Transcript: Bob Woodward Accepts the 2019 Damon Runyon Award

What follows is a transcript of remarks by Bob Woodward, who accepted the Denver Press Club’s Damon Runyon Award on March 1, 2019, during a banquet at the Denver Athletic Club. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

Bob Woodward at the Damon Runyon Awards
Bob Woodward speaks before accepting his award at the 25th annual Damon Runyon Award Banquet. He was honored for his reporting on Watergate, novels and years of investigative journalism.

I’m going to offer some thoughts and some anecdotes … the first is we have to realize that journalism is under siege, and I think the first step is we’ve got to face that. That the Trump “fake news,” “enemy-of-the-people” strategy is the old Nixon strategy, interestingly enough, which is, “Let’s make the conduct of the news media the issue, not the conduct of the president.”

And Nixon, after we wrote many of our Watergate stories in 1972, won an astounding reelection: 520 electoral votes, 49 states. No one believed it. It took years of reporting and investigations to uncover the nature of what Watergate really was about and who Richard Nixon was. Now, in the case of Trump, we face the high-technology, internet-age strategy — it’s really the same strategy of, “Let’s shift the spotlight.”

The response (by the news media) needs to be as cool as possible. I think we should not get defensive. I think we should continue our work, and the key is to fall back on the tried and tested reporting techniques that go literally back centuries, and, in doing that, we have to examine our own process.

A couple of years ago, I was talking to a reporter from another newspaper, not The Washington Post, and I said, “When you go out for an interview…” And he said, “No, I never go out for interviews, I do it all by email and sometimes the staggering intimacy of the telephone, and I actually talk with someone.” And it reminded me of over the decades you keep learning about your own weakness and your own laziness, and it was on the fourth book I did on George W. Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq there was a general, a four-star general, who would not talk to me.

So I sent emails, left phone messages, used intermediaries to try to make contact with him to do an interview.

Radio silence.

So I found out where he lived in the Washington area and decided I would employ the technique I learned from Carl Bernstein: go to peoples’ houses. When would you go knock on the door of a four-star general when you didn’t have an appointment? Let me ask someone at my table. When would you go?” [Directed at audience member]

Audience member: “When I didn’t have an appointment?”

Woodward: Yeah

Audience member: … “Oh, what time of day?”

Woodward: “Yes”

Audience member: “Oh, early…”

Woodward: Early, OK, good. It’s good you’re an editor because a reporter knows you go to the general’s house early in the morning and he’s out doing PT, so he’ll look like a colonel.

So, it turns out that the best time to go see the general is 8:17 p.m. on Tuesday, and the reason is you don’t want to go on Monday: it’s the beginning of the week. You don’t want to go at the end of the week. Tuesdays are perfect. 8:15, or so, if he’s home, he will have eaten, maybe he had a few pops, and so I show up and knock on his door. And he opens the door and he looks at me and says, “Are you still doing this shit?” [Audience Laughter]

He meant it. And so I have learned from doing work on the CIA, from CIA people, that you need to learn to let the silence suck out the truth. Being quiet is really very important, so I was poker face and said nothing, and he looked at me, a disappointed look on his face, and I think not in me, but in himself and said, “OK, come on in.” And I stayed for two hours and he answered most, not all, but most of the questions. And the interesting question to pose is why (did he talk to me)? And the answer is, “Somebody showed up.” We (journalists) are not showing up enough.

So after Trump was elected, I decided I would deploy the same technique, and there was a crucial kind of one of these fork-in-the-road moments. I had the home number of somebody key in the White House, and I called him at 11 o’clock at night, and he answered, and I identified myself, and I said I wanted to talk to him, and he said, “Are you crazy? It’s 11 o’clock at night.”

And I said, “Yes I know, and I’m four minutes from your house.” And he said, “Four minutes from my house, how do you know?” I said, “I have good research.” So, he said, “Okay, come on by.” So I went to his house. His wife was out of town, and it was not quite dawn, but almost dawn when I left. We established a rapport, he agreed to assist me, reflective of lots of people in the Trump White House. You find the more people dealt with Trump — and from senior positions — the more anxiety they had about him.

