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Bob Woodward On the Press, the Presidency and Confronting a Historical 'Pivot Point'

University of New Hampshire on Facebook
Bob Woodward speaks with UNH President Mark Huddleston during a recent visit to campus.

As a reporter, Bob Woodward has written the first draft of history on some of this country’s most important events. In 1973, his coverage of the Watergate Scandal with Carl Bernstein for The Washington Post was instrumental in uncovering corruption that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.  Woodward was also The Washington Post’s lead reporter for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  

These days, Woodward is still an associate editor with the paper. Few reporters are as knowledgeable about presidents and the presidency as Woodward, who spoke Tuesday at University of New Hampshire about "the age of the American presidency from Nixon to now."

Ahead of his conversation at UNH, Woodward joined All Things Considered host Peter Biello to talk about his thoughts on the role of the press and the presidency at this moment in history. The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

So tell us, broadly speaking, how has covering the President of the United States changed over the decades?

My first books in reporting were about Nixon in the early seventies, and I’ve done books on all the presidents through Obama.  I’ve done some reporting on Trump.  

I think the concentration of power in the presidency has grown immensely over time, that presidents not just have the constitutional and legal power... But I think in this communications, internet era [presidents] have all kinds of control, and they can do things, and it’s perfectly demonstrated by what President-Elect Trump is doing with his tweets. He actually controls the news cycle just by sending out 140 characters. 

I think the centrality of the presidency is the story of the whole period from Nixon. And we need to, in my business, be as aggressive and fair-minded as we can, try to find out who these people are and really dig into what they’re doing not just in public, but behind the scenes.

You said the power of the presidency has grown over the decades. Have tools for journalists expanded when it comes to getting access to information that a president may have?

No. In fact, it’s been the opposite. The internet age of impatience and speed: “Give it to me now. Give me the sound bite. Don’t really explain it fully." And the message managers in the government have more and more influence and control. You call the White House and say, “I’d like to talk to somebody about a subject.” And often they’ll say to you directly or indirectly, “Well, why is that a story?”  They will discourage you, and they want to control the message.  

All politicians, all human beings, want to control the message — but in a constitutional democracy, the government works for the people. And we have to be really stubborn about insisting on some explanation and accountability. 

With respect to what you mentioned about President-Elect Donald Trump and his tweets, are journalists today focusing on the right thing? Is focusing on the tweeting a good idea, or is it a distraction that we’re sort of as reporters falling into?

Well, it’s not a distraction. He’s president-elect. And he said he will do less when he’s president — we will see.

But one of the interesting things — and there are only 420 million interesting things about Donald Trump — one of them is he says things, he contradicts himself. I was just reading an interview, one of the interviews he did with The Post for the book that we wrote about him called Trump Revealed. And one of the things Trump says is, it’s been his experience that people who are inflexible never succeed. Never succeed. 

So, he’s flexible.  He’s, in a sense, got multiple, often contradictory positions on things. So, the question becomes: What is he really going to do as president?  And I don’t think we have that much of an idea.  We have some clues. But as I say, one time it will be, “I’m totally against climate change. I think it’s a hoax.” And then he’ll say, “Gee, well, maybe I better think about it.”

Which relates to this concept that we’ve been hearing more and more bout which is "post-truth." There’s no objective truth anymore, and Donald Trump as a candidate — and perhaps as a president — embraces that idea. Does that idea make it harder to function as a journalist?

Well, if you believe it. I don’t believe it. I think there is truth, and I think there are facts.

You can’t look at Trump and say it’s post-factual. What you have to say is, look at what occurred — and Trump said and did some things that were way outside the normal boundaries of normal political discourse, to say the least. Some of them offensive and outrageous. They just did not matter to 62 million people, apparently, who voted for him.

So that doesn’t mean there aren’t facts, that means a substantial number of people have decided what those facts are does not matter, and that they’re going to judge it on other things. And tonight here at the university, I’m going to talk about interviewing Trump and where Trump came from, the rise of Donald Trump. And it’s complex. And certainly my analysis is not definitive or complete... People are going to be writing about the rise of Donald Trump for decades. 

Is it a new phenomenon that so many people will willingly believe a falsehood that could easily be checked, or was that something that always existed?  That people, for example when you were covering the Nixon administration, that when President Nixon said, “This office had nothing to do with that break in at the Watergate Hotel,” there were people who also willfully believed him.

Well, certainly. And it seemed inconceivable that he would be behind it.

It’s not so much that people believe it, though as some of these things go out – the fake news — the reality is, it doesn’t matter to lots of people. And as journalists, we need to look at that: Why is that the case? How’s it going to make a difference? 

I think we’re at one of these — it’s called an inflection point, but it’s more a pivot point in history that will define so much of the national circumstance and what’s going to happen to the world. It’s going to have a tremendous impact.

Last question, Mr. Woodward. What would be your advice to journalists covering the new president?

The way to cover a president, or a mayor, or the city council is the same: Listen, be very aggressive, be patient.

Go talk to not 10 people but talk to 100 people if you can. Try to triangulate and figure out what happened. It was John Mitchell, who was Nixon’s campaign manager and later attorney general, who said, “Watch what we do, not what we say." And I think you have to watch what people say — but ultimately, the question is and what defines them is what they do. And so need to be very, very hard-nosed about it, but fair-minded.

A lot of people in the press, a lot of people in the country are rattled by Trump’s election. And that’s fine for people to have that emotion. For journalists, it can only be a barrier to doing our job.

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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