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How Bob Woodward handles Trump, Watergate and ‘Fear’

Iconic journalist Bob Woodward interviewed by Crosscut columnist Knute Berger at Paramount Theatre in Seattle, Nov. 28, 2018. (All photos by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Last week at the Paramount I got to talk with a journalist who inspired me in the early phases of my career, the legendary investigative reporter and author Bob Woodward. We talked about journalism, politics and Jeff Bezos on stage in front of a packed house.

Woodward came to fame with his colleague, Carl Bernstein, through their coverage at the Washington Post of the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s. Their best-selling book about it, All the President’s Men, was made into a movie starring Robert Redford in the role of Woodward, who interviewed a secret source, called “Deep Throat,” for the inside dirt on the administration of President Richard Nixon. Their book and their newspaper reporting won Pulitzers. I told Woodward one of the most intimidating things about him was that Redford had portrayed him in a movie.

That book created a journalistic template that Woodward has often followed since. No longer a news reporter at the Post, he’s an associate editor who tackles longer-term projects, like getting deep inside the Donald Trump White House. That’s what his latest book, titled Fear, is about. Woodward told me that the book has already sold some 1.6 million copies, more than any other single book he has written documenting nine presidential administrations and other topics, like the death of John Belushi or the inside workings of the Supreme Court. There will likely be a sequel to Fear, so we’ll know the inside scoop of how things turn out.

Before we went on stage, we agreed not to talk about what we were going to talk about — to keep the conversation fresh. But he did ask me to ask him one thing: “What was Watergate?” The Nixon scandals began with a “third-rate” burglary by thugs hired by the Nixon White House to bug the Democrats during Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign. The result unleashed a constitutional crisis and revealed a level of criminality in high places. Despite being part of political and journalism lore, Watergate itself is a kind of fading memory unknown to many young people. Nearly two generations have passed. It’s a living memory for me. In 1974 as Watergate unraveled I was editor of my college paper and read the nightly news from the clattering teletypes on the college radio station. I mentioned this to Woodward and he said, “So you were there.” Well, it felt like it.

Watergate is useful today in that it has become the measure of all scandals worthy of having “gate” attached to them, from Irangate to Gamergate to Nannygate to Hillary Clinton’s Emailgate. Seattle even had a Strippergate. But it is also important because two scandal-plagued presidents — Nixon and Trump — are worthy of comparison. If we know how bad Watergate was, then we can use it as a yardstick for the Trumptimes.

As Woodward laid out in our interview, he believes that the Trump administration is a genuine “national emergency,” with the White House occupied by an ignorant, self-obsessed narcissist who won’t be educated about basic economic or foreign policy truths, and who thereby poses a genuine national security threat to the country. As an observer — a journalist — Woodward doesn’t offer solutions, but he has a passion for documenting what is going on as witnessed by people who will dish first-hand.

Which makes the lessons of Watergate and Fear a journalism story as well as a political one. He offered some advice and observations in this era where journalists are characterized as the “enemy of the people,” as Trump likes to say with Stalin-like certainty. He is a president who describes factual news as “fake news” if he doesn’t like it.

First, Woodward says that reporters — including himself — have to get off their butts and get out and report. For Woodward, that means interviewing powerful current and former White House officials who could tell him what was going on in Trump’s White House. Woodward says that he employs the technique of reaching out to sources at their homes — often late at night: An 11 o’clock phone call from just down the street helps. The risk of coming to the door and being greeted by an expletive, he says, is worth it. Plus, he says, White House staffers often bring home “souvenirs” (read: crucial documents) and just might be willing to dig them out for their visitor.

Part of what works for Woodward is his celebrity: Powerful folks know he is writing the first draft of history in book form. And he is a good listener. In fact so good that former CIA director and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who lives in Puget Sound country, once said of him, “His ability to get people to talk about stuff they shouldn’t be talking about is just extraordinary and may be unique.” The talkers get to have their say, without being revealed as sources. Woodward thinks this is a better deal than getting information that is “off the record” and not usable except to inform the reporter.

