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NewsNov 22, 2019

Famed journalist Bob Woodward shares insights, tales with Lesley audience

Pulitzer Prize-winner speaks about Watergate, Trump impeachment, Deep Throat and more at Lesley’s Boston Speakers Series

two men sitting on a stage in conversation for an interview

Journalist and author Bob Woodward – who with fellow Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein reported on the Watergate scandal that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974 – shared riveting recollections of that experience, along with insights from his nearly five-decade career covering politics.

Woodward addressed a packed house in Symphony Hall during the final lecture of 2019 at Lesley University’s Boston Speakers Series on Wednesday night, speaking in slow and deliberate cadence peppered with occasional humor.

He joked about the cross he bears by having been portrayed by Hollywood heartthrob Robert Redford in “All the President’s Men,” the acclaimed 1976 film about the Watergate scandal.

“You have no idea how many women I’ve disappointed,” he said.

Woodward has authored 19 books and has written books and reported on nine presidents in all.

Man wearing a suit standing behind a podium giving a speech on a stage.
Journalist and author Bob Woodward spoke on Watergate, Trump and much more at Lesley's Boston Speakers Series.

Ken Burns the documentarian reminded me recently, ‘That’s 20 percent of the presidents we’ve had.’ Um yes, I’m that old,” the 76-year-old Woodward quipped.

The Illinois native captivated the audience with his thoughts on topics ranging from the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, to the key lessons from Nixon’s resignation and President Bill Clinton’s impeachment. Woodward also spoke about the importance of understanding opposing views, honoring the courage of those who place country before self, and seeking the truth.

“I think there are some very clear lessons from Watergate and I wonder if we’ve forgotten them. I think the primary lesson is the centrality of truth,” said Woodward. “How can we have a useful political dialogue in the country, citizen understanding – even journalism – when we have a president who has somewhat successfully destroyed the common agreement about what is a fact?”

He recalled that when Nixon eventually resigned on Aug. 9, 1974, he said “Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”

“Think of the wisdom in that blinding insight,” said Woodward. “Nixon almost realized at that moment that the piston of his presidency was hate.”

Woodward drew a parallel to Trump’s presidency.

Man in a suit standing behind a podium giving a speech on a stage.
Woodward drew parallels from Watergate to Trump's presidency.

“The Trump rallies that we’ve seen on television time and time again are a 21st century version of this hate-filled world, where Trump will see a scuffle going on and he will say, ‘Go get him, beat him up, I will pay your legal fees,’” said Woodward.

“The other lesson in Watergate is that a president must hold political and moral authority,” said Woodward. “That political and moral authority gives the president a stand in the world and the country.”

Insights on impeachment

Woodward believes the impeachment inquiry into President Trump offers important reassurance that accountability and oversight are alive and well in our democracy, noting by way of example that Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a member of the National Security Council, testified during the impeachment hearings earlier this week.

“People really want the system – democracy, the government, all of the things we’ve got in this country – to work.”
Bob Woodward

“This is somebody who is still employed in the White House, at least so far, and he was able to defy presidential orders and come forward with what he saw and how he interpreted it,” said Woodward. “Imagine that happening in any other country in the world. The lieutenant colonel would not get a hearing, and most certainly would no longer be in the army.”

Man and a woman posing for a photo and smiling in front of a case of instruments.
Lesley communications faculty and former radio DJ Donna Halper with Bob Woodward.

However, Woodward believes this impeachment process is rushed and the case has weaknesses. He said the consequences of holding up nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine are unclear, and the investigation into the Bidens did not ultimately happen.

“Whether it’s an abuse of presidential power, it’s certainly a misuse of presidential power,” said Woodward.

He juxtaposed it with the Nixon and Clinton inquiries.

“Watergate had a clear ending. There was a resignation from the president, and because of the tapes, you could hear Nixon plotting one criminal activity after another, there was clarity,” said Woodward. “There was no ambiguity in the end.”

After Clinton’s Senate trial and acquittal, in which his supporting votes included 10 Republicans, he was apologetic.

“Two hours after being acquitted, Clinton went into the Rose Garden of the White House … and said, I come here to profoundly say I am sorry for what I did and what I said to trigger these events,” recalled Woodward. “He then went on a reconciliation and renewal journey.”

two men sitting on a stage in conversation for an interview
WGBH Arts Editor and Boston Speakers Series moderator Jared Bowen in conversation with Bob Woodward.

Whatever the outcome of President Trump’s impeachment inquiry, Woodward doesn’t envision resignation or atonement from Trump. But he has greater concerns.

“Overall, in trying to understand the Trump presidency, what I fear and worry about the most is that, in the impeachment inquiry, they’re looking at the wrong problem,” said Woodward. “My work shows that President Trump in his actions in national security has done and said things that really have endangered our nation’s security. Probably the most important responsibility of a president is to keep the country safe.”

Seeking truth, perspective

Woodward shared tales of his clandestine encounters with Deep Throat, the informant later revealed to be FBI Associate Director Mark Felt, and underscored the importance of dogged journalism fueled by sustained face-to-face encounters rather than information gathering from behind a screen. He called it “showing up, getting up,” and recalled the encouragement of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham when he was a young reporter working to break the Watergate scandal.

A man standing behind a podium giving a speech between two chairs on a dark stage.
“People really want the system – democracy, the government, all of the things we’ve got in this country – to work,” said Woodward.

Even at 76, Woodward still knocks on doors. He recalled how he finally landed an interview with an official in the Trump administration after repeated emails, phone calls and other attempts at communication, ultimately reaching the official at home at 11 o’clock at night, and then driving to his house a few minutes later.

“People really want the system – democracy, the government, all of the things we’ve got in this country – to work,” said Woodward, whose most recent book, “Fear: Trump in the White House,” was published in 2018. “In my business, I think we’ve sold ourselves short by not being more aggressive – but also being more patient.”

Reflecting on his reporter roots, Woodward said he’s still very close with Bernstein. He recalled the morning that President Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon, when Bernstein called him and said in his classic brief and dramatic manner, “the son-of-a-bitch pardoned the son-of-a-bitch.”

Years later, when Woodward interviewed Ford for his book “Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate,” Ford explained that he pardoned Nixon so that the country could move on and get Watergate out of the headlines, knowing he would self-sabotage his career for the national interest.

“What Ford did was really quite gutsy,” said Woodward. “What a cold shower. How humbling, how humiliating to have been so wrong, and to have been so sure in 1974 that (the pardon) was corrupt. … Twenty-five years later, through the lens of history and some distance and some opening up of experience, it’s not corruption – it’s courage.”

This quality, he said, is a characteristic of an honest and honorable president.

“The job of the president is to figure out the next stage of good for a majority of people in the country, a real majority – not a base, not one party, not a bunch of interest groups,” said Woodward. “… Then the president should have a strategy and a plan for implementing that.”

See more photos from the event here.