Missouri Boys State – 2013 (June 16, 2013)
On Tuesday evening Bob Woodward, author and associate editor of the Washington Post, was the keynote speaker at Missouri Boys State in Hendricks Hall on the campus of the University of Central Missouri. He spoke for approximately twenty minutes, then took questions from the audience for close to an hour.
Bob Woodward, associate editor of the Washington Post, speaking in Warrensburg
at Missouri Boys State on the campus of the University of Central Missouri on Tuesday evening.
Remarks, part 1:
Bob Woodward: [applause] Thank you. How nice to be here. And what, uh, we’re gonna do, I’m gonna compress what I would like to talk about and then try to answer your questions, uh, for forty-five minutes. So I’m really, uh, gonna compress.
Uh, it was, uh, uh, eight years ago. I was at a conference like this, uh, and, uh, it was in Colorado. And at one of the dinners I was assigned to sit next to former Vice President Al Gore. Now whether you agree with Gore or disagree with Gore, I’m telling you, sitting next to him at dinner is taxing. [laughter] In fact, it’s unpleasant. [laughter] And if you know anything about Gore’s, uh, biography before he went into politics he was a journalist and practiced journalism. And it turns out he thinks he invented that also. [laughter] [applause] And so it was really a rough dinner for me. [laughter] And, uh, he started, this is two thousand and five, I’d written two of my Bush, four Bush books on Bush’s wars. And, uh, so, Gore said, well, why don’t you come out against the Iraq war and against Bush, and, uh, like you did with Nixon when you and Carl Bernstein wrote about Nixon? Uh, you condemned him and the crimes of Watergate. And I said, No, actually, uh, that’s not the case. The job of a reporter is to be empirical and get the facts and not take a position. And, uh, he said, words to the effect of horse manure. [laughter] It was a little stronger than that. And, uh, he said, uh, look, uh, I read those stories that you and Carl Bernstein did and I said, I wrote those stories. [laughter] And it did not move the needle of self doubt on, on Gore’s part at all. And, uh, his reading was more, uh, important than our writing of what those stories said. [laughter] And, uh, then we got to the question, the central question of journalism, really, uh, for not just journalists, uh, but for citizens. And that is, how do we really know what goes on in government?
Now there is such, uh, a concentration of power in the presidency it is mind boggling. And, so I just asked Gore, I said, suppose, uh, you know, let’s think about the Clinton Administration when you were there, uh, had an important office in the West Wing, involved in everything, what percentage of what went on that’s of interest or consequence do we now know? And, uh, Gore said, one percent. And, uh, I almost died, having tried to understand Clinton and figure out what went on. And I have to, uh, confess, when he said one percent to having an unclean thought. [laughter][voice: “Yeah!”][applause] Some people know what I’m talking about. [voice: “Yeah!”] And so when he said one percent I, we just only knew one percent I thought, is it possible that there are that many women that we don’t know about? [laughter][applause] Think about it, that could be a big number. [laughter] And, uh, then I said, suppose you wrote a tell all autobiography, what percentage of what’s of interest or consequence would we then know about the Clinton Administration. And he said, two percent. [laughter] And, uh, he’s being ornery and he’s being, uh, Al Gore, [laughter] but.
That’s the question, do, and it’s certainly one or two percent is absurd, we know a lot more. I think it’s about sixty or seventy percent. But, it is not enough. Ever. And, uh, the problem is the part we don’t know about we don’t know what it is. And, so, as, uh, reporter what you try to do is develop a method. And it was, it, it is a method you would use, now use as students if you were writing a paper or studying for an exam. You want to be exhaustive, you want to immerse yourself in what’s going on. Because I have the luxury of time for these projects for the [Washington] Post or for the books, uh, it, it is a, uh, tremendous opportunity to interview people, reinterview people, get documents, get what I would call the gold vein of research, particularly about presidents’ contemporaneous notes of meetings or phone calls, decisions they’ve made, so you can actually, uh, get the order and the language right. And, uh, then, uh, in the case of the Bush books or two Obama books I’ve done I then send the president a, uh, long memo. And in the case of Bush I remember for, uh, the early books I did, uh, after nine eleven I sent him, in one case, a twenty-one page memo. And I remember, uh, colleagues of mine at the Post, said, you sent George W. Bush a twenty-one page memo? I said, yes. They said, you’ve finally, have lost your way. [laughter] Uh, there’s no evidence, uh, in all of Bush’s years at Andover, Yale, or Harvard business school that he ever read anything that long. [laughter][applause] And, uh, I said, uh, I’m an optimist, and I sent the memo. [laughter] And the next day, uh, the National Security Advisor, uh, contacted me and, and said, and called me in to the White House and said, you’re gonna write these books or each particular book whether you talk to the president or not? And I said, of course. And, uh, they said, he’ll see you tomorrow. And I was able to interview Bush for hours and hours, uh, able to interview Obama, uh, the same way because you’re coming in from the outside and saying, I’ve spent a year trying to understand why you made the decisions you made. And it, you send, uh, a message even the president, I take you as seriously as you take yourself. And presidents who live in a world of sound bites, press conferences, uh, jump at the opportunity when somebody comes in a says, I’m really making a serious inquiry.
