Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post journalist and author Bob Woodward spoke at UConn Law School on April 26, sharing stories about his more than four decades as a reporter and writer.
Woodward was the law school’s 2011 Day Pitney Visiting Scholar; his visit was sponsored by the school, the Connecticut Law Review, and the Day Pitney Foundation.
Woodward first gained notoriety along with Carl Bernstein as the Post reporters who exposed and diligently reported what became known as the Watergate scandal, which eventually brought down President Richard Nixon.
During his talk, Woodward recalled a phone conversation he had with the colorful Martha Mitchell, who in 1974 was the wife of former U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell, who had resigned from the Nixon administration in the midst of the scandal.
The Mitchells were living in New York City at the time and Mrs. Mitchell, known for her outrageous behavior and press interviews, called Woodward at the Post one day and declared of her husband: “Well, the bastard finally left,” remembered Woodward to laughter.
Mrs. Mitchell then invited him and Bernstein to New York to go through the former Attorney General’s papers, which he had left in his home office.
Woodward, speaking to a crowd of about 200 – many of whom were law faculty and students – asked the audience: “So what do you do?”
“Call your lawyer,” shouted one audience member, which, Woodward noted, he immediately did. With the green light from his attorney, Woodward and Bernstein did indeed fly to New York to collect Mr. Mitchell’s papers, finding Mrs. Mitchell at the door holding a double martini at midday.
Woodward recalled that there was more than one fascinating story contained in the papers, including a letter from a pharmaceutical company promising a $100,000 donation to Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign – which Mitchell headed – in exchange for help with a problem they were having with a federal agency.
“People don’t write things like that down anymore,” he commented wryly.
Mitchell’s lawyer called later that day and said if the documents weren’t in his office by 3 p.m., he would file a motion to find Woodward and Bernstein in contempt of court. The documents were returned, but not before the reporters made photocopies – a solution they decided would make both parties happy.
“It was a reasonable, fair-minded resolution,” said Woodward, noting that the lawyer did not say they couldn’t be Xeroxed before being returned.
The hour-long talk touched on many of Woodward’s books, including his most recent, Obama’s Wars, about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a series of books he wrote about the Bush administration and the war in Iraq.
The case of Bradley Manning
During the question-and-answer period, an audience member asked Woodward what he thought of the case of Bradley Manning, a U.S. soldier who is currently imprisoned for allegedly collecting sensitive and secret government information and sharing it with the Wikileaks organization.
Woodward said he thought that the information released through Wikileaks was interesting, but not necessarily earth-shattering.
“It’s important, but it’s not going to go down in the history books,” said Woodward, calling it “background music” while critical decisions are made at the White House.
To him, what was incredible was that such a low-ranking officer would have access to volumes of sensitive information. He described that as “madness.”
“That, in a sense, is the story – the madness,” said Woodward, adding that although he can understand why the government would want to prosecute Manning, he objected to his treatment as a prisoner, which, reportedly, includes being confined in a cell without clothes.
While Woodward praised the media as being essential to ensuring honest and open government, he was also critical at times. He noted that today’s press is “driven by impatience and speed,” when what is required is reporters who are “patient and slow.”
“You have to peel the onion to get at what happened,” he said.
He was critical of those reporters who give a platform to public personalities like Donald Trump, who is flirting with a presidential bid while falsely claiming that President Obama is not a U.S. citizen – a suggestion that has no basis in fact: the president was born in Hawaii in 1961.
“Donald Trump is the new Joe McCarthy,” said Woodard, adding that Trump, like the late discredited Senator from Wisconsin, spreads misinformation “through innuendo.”
Woodward complained that reporters cover Trump’s accusations without asking for evidence.
“You need to insist that assertions be evidence-based,” he said. “[Trump] should not be in the news on this issue. It’s what Carl Bernstein calls a manufactured controversy.”
The passage of time
Woodward, who is now 68, ended with a story on the passage of time and how it can reshape thinking.
After President Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon in 1974, Woodward recalled being awakened by a phone call from Bernstein and having to decipher the other reporter’s almost coded message as he delivered the news: “He said, ‘the son of a bitch pardoned the son of a bitch’,” recalled Woodward, adding that he instantly knew what had happened.
At the time, he said, he suspected that an unseemly deal had been made between Nixon and Ford. But years later, when Woodward was writing a book on the legacy of Watergate (Shadow, Simon & Schuster 1999), he spent hours interviewing Ford, who told him that he didn’t pardon Nixon for Nixon or for himself, but for the good of the country. Ford said he wanted to finally put Watergate to rest and spare the nation years of additional trauma if Nixon was put on trial and even perhaps sentenced to prison.
Ford was awarded the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for doing what he felt was right, even though it would prove deeply unpopular.
Woodward said he now agrees with Ford’s action. After the decision has been subject to the rigors of history, he said, “it turns out to be the exact opposite” of what he originally thought.
Woodward said that while listening to the hundreds of hours of the Nixon tapes, in which the president and his staff find ways to attack their enemies or protect the president, he observed that they were most remarkable for what cannot be heard on them.
“That’s the dog that never barks,” he said. “What was good for the country?”