Share this article

print logo

Viewpoints: Woodward switches roles to consider lessons of Watergate

By Carl Francis Penders

“May I interject something here?” asked Bob Woodward during a recent appearance on PBS’ “Washington Week.”

“Of course you can … You’re Bob Woodward,” said Robert Costa, “Washington Week” host and Woodward’s Washington Post colleague.

Yet, for the young Woodward, becoming a public figure was a learning experience. In high school, he worked part time as a janitor in his father’s law office. “I was able to rummage through everything,” he says. “That may have sparked an interest in finding out the secrets that people keep.”

The Washington Post would not hire Woodward after a two-week trial in August 1970, with Metropolitan Editor Harry Rosenfeld telling him, “You don’t know how to do this.” I said, “Thank you. But I found something out. I don’t know how to do it, but know that I love it.”

After a year spent learning his craft, working for a weekly Maryland paper, Woodward was back in the big leagues with the Washington Post, and assigned to the night police beat, 6:30 p.m to 2:30 a.m.

Woodward had found his calling. He frequently returned to the Post’s offices during the day to write more stories. Eventually he went on to co-author classic, behind-the-political-scenes books, “All the President’s Men,” and “The Final Days,” before going out on his own to write “The Commanders,” “Bush at War,” “State of Denial,” “Maestro: Greenspan’s Fed and the American Boom” and many other best-sellers.

With skill, deft and daring (many will recall his late night parking garage encounters with a source nicknamed Deep Throat during the Watergate saga), Woodward consistently demonstrates a seemingly surreal ability to get people to talk. Part of the craft, he told me on July 25, is in using the most potent words in journalism: “I need your help.”

He has learned his lessons over a career that has produced 19 books, seven of which were about war. He initially thought President Ford’s 1974 pardon of his predecessor, Richard Nixon, was the final corruption of Watergate. He will offer “the long version of that road I walked, discovery from 1974, till 25 years later, the how and why I’ve reached the opposite conclusion.”

He will offer that tale and others on Sunday, Aug. 11, 2019, at Jamestown’s Reg Lenna Center for the Arts. The evening is being presented by the city’s Robert H. Jackson Center (

Jackson, who for almost 20 years worked as an attorney in Jamestown, went on to lead the U.S. Department of Justice as attorney general, served on the U.S. Supreme Court, and was the chief U.S. prosecutor at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremburg, Germany, after World War II. “He (Jackson) has a legacy that is local, national and international,” says Jackson Center Development Director T. Marion Beckerink. “And we’re using Jackson’s legacy to advance conversations around our constitutional democracy.” With his passion for “finding out secrets,” Woodward’s presentation is intended to enhance those “constitutional conversations.”

The mythology of Watergate

Feeling there’s a certain mythology about Watergate, I cited to Woodward a statement by Columbia Journalism School professor and news media historian Michael Shudson: “Watergate is the heart of American journalism mythology.” While Woodward acknowledged reading a Shudson book on the press, he said “Using the word mythology doesn’t work for me, because it suggests it might not be true. What’s going on now in 2019 with Trump is the quality of the evidence. The quality of the evidence about Nixon was in those tape recordings … And if you look at them, they make a cold, irrefutable case that Nixon obstructed justice, and orders the payment of blackmail money, telling (John) Dean I know where we can get a million dollars in cash. In the case of Watergate, you have a very organized, well-funded cover-up, a much more massive conspiratorial effort than what we have now with Trump.”

On his and Carl Bernstein’s roles in Watergate lore, he said, “Carl and I had the support of Katharine Graham, Ben Bradlee (Washington Post publisher and editor, respectively) and other editors. And it wasn’t just support. They pushed us. Where are we on Watergate? They gave us the running room I think you always need as a reporter to dig into something. Without that running room we wouldn’t have had the time we did trying to make sense of Watergate. And I think we finally did, namely that the Watergate burglary was just a part, a fraction of the massive espionage and sabotage campaign directed at the Democrats.”

