Legendary investigative journalist Bob Woodward to speak in San Diego
The celebrated reporter and author of more than 20 books will speak about the lessons learned from his coverage of 10 American presidencies
Before he was a newspaper reporter, before he ever met “Deep Throat” or helped expose the Watergate scandal that brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon, Bob Woodward was an officer in the Navy, stationed for two years in San Diego.
Now a celebrated investigative journalist and prolific author with more than 20 books, a vast collection of journalism awards and 50 years of experience reporting on Capitol Hill and the White House, Woodward plans to return to San Diego later this month to give a talk on his experience covering 10 consecutive American presidencies.
Matt Hall, editorial and opinion director for The San Diego Union-Tribune, will moderate the discussion with Woodward Aug. 14 at the Balboa Theatre, titled “Bob Woodward: An Evening With a Legend.”
Woodward’s most recent book, “Peril,” describes the transition from the administration of former President Donald Trump to the administration of President Joe Biden and the riot at the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021, as Congress was voting to certify Biden as the president-elect.
Woodward said in a recent interview that he thinks the nation is on a political trajectory fraught with danger. And while a better future is never guaranteed on any trajectory, the events of Jan. 6 suggest the path the country is on may be leading to a dark place.
“I think we are living in a kind of political gray zone, if you will, that, obviously, in politics there’s not only a division but friction, harassment, bullying, over-advocacy, overstatement,” Woodward said. “And then that leads or bleeds into false declarations and in some cases, like Jan. 6, has led to violence.”
It’s not a time of “lots of love between the (political) parties,” so the question — the choice — becomes “whether you can have that friction and keep it tamped down, or whether we’re just going to live in the world of false declarations and maybe eventual violence.”
Woodward said he doesn’t think there will be civil war in the U.S., “but who knows? It’s a really perilous time.”
While civil war has occurred only once in U.S. history — well before Woodward began reporting for The Washington Post — he has seen how over-advocacy and overstatement have led to misperceptions, false declarations and violence in the recent past.
“I did four books on (former President George W. Bush) and those wars (in Iraq and Afghanistan) and I think one of the overriding lessons, certainly for me, was that everyone can say and believe that in Iraq there are weapons of mass destruction there, and it turns out there aren’t. And people got it wrong, including myself.”
Woodward recalled a story he wrote for The Washington Post before the invasion of Iraq in 2003 in which he quoted someone in the CIA saying we have no smoking gun intelligence that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction.
“Well, if you don’t have smoking gun intelligence, what do you have?” Woodward said. “That means you’re not sure, and I should have understood what I wrote, actually, and I fault myself mightily for not seeing that — and actually having it in the story — that there was no smoking gun intelligence.
“Well, we’re going to go to war on what, our best guess?” Woodward said. “Which is kind of what happened.”
As for what he sees when he stands back and looks at the big picture of the 10 presidential administrations he has covered, Woodward said, “If there’s any theme, it’s an increase in concentration in the power of the presidency. Nixon through Biden, I think it’s more and more.”
And as that concentration of power has meant more and more decisions get made at the White House, Woodward has focused more of his efforts on getting access to decision-makers there.
‘You have to be patient’
Woodward got his first close look inside the presidency when he was a young reporter for The Washington Post in 1972. He had been reporting for the Post for about nine months when he and his reporting partner at the time, Carl Bernstein, started to uncover a criminal abuse of power by the Nixon administration.
The scandal — which the two reporters began to unravel after a robbery of the campaign headquarters of Nixon’s political rival at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. — landed 40 people in jail and led to Nixon’s resignation.
In the decades since Watergate — coverage of which won the Post the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1973 — Woodward has proved again and again his ability to get people in power to tell him things they know they are not supposed to disclose.
He said that he doesn’t think he has any superpowers when it comes to getting access to the highest seats of power — just genuine curiosity and a willingness to be slow, careful and thorough.
For example, the first time he sent a 25-page list of deeply researched and thought-out questions to the White House in the hope of getting an interview with President George W. Bush, he got a response the same day offering him the interview.
“I’m not going to reveal tradecraft here, but once even someone who is the president sees ‘Oh my gosh, someone has parachuted in and is taking me so seriously, they have so many questions and have done so much research and is taking me as seriously as I take myself ...’” is likely to be interested, Woodward said.
“You have to be patient, you have to be informed, you have to be not in a hurry,” Woodward said of his approach to getting access to powerful sources. “I’m genuinely interested in what anybody says who’s involved in this process of making decisions, particularly on war.”
Journalists are taught that accuracy is paramount. The more people in power are willing to intentionally misrepresent the truth, the harder journalists have to work to verify facts and triangulate information.
Woodward said he is lucky in the sense that he is able to write books, which allow enough time for him (and sometimes co-authors) to do the work it takes to get the story right.
He said the process was especially helpful when reporting on the Trump administration for “Peril,” which Woodward wrote with co-author Robert Costa.
“We kept going back to people, we kept looking for documentation, looking for notes, dealing with witnesses, firsthand participants in the discussions and debates and decisions, and we had time,” Woodward said. “And the method is (to) try to get it right and spend that time necessary.”
‘Bob Woodward: An Evening With a Legend. How We Got Here — Lessons From Ten Presidents’
When: 5 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 14
Where: Balboa Theatre, 868 Fourth Ave., San Diego
Woodward’s conversation with Matt Hall will include a question-and-answer session with the audience.
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