Bob Woodward: 15 May 2011 – University of Kansas

“Everyone has a secret” ceded Bob Woodward regarding his craft and journalistic approach. Woodward (and Carl Bernstein) essentially brought down President Richard M. Nixon by their thorough reporting on the Watergate scandal for The Washington Post. Woodward contributed significantly to two Post Pulitzer Prizes: one for his reporting on the events and characters of Watergate, and another for his detailed coverage of 9/11 and its aftermath. He is considered as quite possibly the best investigative reporter of his, if not all, time. At the University of Kansas, Woodward brought the audience back to these two major historical events by simply conversing about his own triumphal career; it was a rare, vicarious look into D.C., politics, history, and the craft of journalism.

His notable study about Watergate is All the President’s Men (1974). On the subject of Nixon, he had some choice lines. Woodward noted that when he found out the C.I.A. was involved his initial thought was “holy shit”. He said conventional wisdom during this period was that Nixon was too intelligent to be caught up in such corruption but it was clear to him there was a “massive cover up going on” by Nixon and his staff. But he had an obligation to get to the truth, no matter the risk, even if it meant he probably would not be on Nixon’s Christmas card list.

Nixon’s infamous “abuse of power” was primarily driven by contempt; though, in the end, it was his hatred that did him in. And Nixon himself recognized this in a “moment of self-revelation”, but it was too late. Woodward also opined that Nixon’s public resignation might have been “the psychiatric hour”, or, the first time that a full-on meltdown would occur on TV. He alluded to the Nixon tapes on which Nixon personally, vulgarly lashed out vindictively at his perceived enemies. But Woodward, an obstinate optimist, expressed his trust in the justice system; he elucidated that the “system works”: Nixon was held accountable and subsequently resigned; his impeachment was almost certain.

Woodward has also interviewed George W. Bush extensively, penning four studies about the Bush administration. The marked contrast he drew between George W. Bush and President Barack Obama as to presidential approach and mindset had to be his blandest moment. That is, when Bush approached critical events or choices, his decisions were principally based on instinct and gut, whereas President Obama’s approach has been much more analytical, pragmatic, and reflective. This basic observation has been recognized by many people, not least Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates; it’s frankly unsurprising and only valuable insofar as Woodward has confirmed it.

But one of Woodward’s other remarks in relation to Obama seemed to belie his view of Obama as a textbook-driven, academic type. He noted that Obama had in fact “stepped up” to Usama bin Laden; that Obama’s recent call was, in fact, gutsy. On the other hand, Woodward maintained that credit for bin Laden’s assassination should be handed to both Presidents Bush and Obama; and that it was unfair that Obama had received sole credit (Bush held meetings each month about the hunt for bin Laden, Woodward desperately argued). Woodward also noted that Obama had been monitoring bin Laden in Pakistan for eight months before a decision was made to authorize his assassination. Still, Obama’s relationship with the Pentagon remains “unsettled”; the working title for Woodward’s latest study was, for example, “The Divided Man”.

Woodward re-iterated the last few pages of this study, eventually titled Obama’s Wars (2010). He confidently noted, “Obama doesn’t like war”. Obama told Woodward to see the President’s Nobel Prize speech because it reflects his view on war, and Woodward nicely paraphrased a few parts of this speech: war is inherently chaotic and corrupting, but that it still is at times required. Woodward stated that war is actually very much about managing chaos. The last sentence from Obama’s Nobel speech about war reflects this principle. Obama’s exact line: “So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly irreconcilable truths — that war is sometimes necessary and war at some level is an expression of human folly”.

As for Bush, Woodward remained a bit less equivocal and recognized that in the context of 9/11 (and the Iraq war) Bush was fully cognizant that Saddam Hussein and Iraq had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11: “[the Bush administration] knew that”. According to Woodward, Bush stated that the U.S. had “a zeal” to free people. This entailed a duty to liberate certain nations, a position that, as Woodward perceptively recognized, was not at all to be found in the U.S. Constitution. It was actually a dangerous form of paternalism.

Woodward related at least three humorous stories about Bush. When pressed by Woodward on Iraq during one interview, Bush, nearly jumping off his chair, called him an “elitist” (note the palpable irony). Woodward maintained that this incident betrayed the “real inner Bush”. He also quipped that after sending a twenty-page memo to Bush, Woodward’s colleagues at the Post thought he had lost his marbles and joked that it would be the lengthiest item that Bush had read. Also, when probed about Iraq vis-à-vis future history, Bush replied that it doesn’t matter because he wouldn’t be alive, which Woodward found rather morbid.

But Woodward himself asserted that he didn’t know if the Iraq war was a “mistake”. That is, it would be premature for him to comment on the future of Iraq. Woodward acknowledged this year’s prominent Arab Spring in this context, thereby intimating that Bush’s Iraq war could in future prove beneficial to the larger effort to stabilize the Middle East. This position is uncannily consistent with neoconservative theories about the Iraq war, which remained unstated: to make the region safer for Israel, not necessarily the U.S., and to encourage the growth of democracy. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz had theorized that the Iraq war would end in seven days, Woodward said nonchalantly.

Woodward got Nixon, but should apply the same critical acumen to Bush and Obama, though he was Panglossian about Nixon and the system. Nixon did not serve one day in prison, and likely enjoyed all the Mexican food he preferred during his sunny, Orange County retirement. As for Bush, Woodward did not consider the possible sectarian motives for going into Iraq, he made no firm conclusions about Bush’s leadership, and he recognized no abuse of power or corruption concerning Bush. And for Obama, Woodward presumed bin Laden’s assassination was moral and legal, he failed to clarify if torture had helped lead to bin Laden, and he also refrained from noting the cost of access in relation to ostensible objective journalism. Notwithstanding, Woodward’s several points were most curious, stimulating, and, finally, appreciated.