The listening business

As for his writing style – his “reporting of conversations” – Woodward said “I don’t name my sources. But the incidents are very specific, time, date, who was at a meeting, a phone call. What was said from notes of participants, accounts of witnesses. If you go to the White House now or ever and say, ‘Tell me on the record what’s really going on,’ you’re going to get a press release. So you have to protect your sources, and then as diligently as possible try to confirm what you’ve been told, and make it as specific as possible.”

When I expressed surprise that Dick Cheney told Dan Quayle “You’re going to like Bob Woodward,” Woodward relayed that Cheney also said to Quayle, “But he’s not on our side.” Woodward’s response was, “But I’m not against them. I’m in the listening business.”

In elaborating on “the best obtainable version of the truth,” he said “That’s a standard Carl Bernstein and I developed. And it’s a way of saying you’re never going to get all of the truth, you’re never going to get an engineer’s drawing, you’re never going to get the full story. And there may be a truth out there that is unobtainable through reporting. So you have to set the bar high. It needs to be the truth, and it needs to be the best … It’s got to be built on what you learn and can document, have from witnesses or documents, or going to the scene as a reporter, not on speculation or opinion.”

Looking for facts

Speaking at the University of Utah on Nov. 16, 2017, to radio host Doug Fabrizio, Woodward was quoted as saying, “I think there’s a little unhinged reporting on both sides. And that’s not good for the reporting business.” He told me “I think the question is ‘What are the facts?’ That there is a middle position even on somebody who’s such a divisive figure as Trump. In “Fear: Trump in the White House,” there’s example after example of this governing crisis, where there’s no strategy or plan, and Trump will say, “OK I’m imposing tariffs on steel.” So this erratic decision making, if you don’t measure consequences, you don’t consider alternative outcomes, you don’t really plan it out. We have to plan our personal lives. The government needs to do that. The president needs to do that. You can’t just say ‘Hey, this morning I feel the following.’ ”

In “Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate,” Woodward wrote of “what they call in the military an after action report.” He cited the failure of “orderly former naval officer and engineer” Jimmy Carter to conduct such a report after “the changed circumstances created by Watergate.” When asked which president has commissioned such a study, and which president he felt had best managed the “changed circumstances,” Woodward responded saying, “That’s the hardest thing to do. Because the presidency to a certain extent has become a series of crisis management moments. I think you saw some care and weighing of consequences with Barack Obama on his decision making on the Afghanistan War. In “Obama’s Wars,” you can see from the meetings and discussions he decided to add ultimately 30,000 more troops. And at the same time, I think he really didn’t believe in it, because he also announced they’re going to start withdrawing troops 18 months later, I believe.”

Always about Nixon

Appearing on “Face the Nation” to mark Watergate’s 40th anniversary, Woodward said, “Nixon never says what’s good for the country. It was always about Nixon. It was about using the presidency as an instrument of personal revenge. In a horrendous way.” Responding as to whether he felt the presidency is being similarly misused today he said, “My critique in ‘Fear’ on Trump and the White House is how he governs. Major issues in foreign policy, China, Russia, the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, domestic issues, tariffs, taxes and so forth, you see how impulsive it is. The issue that doesn’t come up, to my knowledge, is ‘What is good for the country? What does the country need? It always is what does Trump want and need, personally and politically?’ ”

The subject of unlikely, improbable presidents came up in our discussion: Carter compared to Trump. He plans to talk about that while he’s in Jamestown, along with the lessons he’s learned from writing about nine presidents. “I’m going to try to address the psychology of what happens when you’re elected president, and how it puts you in a position that other people are not in, the extraordinary power the president has, which I think we don’t fully appreciate and understand.”

“I want to talk about war. And how I think presidents sometimes think war solves problems, when historically I think you can argue that wars create problems, particularly when we start them. The president needs to have a part of his or her brain to think about how you deal with this powerful military, and use it. And I’m going to tell some war stories from reporting on war, and some of the experiences and lessons, I hope.”

Carl Francis Penders is a freelance writer and the author of the forthcoming play, titled “Lifelong Learning.”

There are no comments - be the first to comment