It has become a cliche: The truth will set you free.
But Bob Woodward really does believe that transparency is central to democracy.
In a speech before an overflowing crowd in the Sanford School of Public Policy Wednesday, Woodward said it was a simple drive to explain what happened that led him through the legendary reporting on the Watergate scandal and the composition of 15 best-selling books.
“What worries me most is secret government.... Democracies die in darkness,” he said. “All the other problems I think we’ll fix.... But look at history. If we don’t know what’s going on, we’re going to die.”
Since the early 1970s, Woodward has made a career out of illuminating some of the most secretive annals of American government.
As a 29-year-old reporter for The Washington Post, Woodward and his colleague, Carl Bernstein, wrote a series of stories that forced President Richard Nixon, Law ’37, to resign over charges of burglary, money laundering and wiretapping, among other offenses in a scandal that would come to be known as “Watergate.” Within a year, Woodward rose from obscurity to become one of America’s best-known journalists.
Watergate remains his legacy, but Woodward has written more than a dozen books about the drama of Washington since. Two years into the Obama administration, Woodward released his first account of the presidency, “Obama’s Wars,” which exposes the inner workings of an administration sharply divided on how to proceed in Afghanistan. The military’s top brass argued that a significant troop increase would turn the tide of the war, but others close to the president—including Vice President Joe Biden—pushed for a more conservative approach.
Woodward paints a portrait of a president eager to end the war. Indeed, he said Obama questioned many of the underlying assumptions behind U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and questioned the need for a surge before eventually deciding to send 30,000 more troops.
Woodward discussed his latest book’s revelations with Peter Feaver, Alexander F. Hehmeyer professor of political science, in a conversation sponsored by the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy, Sanford, the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and Duke University Union.
When the veteran journalist began exploring the administration’s handling of the war in Afghanistan, a senior Obama aide told him he “was not going to find many Deep Throats”—a snide reference to the informant who was one of Woodward’s main sources during the Watergate scandal. Within months, the same aide produced notes for Woodward from confidential meetings with the president.
“It’s neutral inquiry. I’m not for Bush, against Bush, for Obama, against Obama,” he said. “I think there is a little bit of a believer of the First Amendment in everyone, and if you take them as seriously as they take themselves... you can win people’s cooperation in quarters that you can’t imagine.”
Woodward slammed Nixon as a leader who abused the power of the presidency as “an instrument of personal revenge.” Although he has watched Presidents Bill Clinton, Bush and Obama with a diligent eye, Woodward has not found any evidence of moral bankruptcy.
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“The happy discovery about certainly Clinton, Bush and Obama is it is a good faith effort to do the right thing,” he said.
Woodward noted that he was never granted an interview with Nixon, though he amassed enough damaging evidence to end his presidency. The journalist has enjoyed rare, extended access to Nixon’s successors, referencing a three-and-a-half hour interview with Bush and a lengthy conversation with Obama.
The nature of the conversations strikes at the heart of who the men are. Woodward joked that he was hard-pressed to ask one question in an interview with Clinton. But in the extended interview with Bush, the former president’s short, direct style enabled Woodward to ask 500 questions.
“Bush told me, ‘I am a gut player, not a textbook player,’” he said.
Obama, on the other hand, is all textbook, Woodward said. In the way the president leads, Woodward sees a consummate professor always trying to identify issues and answer questions. Obama is, in effect, his own national security adviser, Woodward said.
Yet Woodward said the war in Afghanistan traps Obama in an ideological conflict: he despises war, but he is the commander-in-chief. Woodward said Obama told him his task is to “impose clarity on the chaos of war.”
“He wants out of Afghanistan,” Woodward said. “You listen to his speeches and that doesn’t come through. But digging under the surface it does, and I, quite frankly, think it is important for the public to know that the commander-in-chief wants out.”
Woodward suggested that failures of communication were almost to be expected between men who have not taken the time to get to know each other. Indeed, after Obama selected Gen. Stanley McChrystal to lead the charge in Afghanistan, their interaction consisted of a 10-minute photo-op.
“I said to Obama, ‘You’re picking your Eisenhower,’” Woodward recounted. “Obama said, ‘Well that would mean it’s World War II and I’m FDR, and I’m not.’ And I said, ‘But this is your war.’”
Bush, too, failed to take the time to form strong personal relationships with members of his supporting cast, Woodward said. Robert MacNamara, who served as Secretary of Defense under Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, understood the complexities of these relationships, Woodward said, sharing an insight from one of the last interviews the man gave before he died.
“Presidents want harmony.... One of the points he made is that this drive toward harmony and collegiality among the team keeps things from really surfacing,” Woodward said. “Sometimes issues surface in my interviews that didn’t surface enough in the internal discussions.”
Woodward’s long history in Washington enables him to leap from administration to administration with ease, drawing helpful connections as he goes—as if the architects of the Vietnam War and the surge in Afghanistan could whisper to each other. Barring a Watergate episode, presidents serve for four or eight years, but Woodward has made them sweat for nearly four decades.
While chasing a story recently, Woodward found himself unable to land an interview with a key general. After countless e-mails, Woodward took matters into his own hands and knocked on the man’s door at 8:15 p.m., which he noted is always a convenient time to reach sources.
“He answers the door and he asks me, ‘Are you still doing this s—?’” Woodward said with a laugh, recalling that the general ushered him inside.