November 11, 2012
Thank you. Thanks
It’s great to be here. I heard a number of things I don’t believe, starting with the idea that Bill Kovach is considered the Moses of journalism. Actually we consider him the Spartacus of journalism—a rebellious slave seeking the truth. It’s great to see you Bill. Somebody I’ve known a long time. And he really is Spartacus. And the rebellion continues, correct? Yes.
What I want to do is put myself on the clock here and tell a few war stories, try to make a couple of points, and then have a discussion here. Because there are microphones, generously provided by Gordon Liddy. So they sometimes work and sometimes don’t work. For those of you who are young, Gordon Liddy was kind of the operational director of Watergate.
It was seven years ago, I was at one of these conferences in Colorado, and at the dinner I wound up sitting next to Al Gore, the former vice president. Now dinner next to Al Gore, to be honest, is taxing. In fact it’s really unpleasant. If you look at his biography, before he went into politics he was a journalist and practiced journalism. And it turns out he thinks he invented that also. And he hammered on me very hard about—this was 2005, two of the four books I had done on Bush had been published—and he said, “Why don’t you come out against Bush and the Iraq war?” And I said, ”Look, just trying to find out what happened, be as empirical as possible.” And he said, “Horse manure,” or a variation of that. He said, “For instance the Watergate stories that you and Carl Bernstein wrote, you came out against Nixon and the crimes of Watergate very clearly.” And I said “No, if you look at those stories, they were as empirical as we could make them.” He said, “Look, buster, I read those stories!” I said, “I wrote those stories!” Did not move the needle of self-doubt one bit. Not necessarily an introspective man, at least that night.
But then we got to the question that’s at the heart of our business, journalism, and that is, how much do we know about what goes on? Do we get to the bottom of things? In all of journalism this is the struggle. When do you think you have enough to write? How do you select what to dig into and persist on? So I just asked him. “Here you were in the Clinton White House all these eight years. Now, 2005, five years or so after you and Clinton left office, what percentage of what went on that’s of consequence or interest do we now know? There have been books published, twenty-four/seven coverage, the Lewinski investigation, Whitewater investigation, so what percentage do we know?” And he said, “One percent.” I died. And confessed to having an unclean thought, which was when he said “One percent.” I thought, “Is it possible there are that many women we don’t know about?” Think about it. Could be a big number. I just asked, “Well suppose you wrote a tell-all biography?” He said he never would do that. “Suppose you did, then what percentage of what goes on of consequence or interest would we know after reading that about the Clinton administration?” He said, “Two percent.”
He’s being ornery. I think we generally get to sixty or seventy percent. In the case of Nixon, because—thank God for his taping system—we probably know ninety or ninety-five percent, but we don’t know. And so the only way to deal with this circumstance, particularly now that the White House is so good—I think they get better almost every year, certainly through every administration, at managing the message, controlling access. You’ve read these stories about they literally ask for quote approval.
So the method has to be rigorous. I have the luxury of time to work on these things, interview people, seek documents, seek contemporaneous notes, go back to people, and so forth, and spend in many cases eighteen months or two years on a story, a book project, or a long series of articles for the Washington Post. I read David Shribman’s excellent piece about Lovejoy, and you made the point. He died. Actually there were three presses he had that were successively destroyed. He was trying to get by riverboat a fourth press in to publish, and he was killed. He sacrificed his life.
About three weeks ago I had an experience that was one of those epiphanies, for me. I was at the State Department speaking to a group of foreign journalists, about two hundred of them. They’re Edward R. Morrow fellows that they bring in from all over the world. It’s quite a group, from China, Russia, Europe, you name the country. Serious journalists, some experienced, some somewhat younger. I was talking about the book I had just published, The Price of Politics, about the management of the economy by President Obama and the congressional Republicans and Democrats, and they started asking questions. “Now wait a minute, you’re here in the State Department, the foreign ministry. In your book, one of your conclusions clearly is everyone’s responsible for the fiscal mess, but because Obama’s the president, he is more responsible than anyone, and he did not find a way to yield. You’re saying that about the leader of your country, and they let you come and speak in the foreign ministry? And by the way, they bought two hundred copies of your book? What the hell is going on?”
It was really eye-opening to have this discussion, so I just asked two hundred of them, “How many of you could write a book, or story, or broadcast something on television or radio that was critical of your leader?” Five hands went up. And you should have seen the Chinese contingent sitting over there. They didn’t flicker. I think they wanted to pretend they didn’t hear the question. Then a woman from Russia stood up and said, “Okay, this is nice about your First Amendment and the practices in this country. How would you cover Vladimir Putin?” She was trembling. She said “You know, he’ll kill you if you criticize him.” It’s very different. It is a country run, in many ways, by a group of thugs. It’s not just the government that will kill you, it is the thugs.
