Bob Woodward spoke at the Dillon Lecture Series at Hutchinson Community College in Hutchinson, Kansas, this morning. Woodward and his colleague, Carl Bernstein, wrote a series of articles for the Washington Post about the Watergate break in that ultimately led to the resignation of President Nixon. For those of us who are journalists – past, present or future – Bob Woodward is huge. As my friend, Alan Montgomery, who introduced Woodward this morning, told me when I asked if he was having a fun day said, “If I were a minister this would be like Billy Graham being here.” I understood perfectly. Perfectly.
I’ve never met anyone who went into journalism who didn’t want to right wrongs through a “robust, free press,” as Alan put it this morning. We become journalists because we want to give voice to important things in the world. We want to expose corruption and fight injustice through the media. If investigative journalism had a face, it would be Bob Woodward.
Woodward spoke about interviewing President Bush for his recent books. Bush spent more time with Woodward than any sitting president has ever spent with a reporter. Over the course of those seven hours, Woodward asked 500 questions.
At one point while talking about the war, Bush said, “I believe we have a duty to free and liberate people.” Woodward related this to us today and said, “‘Duty’ is the biggest word in the English language for a president.”
Another time Bush was talking about how he and other leaders wanted to spread freedom and said, “We have a zeal to free and liberate people.” Woodward said today, “‘Zeal’ is the second biggest word in the English language for a president.”
Woodward said he would like to hear from all the candidates what they saw as their duty and what they felt zeal for. I had to agree that those were two excellent questions. At the luncheon for patrons following the lecture, someone asked if he was going to pose those questions to candidates and he said he would like to, and that he would probably send them in advance because those were questions you wanted people to have time to ponder.
He said Bush is idealistic, without a doubt – that idealism is “at the spine of George W. Bush.” But, he said, “I am sincere in my view that it accents the reluctance, the outright stubbornness, to adjust the war strategy, and that rests on him alone.”
Woodward also talked about doubt. He said, “doubt is an important quality. You have to be skeptical. You have to have doubt.” But he said the president told him he had no doubt going to war was the right thing to do.
Woodward asked Bush what his father said when he talked to him about going to war. Eventually, after dodging the question in multiple ways, Bush said he didn’t talk to his dad about it. He also didn’t ask Donald Rumsfeld or Colin Powell what they thought about the idea of going to war – not in the sense of going to them for input. He talked about this at the luncheon – how Bush didn’t do what most leaders would do – ask their team for their input. To me, this speaks of an incredible arrogance, but that is only my view and not the view Woodward put forth. He was just reporting.
In the introduction at the luncheon, Richard Shank mentioned that when Ben Bradlee spoke at a Dillon Lecture a couple of years ago he said Bob Woodward was the best reporter of our time, maybe of all time. I didn’t get to see Bradlee when he was here, unfortunately. Alan mentioned in his intro that Woodward is “relentless,” and Woodward alluded to that as well. He said he was calling Mark Felt, “Deep Throat,” all the time when they were writing the Watergate stories.
Woodward related a story about Al Gore. He said he saw Gore at a dinner and asked him how much the public knew about things of consequence that happened in the eight years he was Vice President. He asked what percentage people knew from the various articles, books, memoirs and interviews. Gore responded about 1%. Woodward then asked how much they would know if Gore wrote a tell-all book. Gore said 2%. Woodward thinks Gore was being provocative, and that we probably know 50 – 60 – 70%.
This is of concern to Woodward because he believes the number one thing to worry about is “Secret Government.” He said, “Democracies die in darkness.” You can tell from his passion that he probably loses sleep thinking about what we don’t know.
The other thing he said we should worry about is hate. He referenced the televised meeting Nixon held with his staff the day after he resigned in which he said, “Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.” Woodward said he saw at that moment that the teary-eyed Nixon, who had been the “hater in chief,” realized that “hate was the poison that did him in.”
At the luncheon he went into more detail about the Nixon resignation and what followed. He said when Ford went on TV Sunday morning and gave Nixon a full pardon that he was in a hotel room and knew nothing about it. He said the phone rang and it was Bernstein who said, “The son of a bitch pardoned the son of a bitch.” Woodward said he instantly knew what had happened.
He said there was much talk at the time that a deal had been struck, that it was fishy. Many years later he asked Ford about it and Ford took out his wallet and pulled out a piece of paper that had written on it part of the supreme court statement that accepting a pardon was admitting guilt. Ford said, “that was good enough for me.”
Woodward said that experience taught him that sometimes a decision may seem one way, but years later may look different. Ford said he pardoned Nixon so the country could move on. In retrospect, it seems it was the right decision, but at the time it was very unpopular. Woodward summed it up by saying, “You take snapshots.” That what appears one way today may look very different 25 years later.
He said journalists need to give us more in-depth pieces about candidates, that too much of campaigning is an endurance contest. We have quick bits on cable news and what we need are details to get to know these people. As he said, “Anyone who has hair and teeth – or once did – is a mixed bag.”
I was really struck by how personable Woodward was. After the luncheon I was walking out and passed by him and he said, “Are you a reporter?” I said, “No… used to be.” He said, “well, you were taking lots of notes.” I told him I was a blogger – that it was writing without an editor, which of course also means there’s no one to keep me from making a fool of myself. It just told me he still has a great curiousity about the world around him.
They also mentioned in the luncheon introduction that he does not have an unlisted phone number because he never wants a source to be unable to reach him. I love that openness to the world that is a hallmark of any journalist.