When colleague Carl Bernstein called Bob Woodward in the wee hours of September 8, 1974, to tell him the president had just pardoned Richard Nixon, the Washington Post reporter was convinced a handshake had occurred.
“I would have staked my life on it, this act of the pardon was corrupt,” Woodward told an audience of 1,100 people Friday at the Spokane Convention Center, during his second public appearance in the city in two days as part of Whitworth University’s Presidential Leadership Forum.
But an interview a quarter century later with President Gerald Ford convinced Woodward otherwise. What he thought had been corrupt, he said, was actually an act of courage to propel the nation past the Watergate scandal.
“He said, ‘I needed my own presidency,’ ” Woodward recalled.
The 76-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author used the anecdote as an example of the dangers of emotion and certainty creeping into the journalistic process. Woodward said that lesson was particularly poignant, as President Donald Trump – whom is the subject of Woodward’s latest book – faces his own impeachment inquiry at the hands of House Democrats.
Woodward said the scope of Watergate had been lost in the ensuing years, and cautioned against lawmakers limiting the scope of their queries to phone calls with foreign dignitaries. The money trail – made famous by Hal Holbrook’s delivery of the three-word command “Follow the money” in the 1976 film “All the President’s Men” – was what led to the most damning charges against Nixon, Woodward said.
“They’re looking through a keyhole, and it’s a panorama,” Woodward said of current House investigators.
Thursday’s talk with Whitworth students focused on the process of reporting, including how to verify information and how to get people to spill their guts. Woodward’s speech Friday reflected on the two years of investigative reporting that uncovered Nixon’s plans to undermine the democratic process, and what today’s electorate and media should learn from Watergate.
“The central lesson of Watergate is the importance of truth in our national dialogue,” Woodward said in a speech that lasted roughly half an hour, followed by a question-and-answer period with Whitworth University President Beck Taylor.
That trust has eroded due to attacks on the veracity of the press, casting what Woodward called “a shadow” over the profession. But Woodward, who has covered the administrations of nine presidents and interviewed Trump, said he didn’t believe the president really believed journalists were spies and that it was part of his posturing in office.
Trump’s posturing has included publicly stating what Woodward told a gathering Friday before his speech were impeachable offenses, including suggesting that China and Ukraine should investigate the family of Joe Biden, who’s running for the Democratic nomination.
Taylor asked Woodward if he thought that act was criminal.
“No, it’s probably not criminal, because no one ever thought to make a law about it,” said Woodward, to laughter from the audience.
But Woodward also said the impeachment proceedings are emboldening some GOP lawmakers. He said publicly a Republican senator, whom he earlier identified as South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, told the reporter recently “he couldn’t count the money fast enough” that had come in as donations after the House announced its inquiry.
Graham, once a staunch critic of Trump and his presidential nomination, has become a close Trump ally, criticizing Democrats at confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh from his position as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Graham, who was one of 13 House Republicans who served as managers of the impeachment inquiry into President Bill Clinton, faces a 2020 challenger in Democrat Jaime Harrison, who has reportedly raised $4 million since February.
“I know Republican senators, and they are choking on this,” said Woodward of the allegations made against, and admissions made by, Trump regarding the solicitation of foreign interference in the 2020 presidential election. “Whether they say that’s too much, I don’t know.”
Woodward lauded the reporting of his own paper, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal by name in their coverage of the Trump presidency. But, he said, the profession needed to continue to follow a nonpartisan, patient but aggressive stance toward reporting in order to not only regain trust with the public, but also to uncover the unvarnished truth, as it took him 25 years to do with Ford’s pardon.
“It requires a really large effort, and I hope we’re up to it,” said Woodward.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.