I thought about that, the peril abroad that people put themselves in. And Lovejoy. I wanted to think honestly about this issue of “Where’s the courage?” Quite frankly, it’s not with reporters. I want to just give some examples from my own experience as a journalist that the real courage, the real risk is taken by the owners, by the publishers. When Carl Bernstein and I were working on Watergate, we were blessed with a group of very determined, confident, but skeptical editors. And we had Katherine Graham, the publisher. There’s an important moment where this became clear to me who’s really taking the risk here. Certainly not me. As Carl and I talked when we were working on Watergate—he was twenty-eight, I was twenty-nine—and he used to joke that if turned out not to be true or couldn’t be proven, he would go be a rock music critic, something he secretly wanted to do. And he said, “You, Woodward, you can go to law school, go over to the dark side.” Which is quite true. We could have.
There was a moment in January ’73 when Katherine Graham invited me to lunch. She had supported the publication of these stories. Carl had to go to a funeral that day, and the managing editor, Howard Simons, was there at the lunch. She started quizzing me about Watergate. She blew my mind with what she knew. She read everything, she absorbed it. Later described this management style as “Mind on, hands off.” Intellectually involved, but not telling us how to edit, not telling us how to report, what to investigate. But knowing what’s going on. At one point during this lunch she said she had read something about Watergate in the Chicago Tribune, and I remember thinking, “What’s she reading the damn Chicago Tribune for? No one in Chicago does. Even then!” That’s a cheap shot, let me take it back. But the power of the mind and the engagement here was amazing.
At the moment of this lunch, Carl and I had written these stories. The truth is, most people didn’t believe them. Most people in the Washington Post newsroom did not believe them. The journalistic reputation of the Post was in peril. We later learned that one of the secret strategies of the Nixon people was to challenge the very valuable FCC licenses that the Post Company owned. So at this moment—in January, Nixon’s massive election landslide victory—no one believes our journalism. The stock, which had just gone public, was down, and a tough time for her. Everything was at risk. At the end, like a great CEO, she had the killer question, which was, “When are we going to find out the whole truth about Watergate?” I said Carl and I felt, because it was a criminal conspiracy, all the incentives were not to talk. We went to see them and in most cases at night at home they would slam the door and look truly panicked. The burglars were being paid for their silence. So I said the answer to the question, “When is all of this going to come out? When are we going to find out the truth?” The answer is, “Never.” I remember so well looking across that table and seeing this wounded, stricken look on her face, and she said the following. “Never? Don’t tell me never.” I left the lunch a highly motivated employee.
But what she said was not a threat. This is what’s important. It was a statement of purpose. What she said was, “Look, use all you’re resources as a reporter, all the resources of this newspaper. Why? Because that’s what we do. We get to the bottom of things if we can. We keep going. This is the business we are in, so there are no limits on reasonable aggressiveness to do this story.” She said quite wisely, “Because this involves the president of the United States, we have a triple, maybe a quadruple obligation to get to the bottom of this.”
Now, at age twenty-nine, leaving that lunch I’m not sure I understood it all at the time, but I understood enough of it—that I’m working in an organization where they know what the job is. Most people, not most, but lots of people, work in organizations where it’s not clear what the job is. That she’s willing to go all in, put everything at risk. And someday Carl and Ben Bradlee, the editor, and I have talked about we’re going to put a plaque in the lobby of the Washington Post, and we’re going to drill it in, bolt it in so no one can take it out. And it’s simply going to begin “’Never? Don’t tell me never,’ Katherine Graham, January 1973.” The risk she was taking was so great.
I’ve done this for forty years. With the Washington Post, time and time again I not only literally, but as a reporter, have a constitutional protection to exercise free speech. And the Washington Post has that capacity, but the management, the editors, time and time again the stories where we’re called to the Oval Office, we’re called to the CIA, and the willingness to keep digging. I’ve done seventeen books, all for Simon & Schuster. Dick Snyder who was head of Simon & Schuster when they bought the first Watergate book, All the President’s Men, he bought it on the day we made our biggest mistake. He said “No, we’re publishing this story, and go do it.”
When I was doing a book in the eighties on the CIA and Bill Casey, Reagan’s CIA director, Casey called up Dick Snyder and said, “Mr. Snyder, Woodward’s doing this book. You have an author out of control. He’s getting into all kinds of CIA secrets.” And of course Dick said, “Great!” Casey said, “No, we’re going to have legal problems. We’re going to come after you. We’re going to have to prosecute you, and so forth.” And Dick Snyder said to him, “Have at it.”