Uh, I want to go through some of the discussions with presidents, some of the things I think, uh, I’ve learned or that can be learned from how they tried to work their will or fail to work their will. Uh, but each time you do one of these things, uh, there’s surprises. And, uh, I want to take, uh, one clear example, uh, which was a real cold shower for me, uh, a, uh, humbling experience. This goes back to a month after Nixon resigned as president in August of nineteen seventy-four. Gerald Ford, uh, who had been vice president, uh, became president and a month after, uh, the, Ford became president he went on television early on a Sunday morning announcing he was giving a full pardon to Richard Nixon for Watergate. And I think he went on, uh, television early on a Sunday morning hoping no one would notice. [laughter] But it was widely noticed, uh, but not by me, I was asleep. And my colleague Carl Bernstein called me up and said, have you heard? And I said, I haven’t heard anything. And, uh, Carl, who truly has the ability to, uh, say what occurred with the most drama and the fewest words, and I’m gonna quote him here, it’s not my language, it’s his. I said, well, what happened? And he said, uh, the son of a bitch pardoned the son of a bitch. [laughter][applause] Sorry, I understand, uh, that’s not Boys State language [laughter], but you live in the real world, right? [applause] So, at the time I thought the, the pardon is, uh, the ultimate act of corruption. And there was an aroma, there was really an aroma that there was a deal between Ford and Nixon on this that, uh, Ford would, uh, get the presidency if he guaranteed, uh, a pardon for Nixon. Was some evidence of it, it was unclear, there was lots of suspicion, there was the question of, which hopefully all of your lives you will deal with, and that’s the question of justice. What’s fairness in the system? And the president is the only one who got the pardon. He got off, forty people went to jail because of the crimes of Watergate. Hundreds of people had their lives wrecked. If you look at the history going back, uh, Ford lost two years later to Jimmy Carter, uh, in the presidential contest, largely because of the suspicion of that pardon. And, uh, there, really very, uh, strong feeling and polling and articles and columns and editorials that, that, that Ford should not have done this.
And, so twenty-five years later I undertook one of my projects, a book that, uh, became, uh, called Shadow, about the legacy of Watergate in the presidencies of, uh, Ford through Clinton. And I called Ford up, uh, wanting to interview him about this, being pretty certain he would not talk, uh, and say, you know, I have a golf tournament or something like that. And, uh, but I called him and he said, oh sure, I’ll be happy to talk to you. He was in New York at that, uh, first call. So I went up to New York, he was at a board meeting, and interviewed him about the pardon and the sequence, his motivation. Uh, I again with the luxury of time, I had, I had two assistants who read all of the newspaper magazine coverage of the pardon. Got, went to the Ford library, got the legal memos. I interviewed everyone who was involved, uh, who was still alive. Interviewed them again. Uh, went to the Ford’s house in Colorado, interviewed him there a couple of times. Interviewed him three or four times at his main house in Rancho Mirage, California. Doing drafts, asking that question, what really happened here behind the scenes? What was the driver? What was the motive? And in the last interview with Ford I remember asking him, why did you pardon Richard Nixon? And, uh, he said, well, you keep asking that. And I said, well, I don’t think you’ve answered it. And he said, okay, I will answer it. And these, I tell you, these are the moments you live for in my business. When somebody’s kind of worn down and they say, I’m gonna tell you what really happened. And Ford said, you’ve got to back to that time in nineteen seventy-four. The economy was shaky it was the middle of the cold war, uh, it was not, uh, it was a very dangerous time, the Watergate special prosecutor sent Ford a letter saying that Nixon now is a private citizen, was going to be investigated, certainly indicted, tried, uh, almost certainly convicted ’cause there was such overwhelming evidence, testimony from his aides and his, uh, secret tape recordings. Uh, and so Ford said to me, he said, so we were gonna have three or, two or three more years of Watergate. And he said, the country could not stand it. We had to move on and he said in this very plaintive, uh, I believe, truthful way, I needed my own presidency. We needed to move on. And so then he said, he pardoned Nixon, not for Nixon, not for himself, but for the national interest. He said, I had to, I was sitting in that seat with that constitutional power, we needed to move on, we needed to get beyond the Nixon presidency.