I kept asking (my sources), “Do you have any documents?’ They would say, “No.”

“Any notes?”

“No.”

“Do you have a diary?”

“No.”

And then we kept meeting, and I said, “Well, we want to pin down one date.” And, “Do you have anything?” And he said, “Well, let me go upstairs, and see if I do.” He went upstairs and came down with boxes of material which would authenticate all kinds of information that I was able to get.

The other thought about what we need to do in this environment where we’re under siege. We need to drop out of the food fight as much as possible — that too many people in our business, and with good reason, are so disturbed about Trump that they have become emotionally unhinged about him.

And then on Fox news, people so adoring and supportive of Trump they, to the same degree with a different outcome, have become emotionally unhinged supporting him essentially saying he can do almost no wrong. This dilutes our product. I remember after Nixon resigned, Katharine Graham, the owner and publisher of the The Washington Post, wrote Carl Bernstein and myself a private letter. It was private until she published it in her memoir. And in the letter she said, “Oh, Nixon resigned, you did some of the stories, now don’t start thinking too highly of yourselves.” And she said, “I have advice for you and that is beware of the demon pomposity.” The demon pomposity stalks the halls of almost all institutions in America including those halls of the media. I also think that it is essential that we learn how to be fair and that the fairness not just be a slogan or a word.

How many people here this evening have been elected president of the United States? None. Trump has. And to get on that road of being fair, we have to try to understand him. And part of that understanding comes from (understanding that) he got to the presidency literally by himself.

Everyone said, “This is ridiculous, this wont work, you won’t win.” And so he has really experienced a self-validation that none of us in our lives have. “I got here. I know I am the best.” We hear this regularly. He reminds us of this. It comes, in part, from that idea that he got there. In writing about nine of the last presidents that we’ve had, from Nixon to Trump, one of the common themes is the invocation of the notion of destiny. That somehow this was foreordained, and, as George Kennan, the father of the containment philosophy that really worked after the Cold War, used to say: When you get around presidents, there is what he called the treacherous curtain of deference that people naturally say, “Oh, it’s the president.”

I’ve talked to many people, cabinet officers, many presidents, where they said, “Yeah I’m gonna go in, and I’m gonna tell the truth. I’m gonna lay it on the line” and then they get into the Oval Office, and they failed or they melt. And presidents — all presidents, I think — become isolated, where they really don’t get the kind of straight talk that they deserve. And I think it’s greater in the Trump presidency. I think he’s the most isolated president at least that I’ve tried to understand.

I think another thing we need to do in the journalism business is push hard on our editors and owners and publishers that we have to as journalists and say, “What’s the goal?” The goal is to facilitate comprehensiveness and comprehension of what’s going on in the world. How many people here have ever seen the famous Robin Williams movie Dead Poets Society? It’s a great movie. Robin Williams plays a renegade instructor at a boys prep school. And at one point — this is 25 years ago — all the young boys are sitting around in class in coats and ties — if you can believe that — and Robin Williams gets up on his desk and stands there and says the following, “I stand on my desk to remind myself we need to find new ways, I need to find new ways to think about things.”

I think that applies to the media and to politics, but in our lane, as journalists, the job is: How are we going to think about this new era in a different, original way? We also need to maintain the aggressive edge at all costs. We should never pull back on what we’re trying to find out.

In just this week, Micheal Cohen, who was Trump’s lawyer and fixer for ten years, has gone through conversion and testified. You may have seen it or read about it this week — quite extraordinary — calling Trump a racist, a conman and a liar and so forth, and then Cohen said, interestingly enough — I don’t think anyone picked up on this — what I think is the most important criticism of Trump.

Cohen said, “The sad fact is that I never heard Mr. Trump say anything, in private, that led me to believe he loved our nation or wanted to make it better.”

