrecy as a Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. In 2005 he served on the independent Commission on Federal Election Reform co-chaired by former President Carter and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III.
In addition to his wife, his survivors include two children from a previous marriage, Karen and Mike; six grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.