Thursday, February 1, 2001
In fact, there are people in the biz who have shrines to the man. For the last 30 years, Bob Woodward has been taking names and kicking ass. It is Woodward, a reporter and editor from the Washington Post, who along with partner Carl Bernstein, penned a couple hundred news stories in the 1970s that won him a Pulitzer Prize, led to the resignation of President Nixon, added the term "investigative reporter" to the vernacular, and landed Robert Redford a job playing the rumpled newshound himself in All the President''s Men. And it''s Woodward, along with Bernstein, who irrevocably altered the way Americans view their government.
For some of us, the Woodward connection runs deeper. For me personally it goes like this: We used to work together.
In 1973, with the help of an unnamed source called Deep Throat, Woodward was tying G. Gordon Liddy to The Plumbers to The Committee for the Re-Election of the President while I was a 9-year-old paper boy throwing the Post on doorsteps in suburban DC. Not only did I clip his stories for fourth grade social studies, I got to read Woodward''s work before the rest of our nation''s capital was even awake. We go way back.
Woodward was at the Monterey Conference Center this past Monday as a guest of the Community Hospital Foundation and Auxiliary delivering the keynote address to a capacity crowd at the annual board meeting. (He didn''t recognize me.) Although he spoke not a word about health care, he did manage to recite by name five of his best-selling book titles.
Rendering a solid Leno-meets-Donahue monologue, Woodward was equal parts chat and sass as he took the audience on a guided tour of his recent work. He touched on Clinton''s profound telegenesis and his less-obvious risk-aversion, the role of the press in political life, and what the future likely will hold for President Bush. As for Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, he is in fact a Maestro--the title of Woodward''s latest book--because he gets his way by commanding with gentle and non- confrontational motions. And he knows when to make a calculated about-face on something like tax cuts.
But it was Woodward''s jokes that kept the mood lively and the crowd engaged.
In retelling a story about interviewing Clinton in the Oval Office, Woodward described the incredible intensity of Clinton''s eye contact and noted that it was obviously a learned and practiced trait.
"He dedicated every organ in his body to the pursuit of the Presidency," Woodward deadpanned. When someone from the audience answered his query of what is likely to be Bush''s biggest obstacle to success by saying it might well be his mastery of the English language, Woodward displayed a showman''s timing by shooting right back, "You mean you don''t think it''s charming?"
As a reporter Woodward is legendary, and the Weekly listened well when, in an interview following his remarks, he spent time exploring the role of the press and the changes in newspaper culture. Parts of the conversation follow.
You have an amazing history of access to sources. How do you get people to talk to you?
I''m sure you''ve seen it in your work--people like to help reporters get answers. Sometimes even the guilty want to tell reporters their stories. I don''t have a secret to get people to talk to me. What I have is a method of reporting and the benefit of time. I can have weeks and months to report stories now. From Watergate forward, we developed a method to go get information. You talk to 45 people, maybe you look at the record, and you ask yourself who else might know something. Then you go talk to them.
Because of Watergate, do you get access that other reporters don''t enjoy?
Don''t forget that Watergate was 200 stories. For me, then, the answer was in the rhythm of the day--get in before the editors and make some calls and do some research. Editors like to think that reporting is an intellectual game. Smart editors can be dangerous that way, because they are not out there. It''s important to stay ahead of them. It''s the digging that gets the story.
We''ve seen an increase in unnamed and un-attributed sources over the years. Does that damage the press'' credibility?
The problem is that there are not enough unnamed sources. The cop on the beat and the city councilman will tell you things off the record they won''t disclose on the record. Look, the deputy director of the CIA cannot tell you things on the record without going to jail. If you want that information, do the work and find someone else to corroborate. Some people think that because something is on the record makes it true. Clinton told everyone that he did not "have sexual relations with that woman." It was a lie.
Why is the press held in such disdain these days, sometimes worse than politicians?
The job is not to be popular. It is to tell people what we know. We need to do better stories and more reporting. People like investigative journalism. This is the age of transparency. It is obviously better that we citizens know all about politician''s associations and their histories. I wish I could do even more. I wrote stories about the Iran-Contra affair, about campaign finance violations in the Clinton campaign, about Gore making phone calls from the White House. Who knows what more we might have found out if we had followed those stories further, or other ones? That was tough reporting. Its weakness was only that it didn''t get to the bottom of it all.