Recalling President Richard M. Nixon's parting confession to his White House staff before leaving office in disgrace, Bob Woodward said Wednesday evening that the lesson of Watergate is crucial to overcoming the bitterness of the 2004 election campaign.
Woodward, 61, an assistant managing editor at the Washington Post, reminded about 1,800 listeners in the University at Buffalo's Alumni Arena of Nixon's remarks in the East Room on Aug. 9, 1974.
"There was no text. It was Nixon raw. It was almost a psychiatric hour. He talked about his mother and father," recalled Woodward, who was appearing at UB as part of its Distinguished Speaker Series.
"And then he got to a point in this very personal speech and 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, whose reporting with Post colleague Carl Bernstein was instrumental in unraveling the Watergate scandal, said he believes that Nixon was talking about himself. "I think at that moment he realized what had done him in," Woodward said. "It was the hating."
Despite the bitterness of the 2004 campaign between President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry, he said, "neither of them was a hater. In that sense, we have come a long way."
While researching his latest book, "Plan of Attack," Woodward -- whose reporting helped earn Pulitzer Prizes for the Post on coverage of Watergate and the war on terrorism -- interviewed Bush for more than 3 1/2 hours about the 16-month period from Sept. 11, 2001, to the decision early in 2003 to invade Iraq.
"It was the longest interview of a sitting president in American history, going back to George Washington," he said.
Woodward noted that Bush "doesn't give long answers. I asked 500 questions. He answered them all."
At no time, Woodward realized, did the president sit down with his advisers and actually explore the wisdom of following the road that was leading to war.
The lone dissenter among the inner circle was Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who drove home his warnings during a dinner with Bush and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice on Aug. 5, 2002. "Powell was the only person in the Cabinet who had seen war," Woodward said. "He had written a list of all the consequences of invading Iraq. They were almost limitless. He cited the Pottery Barn rule: 'If you break it, you own it.' "
This could have been the turning point, Woodward said, when Bush could have demanded more proof of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but "the president did not do that."
Woodward said he was astonished to learn that Bush never asked his father's advice on going to war again with Iraq. "And I said, 'Didn't you at some point?' Woodward recalled. "And finally, he said, 'In terms of strength, I appealed to a higher Father.' "