Woodward Talks Trump, Truth At Reg
In the midst of “a governing crisis in this country” on the cusp of a presidential election, Washington Post Associate Editor Bob Woodward had one question for the crowd of 500 at the Reg Lenna Center for the Arts on Sunday: “Have we forgotten the lessons of Watergate?”
As the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who covered the Watergate scandal in 1973 and the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, Woodward knows a thing or two about the inner workings of Washington and how the decisions — and values — of just one individual can change the course of an entire nation.
In keeping with the spirit of the Robert H. Jackson Center who hosted the event, Woodward began with a discussion of the truth — the foundation of his work as an investigative journalist and Jackson’s legacy as chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremburg Trials of Nazi war criminals.
“The first lesson to extract from Watergate is the centrality of truth and how important the truth is to our political system, our democracy and the rule of law,” Woodward began.
“The question I ask, and this is not a partisan judgment is … if truth is central to democracy, how can we have a useful political dialogue, citizen understanding, even journalism, when we have a president who has somewhat quite successfully destroyed the common agreement about what is a fact?”
With this question in mind, Woodward went on to discuss Nixon’s demise following the Watergate scandal, including reactions to his secret utterances captured on tape. He noted that the words “disgusting, deplorable and immoral” were associated with Nixon’s tapes. “Lots of things Nixon said secretly on his tapes are what Trump says on the White House lawn,” Woodward pointed out, “or tweets.”
However, Woodward was intrigued by a “spontaneous quote” from Nixon in an unscripted press conference — another lesson to learn from Watergate: “Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself,” said Woodward, quoting Nixon.
He reflected on the 45 years that have passed since Watergate and shared some quotes from President Trump. “‘Knock the crap out of him, will you? I promise I will pay your legal fees.’ ‘I will beat the crap out of you. I would like to punch him in the face. Maybe he should have been roughed up. The problem is, no one wants to hurt each other anymore.’… President Trump has legitimized hate and violence. This has happened before our eyes,” Woodward said.
The author of 19 books, Woodward had important lessons to share with the media, too. “We need to step back from the food fight …We should not frame what’s going on with President Trump as some sort of battle,” he explained. While he cautioned journalists against responding emotionally to criticism, he added, “We should not be spooked or derailed from doing the job (former Washington Post publisher) Katharine Graham described as ‘maintaining that aggressive edge.’ Trump criticizes us as fake news because potentially, I believe we are doing our job,” Woodward said, to which the audience responded with applause.
Woodward concluded his discussion of the lessons of Watergate by referencing Robert H. Jackson’s memoirs, including multiple passages about Jackson’s interactions with former President Franklin D. Roosevelt. While he served as U.S. Attorney General and Supreme Court Justice during Roosevelt’s administration, Jackson also enjoyed fishing and playing poker with the president and his “inner circle,” and fondly recalled the president’s frankness, inclusivity and sense of humor. So great was his respect for Roosevelt, that he delivered what Woodward considers “a remarkable eulogy” at the Department of Justice on April 12, 1945.
Woodward quoted Jackson, who said no one but Roosevelt “could bow so many human heads in a common sorrow and that sense of personal loss. People feel less secure today because he is gone. He thought of no human being but himself as expendable …”
Woodward concluded, “I read this and I asked myself, ‘Who will readily give such a eulogy for Donald Trump?'” to which an audience member promptly replied, “No one!”
“Yes, that’s what I wrote down,” Woodward chuckled.
Woodward concluded the Q&A on a serious note, with an important question for the audience. “There is a governing crisis in this country because of what the president is doing and does not know, but it’s not just the people that voted for Trump who are responsible for Trump,” Woodward said. “We all are.”
He noted that the country elected him in what he believes was a fair, constitutional election. “The big question we have to ask — Trump supporters, people who do not support Trump — is what have we done to ourselves?”
The famed journalist has covered nine presidents in his lifetime. His latest book, “Fear: Trump in the White House” was published in September 2018 and chronicles what Woodward described as “Part I and Part II” of Trump’s presidency.
Specifically, the book details aides and their attempts to handle the president and his behavior. Trump, who has both praised Woodward and publicly criticized him, spoke with the author shortly before the book was released.
“One of my best friends said ‘You’re so lucky you didn’t interview him for the book because now everything in the book is true,” Woodward said of Trump. “I think we’ve tucked ourselves into a dangerous state of sleep almost about Trump that we think, ‘Oh, lying, that’s just Trump.'”
Woodward confirmed he is currently working on another book about Trump that will focus on “Part III and Part IV.”
After the discussion, Woodward spoke briefly to the media. He touched on the importance of investigative reporting — noting there are reporters from the Washington Post and New York Times who specifically investigate the president on a daily basis. He said stories produced from these reporters have aided both newspapers in their push to attract more online and digital readers.
Asked his thoughts on social media and its role in covering the news, Woodward said, “It’s so easy to be critical of social media,” he said. “You can see lots of downsides, but we have a First Amendment, and thank God.”
Woodward said he has an account on Facebook, yet rarely has time to look at it.
“It’s amazing what happened,” he said of social media’s growth. “I look at my phone at an idle moment and you think, ‘Oh well I might as well check to see what’s going on.’ I would love for there to be a serious study made on how much unnecessary communication there is.”
Asked what advice he would give to young reporters, Woodward said it is important to cultivate sources and always double-check the facts.
“Get the facts,” he said. “Go back and interview people, multiple times, and build relationships and trust with people. Don’t make rookie mistakes, and listen to your editors and managers. It’s hard — a lot of reporters have become emotionally unhinged. It’s become emotional for them.”
Eric Tichy contributed to this story