Associate editor at The Washington Post and veteran Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Bob Woodward visited VCU Tuesday to present his speech on “Truth, Freedom of Expression, Democracy and the Age of the American Presidency.”
The renowned author’s appearance took place in the W.E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts and was met with a crowd of hundreds of Richmonders and VCU students. His visit came exactly two weeks after the publishing of his most recent book titled “Fear: Trump in the White House,” which sold more than 1 million print and electronic copies in its first week.
Woodward reminisced about his time investigating the Watergate scandal with his Post colleague Carl Bernstein — the reporting that ultimately resulted in former President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974. He also discussed the current state of American politics and the work that went into “Fear.”
Lessons from Watergate
“There is a war on truth. You have to deal with truth,” Woodward said. “Truth is the foundation of how we have our debates and people make their decisions.”
This, according to Woodward, will always be the case — be it 1972 when the first reports of the Watergate scandal broke or the investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race, which has precipitated many questions surrounding the validity of Trump’s presidency.
Woodward attributed some of his motivation during his coverage of the Watergate scandal to his former boss — and first female publisher of The Washington Post — Katharine Graham.
“The leader has to know what’s going on, be intellectually involved, but the leader’s hands-off — doesn’t tell people how to do their job,” he said about Graham.
Woodward said Graham’s zeal for the truth outmatched the risk of damaging the Post’s reputation after Nixon secured his reelection months before the Watergate story broke.
“When we went to go interview people during this period, they would slam their doors in our faces [and] the Watergate burglars — the five men who broke into the Democratic headquarters — were being paid for their silence,” he said. However, Graham instructed Woodward that he “[not] hold back, be more aggressive and keep working on this story.”
Journalists sign up to take risks, Woodward said.
“That’s the business we’re in and we have to keep working at it,” he said.
Since many of Woodward’s findings have been based on anonymous interviews, he said he relies heavily on written sources.
“I would always ask people, ‘Do you have any documents or notes?’ And they would say, ‘No, absolutely no,’” Woodward said. “Well, I’ve learned over the years, there’s no one who has ever worked in the White House or the Supreme Court or Congress that doesn’t take a little memorabilia home. You have a love affair with documents when you’re in my business.”
Given the current climate of distrust toward news media in the U.S., this type of attention to detail in the journalism industry is important for establishing credibility.
“We have become, willfully, members of a political dynamic, rather than trying to call it down the middle, trying to deal with facts,” he said of civilian news consumption.
When he asked who in the audience had a news source they trusted, Woodward was visibly taken aback by the sea of raised hands he was greeted with.
“We have to be able to get beyond what we’re seeing in the news every single day,” said Richmond resident and speech attendee Theresa Gee. “We have to be able to feel that there is some hope beyond what we’re told.”
Gee said she hopes Woodward can help the public progress from this point in its relationship with the news media.
“We got through the Watergate issue, now we need to get through this,” Gee said.
Woodward affirmed journalists’ constitutional right to do their jobs has never been categorically denied — even in the Trump era — and that fact should not be ignored.
“We do have the First Amendment. No one has closed us down,” Woodward said. “I think that is important and we should feel good about it.”
“Real Power is … Fear”
“‘Fear’ just came out — Trump loves it,” Woodward joked. “He accused me of being a Democratic operative.”
The book’s title comes from an interview between Woodward, Post reporter Robert Costa and then-nominee Trump in March 2016, during which Trump said, “Real power is — I don’t even want to use the word — fear.”
“A lot of times I have to put it down because it makes me sad,” said Prince George resident and speech attendee Charlotte Rhodes. “Because the information in it is so disturbing — so much of it we already knew. But just, to read it, grabs my heart. It makes me angry also.”
Richmond resident and VCU graduate Kelly Lawson said he is also reading Woodward’s book and has a negative view of Trump’s White House due to the Russia investigation.
“I feel like Trump is guilty, Lawson said. “I feel like his actions speak louder than his words and he is guilty of something — but what exactly that is, we don’t know.”
Although Lawson said he attended the speech to hear Woodward’s take on the matter, Woodward successfully dodged a question from a member of the audience asking about what he “most admires” about Trump, insisting the audience draw conclusions for themselves.
Much of the details Woodward discussed in “Fear” were based on interviews that relied on the principle of deep background — an understanding that he would use the information given to him but not attribute it to the interviewee, keeping them anonymous.
Woodward said the methodology behind his visits with sources was vital to the success of their reports. While covering Watergate, he and Bernstein “had to go see people at home, we had to knock on doors,” in order to extract information on deep background. Woodward said he thinks more journalists should use the same technique.
“People unfortunately do not tell the truth on the record most of the time,” he said. “I think we need more deep background or background sources because then you can get the truth. Too many lies are on the record.”
Though Woodward stressed the importance of journalists’ refraining from partisan influence, he used rhetoric throughout the speech indicating President Donald Trump has introduced a never-before-seen atmosphere in Washington.
“We better wake up to what’s going on in the White House,” Woodward said. “God help us if we have a crisis because that’s when presidents and their administration and their team are tested. If there’s no team, if there is a living, vibrating nervous breakdown going on, they can’t deal with a crisis. And crises come to the presidency all of the time.”
Woodward said a common thread exists among U.S. presidents — the hubris that comes with securing an election.
“There is a kind of self-validation when you are elected president that none of us in our lives get: you rose to the top,” he said. “In the case of Trump … everyone said, ‘It won’t work, you can’t do it.’ What do you think that that means to President Trump emotionally? It means that ‘I’m right, they’re wrong.’”
Although it is typical for a president to enjoy their victory and newly assumed power, Woodward said, Trump’s work as president has been largely unorthodox and not aligned with the established precedent.
“Trump was elected to be a disruptor,” he said. “Presidents live in the unfinished business of their predecessor. There has to be a framework — some of the old order — that you’re going to use. That all works. That is the house we have to live in. You can’t burn it down.”
Woodward made a comment in reference to the introduction of “Fear,” in which he tells the story of Gary Cohn, former economic advisor to Trump, removing a letter from the president’s desk that would have removed the U.S. from the United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement — therefore threatening a necessary U.S. presence in the Korean peninsula — if it had been signed.
“What’s different about this White House? Nothing,” Woodward posited. “But the phenomenon of [White house staffers] stealing papers from the president’s desk — I’ve never heard of or seen that before. Trump has made the country numb. But people in my business can’t get numb. We’ve got to be very aggressive. But I think you can be very aggressive and be fair.”