A Conversation With Bob Woodward, Sat., Feb. 2, 8 p.m., $39.50+, DPAC
Very few journalists, living or dead, can credibly lay claim to having helped take down a president. Only one can do so and also say Robert Redford played him in a movie.
Bob Woodward is, of course, a legend in the journalism world. His Watergate reporting with Carl Bernstein is required reading in J-school, a masterpiece of sourcing and shoe leather that exposed the corruption at the highest levels of the Nixon administration. He’s covered every president since, both in books and for The Washington Post, where he still works as associate editor. His most recent book, Fear: Trump in the White House, based on thousands of pages of documents and hundreds of hours of interviews, offers an intimate and unsettling portrait of the chaos inside Donald Trump’s administration.
On February 2, Woodward will be at the Durham Performing Arts Center to talk about that book. Last week, staff writers Leigh Tauss and Sarah Willets asked him about Trump, Nixon, and the state of modern journalism.
SARAH WILLETS: Fear came out in September, and, as you know, the news cycle out of this White House is nonstop. Since then, we’ve had more high-profile departures, we’ve had all this talk about the migrant caravan and the so-called crisis at the border, and, most recently, the government shutdown. Is there anything that’s happened since your book came out that you wish you could have included?
BOB WOODWARD: People have said that so much of what’s happened since September is like another chapter in the book. If you look at the book and my reporting on then-Secretary of Defense [James] Mattis, actually what’s in the book is an outline of Mattis’s resignation letter, in which he argued that we need allies, we need partnerships, and we can’t do this alone. What I quote him in the book saying at these top-secret meetings is, “Look, we need to have these trade agreements. We need to have the military alliances and the top-secret intelligence partnerships.” He said that has done something important to this country to stabilize our position in the world. I’ll say very directly to you: We have a governing crisis. Trump does not know how to govern, and he’s got some ideas that are not based on facts.
LEIGH TAUSS: In your book, there’s a sense that Trump is an unstable and erratic figure. Staff members are on edge, tip-toeing around him, taking papers off his desk to stop him from signing them. I mean, are you concerned about the president’s mental state?
WOODWARD: Well, you know, I’m not a psychiatrist. What I’m concerned about is the governing, and the governing does not make sense and is too often against the interests of the country. I would argue Trump does things that are against his own interest.
WILLETS: What do you think has been the biggest missed story of the Trump presidency? What hasn’t been covered enough?
WOODWARD: We don’t know. So much has been covered. We’re going to find out, I guess—I hope, at some point—about the Mueller investigation. What do they have? They’ve got to have high-quality evidence to really lead to some sort of disruption of the presidency, or resignation, or impeachment and removal. And I don’t know anyone who knows the answer to whether Mueller has that information. In the case of Nixon, we had thousands of hours of tapes, which made the difference. Does Michael Cohen—who was Trump’s personal lawyer for ten years who now has turned on Trump and pleaded guilty and is going to go to jail—does he have tape recordings or evidence that will explain actions or show criminality? I don’t know the answer to that question. I don’t know anyone who does.
TAUSS: One of the things that strikes me about your reporting on the Nixon administration is the intelligence and sophistication within that operation. A lot of times, the Trump administration is depicted as kind of inept. What do you think are the similarities between what we’re seeing in Trump and Nixon’s administrations, and what do you think are the differences?
WOODWARD: Yeah. Well, that’s a great question, and my short answer is that it’s easier to describe the creation of the universe. There are some similarities, and there are some differences. On the Russian collusion question, Watergate was a series of illegal, passive actions by Nixon and his people to make sure that Nixon was reelected. He was reelected in seventy-two by a massive landslide. Is the Russian influence and the Russian role substantial enough and provable enough to show that this is why Trump got elected in 2016? I don’t know the answer to that question. That’s an important one, and we’ll see what the evidence is. But, of course, this calls on us to do what we hate the most, and that is to be patient.
WILLETS: Your reporting relies often on background sources. I wonder, in this climate of hostility toward the media, where a big point of criticism is the use of anonymous sources, how do you justify using anonymous sources to a country that’s concerned about “fake news”?