Now think about that. Over the decades, I’ve tried to answer the question, “What’s the job of the president?” My definition is the job of the president is to figure out what is the next stage of good for a majority of people in the country. A real majority, not a base, not one party, not interest groups. We could bring a board up here, and we could figure out what that next stage of good is. And it can be winning the war, fixing the economy, but that’s the job of the president: figure that out and then develop a strategy and work toward that strategy.

In two years of work on Trump, I found not a single instance where that ever came up: what is best for the people? Exactly what Michael Cohen said. This absence, this dog that doesn’t bark, in the Trump presidency. It’s also at the core of what’s going on.

For years, in our politics, both sides, all sides, have been fomenting a kind of insanity and crippling hyperbole in our political and public discourse. Now, under Trump, with what he has done, that is the norm. We have a wild, over-advocacy for positions. Everything in politics seems to go right to the red line like we are red-lining the car before we get it out of the driveway and everything that’s out there becomes ammunition for political warfare.

Graham Greene, the great novelist, once said a very important point: “Do not despise your enemies or those who disagree with you. They have a case, and it is true.” And I believe if the political leaders can throttle back, it’s the job of the journalist, not necessarily to adopt the case that is presented on either side or all sides, but to present as much of it as possible and sincerely try to understand.

In doing the book, “Fear” about Trump, there were a couple of approaches I could have taken. One is to look at the Mueller investigation, which I think is really important, very serious. I quite frankly couldn’t find out anything new in the Mueller investigation: it is that secret. I knew Mueller when he was FBI director and interviewed him after 9/11, and I went back to look at the transcript a couple of weeks ago and, to my embarrassment, I did not ask him a key question, “What’s your theory of investigating? How do you go about this?”

And, to Mueller’s credit, he volunteered it. … He said, “I want to find out, and (I) want my agents in the FBI, but also myself to understand the substance and the texture of what’s going on, and I want them to drill down into the organization or the issue being investigated to the point that they are emptying the pockets of the people who have day-to-day responsibility for that issue.”

I think that accounts for, in part, the sprawling nature of the Mueller investigation. I recently asked somebody who works very closely with Mueller.

I asked an obvious reporter’s question: “What’s Mueller really like? Because he’s not been public at all in this investigation.”

And he said, “Oh, Bob Mueller is the sort of person if he finds out that you ripped a mattress tag off, he’ll prosecute you.”

I remember in fourth grade seeing that mattress tag and discovering, “My god, prosecuted to the full extent of the law!” It was one rip away from a life of crime, and so they called him, privately, Bobby Mueller the mattress-tag prosecutor.

What did I find in the book? I think a number of key findings. One is that people like Gary Cohn, who was President Trump’s chief economic advisor, removed documents from Trump’s desk because he knew if Trump signed some of these documents he would trigger a catastrophe in relations abroad. I’ve also found that Secretary of Defense Mattis, in one very closed NSC meeting, Trump was complaining about all the money we were spending on military alliances. He believes that we were spending this money for the defense of other countries, particularly countries in Europe. And Trump said, “We are wasting so much money. We could be so rich if we were smart and stopped this.” He was so agitated.

Now this is one year into the Trump presidency, and Trump was going on and on, and Secretary of Defense Mattis finally says, “Mr. President, we’re doing these things to prevent World War III.”

Think about it. The one job for a president of the United States is to prevent World War III.

John Dowd, who was Trump’s private lawyer for eight months, did some practice sessions with Trump in which Dowd would pretend that he was Mueller asking Trump questions. And in these sessions Trump would make up things, lie, and finally Dowd said, “You cannot testify because you will wind up in an orange jumpsuit. … And I will not sit next to you and have you testify and lie.” And Dowd finally resigned rather than sit next to Trump, who has not yet testified. But Dowd — a very experienced criminal defense lawyer, supporter of Trump — didn’t want to insult Trump, but he concluded that Trump’s problem was: “You’re a fucking liar.” That’s not Nancy Pelosi saying that, that’s the president’s lawyer. I could go on.

I have some other examples of what to show because there are things that Trump does where he asks lots of questions and is quite skeptical about the Afghanistan War. He asks some very good questions about North Korea. The really interesting, I think, central question about Trump is: Do we know where this is going? Where the presidency of Donald Trump is going?

