Bob Woodward, like many journalists, believes he should have done better covering the weapons of mass destruction issue that helped lead to the Iraq War.
Woodward, unlike any other journalist, had unprecedented access to President Bush and the White House.
"Before the war, I was on to the problems of Weapons of Mass Destruction and proposed writing a story (for the Washington Post)," Woodward, the famed Watergate journalist and assistant managing editor of the Post, said in a telephone interview. "No one was saying there aren't weapons of mass destruction. What they were saying was intelligence was skimpy, sketchy. I should have been much more aggressive about that."
The famous author and newspaper reporter speaks at 8 tonight in the University at Buffalo's Alumni Arena, as part of UB's Distinguished Speaker Series.
Woodward eventually detailed the WMD controversy in his best-selling book, "Plan of Attack." It came out in April 2004, 13 months after the war began. No one knows the impact on history if Woodward's story on WMD intelligence had run in the Post before the war.
"I am candidate No. 1 for doing better, because I know the most about this stuff and I had a draft of the story," Woodward said. "But you know, it was on the eve of war and no one was saying there aren't weapons there. If somebody says, 'Well, but the basis for it is flimsy,' that's when journalism should push in and let people know."
Such disappointment is rare for the man who teamed with Carl Bernstein 30 years ago to break the Watergate story that brought down President Richard M. Nixon.
Woodward, 61, has been called the most celebrated investigative journalist of this generation. He has a Pulitzer Prize and written or co-authored nine No. 1 nonfiction best sellers over the past three decades, including two about the Bush administration.
Sometimes, it can be a dilemma for a reporter deciding what to put in a book and in the newspaper. "You agonize and think about it," Woodward said. "You talk to editors about it. That story (on weapons of mass destruction) is an example.
"I actually wrote it out, the beginning, and proposed it. It didn't fly and I wasn't really happy with it, but most of the serious reporting on this was done after the war began."
For "Plan of Attack," Woodward spent more than 3 1/2 hours interviewing Bush over two days in December 2003, as final plans for the war were made. He also interviewed more than 75 "key people," including those in White House, the State and Defense departments as well as the Central Intelligence Agency. The deal was he could use the information but not name the sources in the book.
Few other journalists would be allowed to use so many unnamed sources to detail facts and accounts for a nation going to war. Woodward was asked why he should be held to a different reporting standard than other journalists. He said he is held to the same standard.
"All the major parts (of the book) are confirmed on the record by the president," Woodward said. "He became a confirming, on-the-record source."
Although the book presented Bush in a positive manner for his determination and leadership, it also offered a tougher critique of the way the president made decisions to go to war. (Bush told his people to start planning for war in Iraq 72 days after the 9/1 1 attacks, Woodward wrote.) Despite such insights, one critic charged Woodward with being a "stenographer" for the White House.
"That's absurd," Woodward said. "I think that criticism is made by people who are partisan or wanted me to use the information to beat up on Bush. We didn't do that in Watergate. We presented facts. The style is to be non-partisan."
The White House is known for its tight access with the press but Woodward's tenacious reporting and dogged determination paid off in penetrating the layers of protective bureaucracy and getting directly to the president. Woodward spent more than a year talking to sources and sent Bush long memos, building up to the interview request.
"People said, 'It's ridiculous, he'll never read them,' but he did," Woodward said. "So there you have the anomaly -- if somebody from Mars were to come and look at this, they might say, 'Headline: Bush more serious than media.'
"I realize a lot of (reporters) have a lot of trouble, and I think the White House should be more open. I can't complain to say the least. I've interviewed President Bush more than any other reporter, by far. These were serious, detailed interviews, and he answered my questions."
Finding answers and getting to the bottom of the story has always been Woodward's style, and he shows no signs of slowing down. Much of his inspiration came after a meeting Woodward had with the late Katharine Graham, publisher of the Post.
"During Watergate, she asked: 'Will we ever know the full story?'
"I said I didn't think so. Never.
"She really bristled and said, 'Never? Don't tell me never.'"
Those words from 30 years ago haunt Woodward.
"That should be our motto," he said. "Get to the bottom of things. It's hard. You say you'll never find out this or that.
"Never tell me never."