Watergate legend Bob Woodward at Poynter: "I'm not sure we in the news business are up to covering (the big) problems."
The stats on Bob Woodward are impressive enough.
About a year after starting his first job in journalism, Woodward stumbled on a story that would create and cement the legend of the superstar investigative reporter, peeling back the layers of President Nixon's Watergate scandal with partner Carl Bernstein to reveal the caustic heart of a corroded presidency.
He would go on to spend 40 years excavating power and politics in Washington D.C., both as a star reporter/editor at the Washington Post and as the author of 16 books on everything from Barack Obama's two wars to the self-destruction of comic John Belushi.
In a day of appearances at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies Tuesday, Woodward was affable and charming, with an array of war stories ready to press his primary points: that Americans can never know enough about what their government does, and that the key to a successful democracy is incisive reporting delivered by journalists with enough time and resources to go after the most important stories.
We talked for about 40 minutes before his evening appearance, one of Poynter's Community Conversations presented as a fund-raiser for the school for journalists which owns the St. Petersburg Times. Here's an edited Q&A, hitting all the high points:
What do you think of James O'Keefe, the conservative activist who used hidden cameras and people posing as Muslim donors to get controversial quotes from NPR executives?
“I think you have to be upfront with people. This is the exact opposite of upfront. In the law there’s a culture against entrapment…it’s illegal if prosecutors do it. I’m against entrapment. What you want you want to do is, get a picture of what people are really doing in their real lives, professional or personal. And not create an artificial environment. What I try to do is write about what goes on in government or the White House. It never crossed my mind to try to set something up. When the goal is reality – to create an alternative unreality…would be absurd. It’s not new.”
How are the two most recent presidencies -- Bush and Obama -- different?
“First, the presidents are different. Bush is somebody who operated on instinct. I think for three of the four books, I interviewed him maybe 11 hours, which is as much as anyone in our business. He would say 'You want to get into my mind' – He was very open. Obama’s more careful, more restrained. But if you have time to dig into things, and compare notes and focus what you’re looking at, you can get a lot of the inside hidden story in both.”
Are you surprised by how much of what Bush did -- expanded presidential power, keeping Guantanamo open, retaining the tax cuts -- Obama has retained?
“Not after I finished (writing the book) Obama's Wars. What it shows is how careful his is. The military recommended 40,000 troops a little over an year ago. The alternative was 20, 000 what’d Obama pick? 30,000. right in the middle. From a policy perspective, in 2008 he declared war on the tax cuts for the wealthy – and then he made a deal in order to get some of the things he wanted. Compromise. He’s a pretty careful guy.
"The world is dangerous and fragile. Just look at Japan. The economy is fragile things are reversible. Then you’ve got our business which is contracting, going through a convulsion, a redefinition of roles. On the surface, I’m not sure we in the news business are up to covering these problems – the nature of the problems are just so great. If you’re a Japanese reporter, you’re beating yourself up now for not doing an investigative series on the nuclear power reactors. I think there will be something we'll miss that will be catastrophic. And the people who have the money and the youth – the Google people the Facebook people, the new entrepreneurs, will realize the information system is screwed up – we better develop a business model to make it available...People are going to say 'Where was the media?' Well, we were blogging, we were tweeting, we were doing four stories a day, we were updating our website. We were not down at the records department really looking at what’s going on. We weren’t out at night interviewing people who have secrets to tell and things to expose and decide.”
Recently, you had a pretty public disagreement with Donald Rumsfeld, after criticizing his memoirs as a distortion of history. What do you think about how that all played out?
“It was a book review essentially. Somebody said to me, 'You know more about Rumsfeld than anybody.' I kept in touch with him, had him over for dinner, when he wasn’t in government, just head to head, doing interviews. Then I wrote four books about Bush’s wars and interviewed Rumsfeld. He’s tried to say or people tried to say I only go after people when they don’t cooperate. But I interviewed him five hours for those books; for the third book I think we talked for three hours – head to head. It’s not as if I don’t know him. I read the book, which is long. He’s twisting history. And you have to call him on it….maybe to get the message across, when there’s something you know that much about and you have so much evidence, it needs to have a little shock value. You have to use language that you wouldn’t normally use. It’s bad history. Nobody is the villain in their own diary...When I interviewed him, first of all, he tried to duck his responsibility for pushing Iraq early. He insisted he had no notes, and now he surfaces with all these notes...It’s just not – it didn’t compute.
