Today’s politicians still have not learned the lesson of Watergate, the scandal that brought down the Nixon White House. That was the message that Bob Woodward brought to about 900 people in Irvine Auditorium as part of the University Honor Council’s Third Annual Integrity Week earlier this month.
Woodward, who as a young man broke the story of the Watergate scandal with fellow Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, said neither Sen. Bob Toricelli nor former President Bill Clinton understood the lesson: “When you make a mistake, don’t try to excuse it.”
Woodward, is still at the Post, working as assistant managing editor, and he’s still keeping his eye on the presidency, both as a journalist and an author. He has eight books to his name, including “All the President’s Men,” written with Bernstein about their reporting of the Watergate break-in, and “The Brethren,” a behind the scenes look at the U.S. Supreme Court, plus the forthcoming “Bush at War.”
Watergate and the Nixon White House served as Woodward’s touchstone for evaluating the presidency and the men who filled the role in his talk, “The State of Integrity 30 Years After Watergate.”
On what the role of the president ought to be, Woodward said that former President Richard Nixon had it wrong. The Nixon tapes were “chilling,” Woodward said, because Nixon showed no interest in exploring or doing what’s right. “He reduced the presidency…to an instrument of personal revenge and score settling.” And Nixon himself realized, as he left office, that he had made a mistake.
Woodward turned to Provost Bob Barchi, near the front of the auditorium, for a definition of what the job of the president ought to be. “To be the intellectual and moral representative of the people,” Barchi said gamely, without a lot of time to think.
Woodward then gave his own definition of the job. “It’s to look out for the welfare of the country…to define the next stage of good for the majority of the people,” whether it’s fixing the economy or improving health care or saving the environment.
Clinton, said Woodward, never figured out what the next major step was that he needed to take. “Clinton was almost always dealing in small things after the first year.”
President George W. Bush, on the other hand, had a crisis of 9/11 that defined for him what he needed to do—win the war on terrorism.
Before 9/11 Bush was enamored with superficialities—the successful speech, political glad-handing, calling up the name that goes with the face, Woodward said. But 9/11 brought a change in Bush’s demeanor. He was “engaged, worried, concerned.” Two days after 9/11, when Bush’s staff urged him to go into hiding because the CIA had intercepted a new al-Qaeda threat to the White House, the president refused. He insisted on doing his duty as president as he saw it, and rode out the threat in the Oval Office.
Part of what concerned Woodward was how Nixon’s preoccupation with hate meant he wasn’t thinking about the welfare of the public. When Nixon left office, he came to realize that his hatred was self-destructive, Woodward said. Measuring the country’s response to the 9/11 attack against that, Woodward said, “The notion I have not heard is hate. …We have not made hating the people who did this our national purpose.”
The questions that followed Woodward’s talk raised issues of integrity and sought the identity of Deep Throat, the Watergate informant.
As usual, Woodward refused to name Deep Throat, and said only what he’d said before—that he was a man and he was still alive. It was a issue of his integrity as a journalist not to reveal the name of a source, Woodward said, and added that his reticence allowed him to continue to gain the trust of other sources.
Asked whether the events of 9/11 changed the relationship of the press to the government, Woodward hesitated, and then said: “Our job is to get information out. There are ways to do it.” Woodward said the rough questioning Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld gets at press conferences shows the press’s independence from the government.
When asked if he had ever lied, Woodward said he’d gotten things wrong, “but I’ve never done it intentionally.” And while he admitted that if a lie might save someone’s life, he might do it, the concept clearly made him uncomfortable. “The truth is difficult. I’ve not seen the noble lie. I’ve seen the ignoble lie far too often.”
Woodward’s talk was sponsored by the Provost’s Spotlight Series and SPEC Connaissance as well as the Honor Council. Other Academic Integrity Week events included a screening of “All the President’s Men,” the movie starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Woodward and Bernstein, respectively.
Originally published on October 17, 2002