Time and time again. In the last book, The Price of Politics, it criticizes everyone involved in trying to put the financial house in order, but there’s a certain burden that falls in critique on President Obama. You can imagine publishing a book like this with a liberal publishing house in New York. But the publisher, Jonathan Karp, my longtime editor, Alice Mayhew, even though this went against some of the doctrines that they hold very dear—like “Democrats are always right and Republicans are always wrong”—no pushback. “That’s you’re conclusion. That’s what you see.” That is the fact. I could sit here, and I’m not going to do it, but time and time again I’ve had the experience where quite frankly I’ve never had to do a brave thing. I’ve just had institutional support in a way that is extraordinary, and it persists.
I want to just talk briefly because Robert Redford called me the other day and said that his grandson is here. Your grandfather—it’s not something we normally think of, Robert Redford as a grandfather. This story has been told, but he, early on in the Watergate coverage latched onto, “Hey, this is different.” He wanted to do a movie about it and everyone said, “You can’t do a movie about politics. You can’t do a movie about journalism.” And he said, “No, we’re going to do it, and it’s going to be authentic.” He and the director, Alan Pakula, and Dustin Hoffman threw their hearts into getting journalism right and describing it. I can tell you I’ve never really run into a journalist who didn’t say that movie really, truly captured what it’s like when you’re uncertain. You go home with a lump in your tummy. You have good sources, you’ve checked, you’ve got procedures, you’ve got protocols, but you don’t know. You’re not absolutely sure, but you keep doing it.
One of the stories I love about the work they did on that movie after Redford decided, and Dustin Hoffman, that they were going to be in the movie, they said, “Who’s going to play Ben Bradlee?” Redford had known Jason Robards from Broadway, and in the mid-seventies Robards was in trouble. He had been in an accident, he was an alcoholic, he was at the bottom of his career. Redford said, “Let’s get Jason Robards to play Ben Bradlee.” They said, “Okay, let’s show him the script.” So they showed him the script, and they said, “We’re going to pay you fifty thousand dollars to do this.” Well that was liberation for Robards, “Oh that’s great. Give me the script.” Went home and read it and came back the next day and said, ”I can’t play Ben Bradlee.” I’m going to quote him literally here in the chapel. Is that okay? I have dispensation to do that? They said, “Why can’t you play Bradley?” Robards said, “All he does is run around and say ‘Where’s the fucking story?’” And they said to him, “That’s what the editor of the Washington Post does. And all you have to do is find fifteen different ways to say, “Where’s the effing story?” Now, that’s exactly right, and that’s exactly what happened. And to work for an editor like that, with fifty percent confidence, fifty percent skepticism and doubt, always asking questions.
So I’m not really sure that reporters ever have to do much that’s brave, quite frankly. There’s much written about the convulsion going on in the press. It’s absolutely real. But if you look at these institutions and the way the First Amendment can be practiced in this country, it’s absolutely astonishing, and it’s something to take some comfort in.
This morning I was on the TV show Meet the Press, and I described for the first time a secret trip that General Petraeus, now the former CIA director, made a week and a half ago to Libya and who he interviewed and how he conducted a very aggressive personal inquiry in what happened in Benghazi when four Americans including the U.S. ambassador were killed. Normally they’d say, ”Oh, you can’t talk about what the CIA director’s doing, where he’s traveling, what he’s doing.” I also got out a secret document from the White House about an offer they had made in the fiscal cliff debate last year, and NBC puts it up on the website and people I know in the White House are saying, “Where’d you get that? What are you doing? Why are you putting that out? What’s going on here?” But what’s going on here is we’re making trouble and trying to describe what really goes on.
I could give many more examples and I have them here. I think the last point I want to make is, if you don’t do the work, if you don’t get in as a journalist, if you don’t really kind of talk to people, get documentation, go back again and again and again, you get it wrong. I’ve had too many instances of that, and one that is seared into my brain begins in September 1974, a month after Nixon resigned.
Some of you might recall, Ford went on television early on a Sunday morning announcing that he was giving Nixon a full pardon for Watergate. Of course Ford went on television early on a Sunday morning hoping no one would notice. It was noticed, but not by me. I was asleep, and my colleague Carl Bernstein called me and woke me up and said, “Have you heard?” I said that I haven’t heard anything. Carl, then and today, has the ability to say what has occurred in the fewest words with the most drama. He said, “The son-of-a-bitch pardoned the son-of-a-bitch!” I was able happily to decode this. At the time Carl and I and I think most people thought there was something really smelly about the pardon. Why does Nixon get off? Dozens of people go to jail. There’s that question of justice, and then there was the aroma of a deal—that the presidency was being traded for a pardon. Particularly, maybe Al Haig, who was Nixon’s chief of staff, had gone to Ford and said, “Look, if you agree to pardon Nixon, he’ll resign and you get the presidency and Nixon doesn’t go to jail.” Ford denied that, but there was an aroma. If you look in the election when Ford ran against Carter, the best analysis and evidence and data is that Ford lost because of the suspicion about that pardon.
In this process of trying to find out twenty-five years later, I undertook one of my book projects, which was called Shadow—Watergate and the legacy of five presidents, Ford through Clinton. I called Gerry Ford up, who I’d never met, never interviewed, and said, “I’d like to talk to you about the pardon.” I was sure he’d say. “I’m sorry, I have a golf tournament.” But he didn’t. He said, “Okay, come on.” So I interviewed Ford for hours in New York when he would come to board meetings, went to his home in Colorado, went to his main home in Rancho Mirage, California. Time and time again. I had an assistant get the legal memos advising Ford about the pardon, interviewed everyone who was still alive, read all the contemporaneous coverage, read the memoirs, put together a version of what happened as best I could tell, then went and interviewed everyone again, went back to Ford again.
The question for Ford of course was some of the steps in all of this, but also the bigger question: “Why? What happened?” He kept saying to me, “You keep asking me ‘Why?’” And I said, “Well, yes, because you haven’t answered it.” He finally, sitting in his office in Rancho Mirage one afternoon said, “Okay, I’m going to tell you. This is what happened. Al Haig did come to me and offer me a deal. He said, ‘The president’s going to resign, but you have to agree to pardon him.’” Ford said, “I rejected that deal. I did not pardon Nixon as part of a deal. In fact I did not pardon Nixon for Nixon or for myself. I pardoned Nixon for the country.” He laid out in a dramatic way. He said, “Look at that time. The economy was in shambles, the middle of the Cold War. We could not stand further investigation, indictment, trial, and perhaps jailing of the president—take up the next two and a half or three years.” And then he said plaintively, and I believe quite honestly, “I needed my own presidency, and that’s what the country needed at that moment. I had to make that judgment and take that risk.”
After the book came out, Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of the late president John F. Kennedy, called me up and said she and Teddy Kennedy, her uncle, had read about the pardon. They agreed. I said it was a gutsy thing to do, they thought it’s a courageous thing to do. They said. “We’re going to give Gerald Ford the Profiles in Courage Award for pardoning Richard Nixon.” Several months later at the Kennedy Library in Boston, is Teddy Kennedy, who in 1974 called the pardon “almost a criminal act” saying something human beings politicians hate to say: “I was wrong. This was truly in the tradition of my late brother, the late president’s book, Profiles in Courage, about somebody perceiving what the real national interest is and setting aside their own self-interest, their political interest, and doing what they believed to be right.” And there is Gerald Ford, I remember watching this, standing there beaming, somewhat vindicated.
I can’t tell you the cold shower it was for me, trying to put all the dots together here, because back in 1974 I was so sure, so convinced, that this was the ultimate corruption of Watergate and government. Then, as subjected to neutral inquiry, twenty-five years of history, and what looked like this, turns out to be exactly a hundred and eighty degrees from what I thought. That is a deep, lasting lesson.
I often try to discuss with people, “What should we worry about the most?” I can list the economy, health insurance, the wars, terrorism, you name it. My answer to that question, “What should we worry about the most?” is simple. We should worry the most about secret government. That’s what will do us in.
All of the other things out there—monumental problems—can be solved. But that’s what Nixon, that’s what many people have tried. To peddle secrecy as, sometimes it’s necessary, but rarely. We can stand to know what goes on. Whoever the judge is who said it, I think got it right: “Democracies die in darkness.” Working on that issue of “We’re not going to let the government, we’re not going to let this concentration of power operate in secret.” If I go through forty years of it, it’s the institutions, for me, of the Washington Post and Simon & Schuster that make that possible.
For me it’s just a great job. You get to be curious every day. I mean, imagine, you get up, and my first thought in the morning is, “What are the bastards hiding?” They’re always hiding something. And I don’t mean that in an ugly adversarial way, but there is just way too much secrecy. We have to keep working against it. What makes journalism so wonderful and free—not just the Constitution and these institutions which really protect us and our work. I’ve often said, “If someone came from Mars and spent a year in the United States, went back and was asked, ”Who are the people who have the best jobs in America?” the Martian would say, “The journalists.” Why? Because we get to make momentary entry into people’s lives when they’re interesting and relevant and get the hell out when they cease to be interesting and relevant.
Thanks so much.