WOODWARD: The country should be concerned about it. Happily, I have the luxury of time, and I can get notes and documents. If you’ve read the book, you see that we’ll take you to specific moments or a specific place in the White House. And so, to the reader, it’s not anonymous. It’s very specific about what went on. It doesn’t say where I got the information but, happily, it’s so specific. And it’s been so substantiated since the book came out that I know it’s the best obtainable version of the truth. For instance, in the book, Trump’s lawyer, John Dowd, worked with Trump intimately for eight months—big Trump supporter and believer. He did a practice session of Trump testifying to Muller. They went through, and Dowd concluded that Trump can’t tell the truth and makes things up. Dowd concludes at the end—though he won’t say it to Trump’s face, because he doesn’t want to insult him—but he says you’re an effing liar and concludes that. Now that’s not Nancy Pelosi or some Democrat. That’s the president’s own lawyer.
WILLETS: Having observed politics for as long as you have, I wonder what lessons you think the media should take from the 2016 campaign coverage and apply to 2020.
WOODWARD: Dig in harder. Be more skeptical, but also be fair minded and try to bleach out the emotional reaction to candidates. I think there’s such an emotional reaction to Trump that it’s been very difficult for journalists to step back. It’s important. I’ve had lots of people read my book and say, “Well, you’re fair to Trump. You let him in.” It’s a very critical book because of what he did in his decisions, but the tone is not an attack. And I think sometimes there is a lot of that, particularly on cable television. Or praising him sometimes, like on Fox News, almost mindlessly.
TAUSS: How would you describe your personal relationship with the president? I know that you didn’t get to interview him for this book.
WOODWARD: The title, Fear, comes from an interview Bob Costa, a reporter at the Post, and I did of Trump in which we discussed power—of course, that’s what the presidency is about, power—and the notion of what real power is. And that’s where he says real power is—I don’t like to use the word, but—real power is fear. It was almost a Shakespearean moment, Hamlet turning to the audience, saying, “This is what’s going on. This is what it means.” And when Trump said that, I was struck by the revelation about it—to scare people, and that’s how you get and maintain real power.
WILLETS: It’s almost Machiavellian. How does that inform the way that you view his actions as a president?
WOODWARD: It actually turns out to be one of the things he does. He uses his power and scares people in lots of ways. Sometimes it may work, sometimes it may not, but that’s his mode of operation. He also said in that interview—it was in early 2016—that he brings out rage in people. And he was almost proud of that.
TAUSS: One of the other things in the book that surprised me was Trump’s emotional reaction to the realities of being the president. When he met with the parents of a soldier who had been killed overseas, when he saw the photos of children killed with sarin gas, it was a side of the president that I don’t think many of us really see. He was deeply affected by those things. How did that change the picture of him that you had in your mind?
WOODWARD: It doesn’t change the picture because you have to be empirical. Those things happened, and I reported them, and I thought it was part of the story. I thought it was central to the story.
TAUSS: Before you worked at the Post, you got your start at a weekly. What do you think the role of weekly papers is in the current media landscape?
WOODWARD: I love weekly newspapers. After I got out of college, I served five years in the Navy, and I was thinking of going to law school. I realized, “Gee, I’m going to be thirty when I get out of law school,” and, of course, at that age, you think thirty is the end of life, right? I tried to get a job at the Post. They gave me a two-week tryout, which I failed. But, I realized I loved journalism and got a job at the Montgomery County Sentinel weekly outside of Washington. I worked there for a year, and it was great. We had four reporters and, as you know, when you have a small staff, you learn to cover everything or to try to cover everything. And it was a great training ground.
TAUSS: Self-serving question: You’ve written eighteen books. Do you ever get writer’s block?
WOODWARD: [Laughs] Actually, this is the nineteenth. As you know, writing is hard, and you just have to get up and start. I always think, “Get something down, see how it looks. See if you can make it better if you corroborate it.” But writing is like anything. We are driven by habit, and I have the habit of doing a book and working on it and focusing on it.
WILLETS: Your appearance in Durham is on February 2. What should people expect?
WOODWARD: An outline and specifics about what’s going on in the White House, about the psychology of Trump having been elected president with never holding public office or running for office before, and then what the questions are and what’s on people’s minds. I think that’s critical.
TAUSS: So what’s next after Fear?
WOODWARD: You know, maybe another Trump book? I’m not sure. What do you think?
Listen to this entire conversation on INDYcast, which you can download on Apple Podcasts or find at soundcloud.com/indycast. Comment on this story below or by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.