Fear is full of fly-on-the-wall scenes where the reader can see how Trump functions — or dysfunctions. Aides admit to taking papers off his desk for fear he will sign orders they believe are dangerous to the country’s future. His attorneys worry about letting Trump talk to Special Counsel Robert Mueller about the Russia investigation and other matters. One of those lawyers has the memorable last line of the book when he says he’s afraid to tell the president, whom he considers walking, talking prey for perjury traps, “You’re a fucking liar.” As Woodward says in amazement, “It’s the president’s own lawyer!”

Bob Woodward and Knute Berger
Bob Woodward, right, with Knute Berger in the elevator backstage at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle, Nov. 28, 2018. 

Woodward advocates sweat equity for young journos. Asked for advice by an audience member, Woodward has a formula for young reporters: if you add two hours a day to your eight-hour-a-day job, that 25 percent extra labor will yield you a 50 percent benefit with your boss. And that by adding four hours, you’ll be 100 percent more valuable. At age 74 and knocking on doors at 11 p.m., Woodward tries to practice what he preaches.

Speaking of bosses, the one question I asked Woodward that stopped him: “Who’s better to work for, Kay Graham or Jeff Bezos?” referring to the previous and current owners of the Washington Post. Not wanting to answer that politically tricky choice he proceeded to praise both. Katharine Graham, often known as “Kay,” was legendarily great and made into a heroic figure in the recent movie about the Pentagon Papers, The Post, in which she gambled the future of her newspaper company by publishing secret documents that might have put her in jail and destroyed the family business (that was in June 1971, a few months before Woodward was hired).

Woodward said he’s known Bezos for 20 years and was impressed that he wanted to make sure the Post had the staff to really vet the presidential candidates in the run-up to the 2016, and that he hired 40 staffers to do just that. The Post, beyond Woodward, has been impressive in the Trump era with its motto, “Democracy dies in darkness,” reflecting a kind of grim theme for its mission. Woodward said his own most recent journalistic failure was not being able to get at Trump’s tax returns, which he thinks are key to understanding the map of the president’s world.

Woodward is deeply sourced and knowledgeable, but not a pundit. He is dogged, rather than opining, and able to take a longer view than daily reporters. He says he has never attended a White House briefing or press conference. They need to be covered, but they are press release events, not something where you can gain real understanding.

He told a tale of trying to pin down former President Gerald Ford on why he pardoned Richard Nixon. Many people believed Nixon and his vice president at the time, Ford, had made a deal for the Nixon’s departing and leaving the presidency to Ford. He interviewed Ford seven times until he got him to acknowledge that he had been offered a presidency-for-a-pardon deal by Nixon’s aide Alexander Haig, but had turned it down. Still, Ford pardoned Nixon on his own, he said, after he took office because he wanted his predecessor off the front pages so he could have his own presidency. That decision gave Ford his own chance to govern, though it’s a big reason why he lost when he ran in 1976. But for Woodward it was a lesson in not making assumptions and digging to get at the truth, even if it takes seven tries.

In another part of the interview, Woodward said that Graham had written him and Bernstein a note after their All the President’s Men success, warning of the demon of “pomposity.” Woodward seems to have taken that advice.

He was open, a good storyteller and gracious to me. My wife, a psychotherapist, was in the audience and was struck by his therapist-like demeanor. She wasn’t surprised that people tell him things: He’s an engaged listener. As the Seattle audience found out, he’s well worth listening to as well.

Bob Woodward Backstage
Bob Woodward stands backstage during his visit to the Paramount Theatre in Seattle, Nov. 28, 2018. 

Note: Knute Berger will be moderating a “Think & Drink” panel at 7 p.m. Dec. 12 at Naked City Brewery in Greenwood on the future of local journalism, sponsored by Humanities Washington. The panel will include Marcus Harrison Green from The Seattle Times, Pulitzer Prize winner Eli Sanders of The Stranger, and communications professor Matthew Powers of the University of Washington. It’s free, but preregistration is required.

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How Bob Woodward handles Trump, Watergate and ‘Fear’