The expanding power of the Executive Branch, along with that of the military and the intelligence community, has become a serious threat to our democracy, according to the journalist and author Bob Woodward, who has reported on presidents, policy and decision making in Washington for more than 40 years. “The concentration of power in government is breathtaking, and it increases from administration to administration,” he told an audience at Cohen Auditorium on April 25. “Whoever said [this] had it basically right: democracy is dying in our midst.”
Woodward made his remarks as the 14th speaker in the Richard E. Snyder President’s Lecture Series, offering a blend of anecdotes and comments on the workings of government and some of the famous figures he has met and written about.
Woodward and his Washington Post colleague Carl Bernstein are best known for helping uncover the Watergate scandal, which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Woodward had few kind words for the 37th president. He also offered a glimpse into his own dogged work style, including repeated trips to interview sources, preparation of lengthy memos to prepare for interviews and a willingness to knock on doors at any hour. He even gives out his email address in the hope that someone might give him a tip; he offering it to the Tufts audience yesterday: email@example.com.
Woodward’s reporting methods are defined by a willingness to dig deep. He once sat next to former Vice President Al Gore at a dinner and asked him how much knowledge the public actually had about the Clinton administration. Gore replied, “One percent.” The key to reporting on Washington, Woodward said, “is to develop a method to get around the public relations face that’s put on by the White House.” He added that the “message machine” in the Obama White House is in full gear.
Woodward joined the Post in 1971 and remains there today as associate editor. He’s won two Pulitzer prizes and written 16 books, the most recent of which is Obama’s Wars (Simon & Schuster, 2010). He bemoaned the shrinking of traditional media, especially newspapers and their investigative journalism enterprises, saying the Internet is no substitute for in-depth reporting. “What do you get when you Google Deep Throat?” he asked, referring to the nickname for the Watergate source on which he and Bernstein relied. “You get information about a porn movie. You get good information from human beings—not the Internet.”
He had nothing but scorn for Nixon, whose presidency, he said, was wrapped in secrecy and who used his power as an instrument to reward friends and punish enemies. Nixon taped conversations he held with aides in the Oval Office, and Woodward has listened to them all. “You never hear what will be good for the country, what does this mean for the country,” he said. “Everything is always about Nixon. The nightmare of his presidency is the smallness, the disconnect from the basic function of the job.”
Woodward said his attitude changed toward Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, who pardoned the disgraced president a month after he resigned, announcing it on television early one Sunday morning, “probably hoping no one would notice.”
Bernstein woke Woodward up as soon as he found out, calling him to say, “The son of a bitch pardoned the son of a bitch,” and Woodward knew exactly what had happened.
At the time, said Woodward, the public—himself included—thought Nixon had struck a deal by resigning so that Ford could become president and issue the pardon. Years later, when he interviewed Ford for his book Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate (Simon & Schuster, 1999), Woodward came to see Ford had made the right decision. Ford told him, “I did not issue the pardon for him or for myself; I did it for the country.” He told Woodward that in the midst of the Cold War and an economic crisis, “I had to get Nixon off the front page” and be able to move on with his own presidency.
His latest book, Obama’s Wars, was almost called The Divided Man, as he came to understand Obama’s anguished feelings about war. “There’s a side of him that understands the horror and hell of war and the side that understands he has to be commander-in-chief,” he said.
Obama faced “a wall” in dealing with senators, the Pentagon and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, all of whom wanted more troops sent to Afghanistan. “If he thwarted them, he would have had mass resignations, and he probably would not be able to survive as commander-in-chief,” Woodward said. Obama ended up sending 30,000 more troops.
For each of his books, Woodward said, he tried to take a snapshot and provide a singular record. “When you go back in history, there’s nothing approximating someone with a neutral point of view asking Lincoln or FDR or Truman, ‘How did you make the decision from the moment it arrived on your desk to the final execution?’ ”
But he also realizes the final understanding of these decisions takes time. After interviewing former president George W. Bush for three hours, Woodward asked him what he thought history would have to say about his decision to invade Iraq. “We won’t know,” Bush said. “We’ll all be dead.”
“Now, he’s ducking the question,” said Woodward, “but there’s something right about this. You don’t know how these decisions will be viewed in history.”
Marjorie Howard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.