So, I wrote in, uh, Shadow, that in fact, uh, what this being a corrupt act, uh, was a very gutsy thing that Ford did. And, uh, after the book came out Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of the late, uh, John F. Kennedy, president, her father, uh, called me up and said she and her uncle, Teddy Kennedy, the senator from Massachusetts, had read this and agreed. And, uh, that, uh, they were gonna give the Profiles in Courage award to Gerald Ford for pardoning Richard Nixon, an annual award given at the Kennedy Library for somebody who didn’t play the political game in their own interest, but found a way to assess what the larger national interest is and act on that. So, several months later at the Kennedy Library, uh, and I remember watching this, there was Teddy Kennedy saying, giving this award to Gerald Ford, uh, because he broke frame, because he found a way to figure out what the country needed, not what the interest group needed, not what he needed, not what his party needed, but what the country needed and that is in the tradition of, uh, Teddy Kennedy said, of his brother’s book, Profiles in Courage. And there was Gerald Ford standing there, uh, receiving that award, beaming, somewhat vindicated in history. And I watched this and, uh, what a deep humbling experience, because I was so sure in nineteen seventy-four that this was the ultimate corrupt act. And then you look at it through the neutral lens of research and history and time and what looked to be this turns out to be exactly the opposite. Uh, and I think that happens time and time again in our politics and our history. And pro, somebody tries to deal with it at the moment, it’s very sobering to see that what looks to be certainly this way may not be, uh, that way at all.
Uh, I could go through other pres, presidents and maybe they will come up, questions, but, uh, the lesson there is, and we, we see it more and more in our media today, driven by this impatience and speed and tweeting and blogs and the polarized, uh, cable television, uh, talk shows. That everything is rushed, everything is judgmental, and, uh, maybe those judgments and facts as presented are just not right at all. And it’s, it’s, it’s hard to get the moment right when it’s happening, but you have to try. But sometimes you just don’t get it right.
Uh, real quickly, after, uh, I’d written one of my books for, all of them have been published by Simon and Schuster, the head of Simon and Schuster took me to dinner in New York. And I thought, wow, this is great, the boss is taking me to dinner. And, uh, we sat down and he said, okay, what’s your next book gonna be? And I said, well, I’m gonna do some reading and thinking and reporting. And he said, what, why are you gonna waste your time? I said, well, that’s what we try to do. He said, no, no, we, you’re one of our authors, we need to know what the next book is. We are in the marketing business and the product delivery business. And he, he’s one of these people, uh, you may know people like this, you may have parents like this, who just grind on you. And he, for two and a half hours he’s grinding on, what about doing this, what about doing that? And I didn’t, uh, agree at any point to do any of the subject, but he’s grinding away, so finally, near the end of the dinner I said I figured out what my next book is going to be. He said, oh, good, at last, uh, what’s it gonna be? And I said, my next book will be an expose of the publishing business in New York City. [laughter][applause] And he said, that’s great. And I said, what, you think that’s great? And he, and he said, yes, in fact, I have a great title for that book. I said, I don’t think there are any great titles left. He said, there’s one. I said, what? And he said, uh, your book, your expose on the publishing, uh, business in New York City will be called My Last Book. [laughter][applause] And he really meant it. [laughter] And it may be the only sincere thing he said. [laughter] Uh, if you look at the list of books I’ve written, uh, I’m not here yet, but I’ll get there, uh, some day. And of course the point there is no one likes to be looked at and, thoroughly. No one wants somebody to do, uh, in depth investigation of them and what they did and what their business is. But that’s what, uh, in my view, uh, we need more of. Particularly in this hurry up news environment.
I’m gonna stop there so we can do, uh, questions. I think, uh, Gordon Liddy has provided microphones. [laughter] See, you, you’re too young, you don’t know who Gordon Liddy was or is. He is one of the people, uh, very strongly involved in, in Watergate.
So, we’re gonna…