"Here’s the question for somebody like me., do you have to go viral? Do you have to -- I think on something that's a serious history, when you’ve covered it and interviewed Bush for 11 hours, gone into the documents, asked Rumsfeld about raising Iraq on the day of 9/11 – it’s the notes of his own aides that show that. He just avoided it – he couldn’t deny it. It’s accountability journalism. It’s can you let somebody who had such a prominent role in those wars that are going to debated in history for decades, kinda come out with a…whitewash? It’s bad history, a travesty. Maybe whistle needs to get louder and shriller to break through.”
Some critics say you miss important grass roots movements by focusing so much on the powerful people in Washington.
“Listen, I miss all kinds of things. But I’m writing about an unprecedented concentration of power in the presidency. I think we don’t even realize how much power has migrated to the presidency. In the quick media age. In the war powers says Congress should declare war. Where’s the declaration of war in Afghanistan or Iraq? Doesn’t exist. The president pretty much decides...The criticism some people make is that I get information from only high level people, that’s just not so. Who keeps notes of NSC meetings? Some of the best sources for Obama’s Wars or the Bush books, you don’t even know their names. But what presidents do and decide and how they decide is very telling. I’m not covering politics as such. But the message machine in the White House is aggressive and skillful. Getting around it takes a lot of time and effort.”
What do people understand least about Presidents?
“There’s an inner life to presidents that we rarely get to see. The Nixon tapes and all of that, we really got to see the inner life of Nixon. the fourth book I did on Bush, I interviewed him in May of ’08 for about three hours, two mornings. About the decision to send 30,000 troops to Iraq – the surge. He was heavier, grayer, more irritable. The presidency had taken a toll on him. And I remember asking people after he left the White House ‘What’s he doing?' They said, 'He’s writing his memoirs and recovering from the presidency.'"
Are you still a Luddite? Are you on social media?
“I have a Facebook page, a couple of them, which is run by my assistants. I think I'm pretty old fashioned. And I -- I never found out anything by being impatient or being in a hurry. People have said, 'Well, suppose there was an Internet during Watergate. It would all be faster and come out cleaner.' (But) the real nature of what’s going on in government and the real nature of how power is exercised isn’t on the Internet now."
Could you write a book in which most everyone is on the record; no anonymous sources?
"Not about contemporary issues or national security. People aren’t going to talk to you about those things.”
Would you pull a Joe McGuiness and move next to someone you're writing about, like he did with Sarah Palin?
“I hope not…Better things to do. I like where I live. Do you peep in the windows? Where's the privacy? I thought that was a little....you should always be civilized. I was telling the students here about the last Bush book. There was a general who wouldn’t talk to me. Emails, phone calls, intermediaries. Nothing. So I found out where he lived. Went to his house; 8:15 p.m. is the perfect time to stop in unannounced, people have eaten, they’re not in bed, and he opened the door and he looked at me and he said – if you’ve seen the movie All the Presidents' Men, this is a technique Carl and I used almost 40 years ago -- he opens the door and he said 'Are you still doing this shit?'...three hours later, I left with most of answers to the questions I had.”
Does it get easier to do that sort of thing because you’ve become Bob Woodward, the brand?
“In this business were in, we’re humbled every day. Here’s the question: where is the center of gravity? I started out with Bush doing a book on his tax cut. Worked on that for 10 months until 9/11. Was doing one of the final interview on 9/11 and even I realized he was going to be defined by 9/11 and not his tax cut. If you ever run into someone who wants to do a book on his tax cut, I’ve got boxes of interviews and documents – good stuff. When you look at how they make up a tax cut, its like Yalta….every interest group gets their piece of the pie. Quite frankly, the interest group that’s not at the table is the public interest. I’ve even thought about doing a book called The Empty Chair.