And we don’t. I don’t think anyone does, and what we, in our business, need to stabilize the process. We’re going to make mistakes, it’s inevitable. I’ve made way too many mistakes. It goes with the territory, but when it happens we need to face it, and we need to find a way to, I guess, to say let’s all take a Valium gargle. Tune it down a little bit in terms of the rhetoric and the emotional agitation but not in the work. That the work has to go on and it has to be done very aggressively.

Last point … I want to tell a story about a mistake I made in evaluating what was going on, and this goes way back to September 1974. Gerald Ford was president for a month, and, some of you may recall this, Ford went on television early on a Sunday morning announcing he was giving former President Nixon a full pardon for Watergate.

It was a shock, and I think Ford went on early that Sunday morning hoping no one would notice. And he was wrong, but not in my case: I was asleep, and Bernstein woke me up and said, “Have you heard?” And I said, you know, “You woke me up.” And Carl, who then and still has the ability to say what occurred in the fewest words with the most drama said, “The son of a bitch pardoned the son of a bitch.”

I really felt good because I was able to decode that. And I remember thinking it’s perfect, it’s the final corruption of Watergate. Nixon gets a pardon, Ford gets the presidency. There was an aroma of a giant deal, never proven, always denied, but, you know, it was too cute. And there was never an investigation about what really happened, but I was sure it was corrupt. At the time in 1974, I would’ve staked my life on my conclusion that it was corrupt.

So, 25 years later I undertook one of my long, investigative books, a book called Shadow about the legacy of Watergate in the presidencies of Ford through Clinton, and I called Ford up. And I had never interviewed him, never met him. In the news conference room of The Washington Post, the classified ad department had put up a big poster (remember, that’s when newspapers had classified ads). It was a picture of Gerald Ford, with a thought bubble saying, “I got my job through The Washington Post.”

Shameless, mistaken, and somebody finally had the wisdom to take it down.

So, I called Ford and said I wanted to talk about the pardon, figuring he wouldn’t. Of course, this is now 25 years later, and Gerald Ford turned out to be one of the most open, direct people I’ve ever met in politics. I had the luxury of two full-time assistants, got all of the legal memos, all the memoirs, all the contemporary coverage.

What happened in the pardon? What really went down here?

I interviewed Ford seven times; at home in Colorado, interviewed him there, his main home, Rancho Mirage, Calif., kept going back, and I remember the last interview with Ford sitting in his little bungalow. There, he had a golf green right outside his office and a tape recorder going through history, and I just said, asked once again, “Why’d you pardon Nixon?”

He smiled and said, “You keep asking that question.”

I said, “I don’t believe you’ve given the full answer.”

And he said, to my astonishment, “You’re right. I never have.”

He had never even told Betty, his wife, what happened. And then there was this unspooling of memory and consequence.

He said, “Let me tell you what happened.” He said that a week before Nixon resigned, Al Haig, who was Nixon’s chief of staff, came to see Ford, who was vice president at this point and offered a deal and said, “If you agree to pardon Nixon, he’ll resign, you get the presidency.”

And I’m sitting there thinking, “Holy shit there was a deal!”

And I think I blurted it out, and then Ford exploded and said, “There was no deal. I knew I was getting the presidency. I knew Nixon was finished. Ever have somebody offer you a deal and what your side of it is something you are guaranteed to get?”

And he said, “No, there was no deal.”

“Well why’d you pardon Nixon?” I asked.

He said, “This is the world I lived in. I became president. I was there for 30 days as president. I never wanted to be president; I wanted to be speaker of the House, but every piece of business was about Nixon — about whether he was going to be investigated, is he going to be prosecuted? What about this tape, what about that? what about this policy? It was all about Nixon.”

And Ford said, in this plaintiff voice, I’ll never forget it: “I needed my own presidency.”

And he said, “Look, the economy was very bad.” In very bad shape at that point. The Cold War was still going on. