Hours after President Donald Trump publicly urged China and Ukraine to investigate a political rival, legendary journalist Bob Woodward wanted to talk to Whitworth students about coffee.
One of the reporters credited with unveiling the Watergate scandal told a packed room of about 200 students and faculty his career almost ended with a mistake made in his early days at the Washington Post.
Woodward was reporting that a prestigious hotel’s cafe had failed a health inspection, but an editor told him to get his “fat rear off the chair” and actually go to the coffee shop.
When he got to the hotel, he recalled, he asked, “Where’s the coffee shop?” And the answer was, “We don’t have one.”
The 76-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner quickly pivoted from that nearly libelous report to the current occupant of the White House and to his belief that Trump’s actions have not risen to the level of those that drove President Richard Nixon from office.
But, Woodward said, Trump is inching closer.
“It gets more serious each day,” Woodward said, referencing Trump urging other countries to investigate the activities of Joe Biden’s son on Thursday morning.
“Impeachment, which of course is the charge from the House of Representatives, is almost certainly going to happen to Trump,” Woodward predicted. “But then there’s a trial in the Senate.”
Woodward shared stories about writing “Fear: Trump in the White House,” his latest book on the presidency. The book takes its name from a quote Trump gave Woodward and reporter Robert Costa when he was just a candidate for the presidency in March 2016.
“Real power – I don’t even want to use the word – fear,” Trump said in a quote that’s on the book’s dust jacket.
“It’s great to have a title that comes from your subject directly,” Woodward said.
With the release of “Fear” last September, Woodward published a book about his ninth White House – and broke a sales record in the process. And he hinted to the audience he wasn’t done yet.
“I’m working on a second book now, and I’m going through interviews with Trump, looking for one word that can be the title for the second book,” Woodward said. “I think I’ve found it, but I’m not going to say.”
Students questioned Woodward not only about the presidency, but also about his role as a journalist in a changing media landscape.
One student asked Woodward how he would feel if the president characterized him as “a spy,” considering the combative way Trump has dealt with the press and with the whistleblower who raised concerns about a phone call he had with the Ukranian president this summer.
Woodward paused, looking at Whitworth University President Beck Taylor and the audience.
“Uh, thank you,” Woodward said and turned to Taylor, as the audience laughed. “You said this was going to be a tough afternoon.”
After the event, Woodward said he was hoping the talk would be educational for students, by giving them a look into his experience writing “Fear” and the pieces for the Washington Post that eventually became the definitive account of the Watergate scandal.
“I tried to tell some war stories, and talk about things that are lessons,” Woodward told The Spokesman-Review.
Woodward also addressed concerns about his appearance Wednesday as the moderator of a discussion with New York Times investigative reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, who authored a book about allegations of sexual assault and harassment made against film producer Harvey Weinstein. Attendees booed and heckled Woodward for interrupting the women when they were speaking, and his approach prompted an outcry on Twitter over what some saw as his disrespectful interviewing style.
“They said the questions were fabulous, the Me Too people,” Woodward said. “Katherine Graham, the editor of the Post, said sometimes we’re going to ask things, and we’re going to write about things, that some people don’t like. That’s part of the process.”
Luke Burns, a senior communications major from Camas, Washington, asked Woodward to reflect on how his involvement in the political process changed his outlook on his life’s purpose. Woodward served in the U.S. Navy and wrote for a weekly before joining the Washington Post in 1971.
Woodward again paused.
“Do you major in psychiatry?” Woodward asked, to laughter.
The journalist responded that he’d been put in a unique position through his life’s work, and told a story about pestering administration officials at home at all hours and convincing them to talk about uncomfortable subjects.
Burns said he appreciated the inside look at the reporting process, but was hoping for a more introspective response from Woodward.
“I was trying to get more of a personal answer,” Burns said.
Other attendees said they appreciated Woodward’s talk, which was promoted by Taylor and faculty members in multiple departments. Teachers lined the back of the room in the Hixson Union Building, the chairs mostly occupied by students.
“I think he was honestly revealing what he knows to be true about Trump and current events,” said Laura Waltar, a junior in peace studies and a campus spiritual life coordinator from Leavenworth, Washington.
Woodward offered at times criticism of the Trump White House, describing the president as “so infatuated with his own instincts” that he isolates himself from advisers and saying he is singularly focused on feeding what Woodward called a “boiling ego.”
But Woodward also praised the president for “being very skeptical of war.”
Ashlie Loring, a senior in international studies from Albania, said that, despite the criticism of Trump, she didn’t believe the talk was too political.
“It’s hard not to be political. Bipartisanship is dead, right?” said Loring, who serves as communications specialist for the Dornsife Center for Community Engagement at Whitworth. “I don’t think he was (political). I think he was talking from personal experience.”
That emphasis on using first-hand knowledge to tell political stories was key to the message Woodward left with the audience.
In a time when the press is under attack from positions of power, Woodward said the industry had to “walk the painful road of introspection.” That started by getting out and talking to people, and verifying information. Just as he did with the coffee shop, years ago.
“We’re not showing up,” Woodward said of his fellow journalists. “We’re hampering ourselves by not showing up.”
Woodward will speak in Spokane again Friday, as part of Whitworth University’s President’s Leadership Forum. The public event will be held at the Spokane Convention Center and is open to the public. It is sold out.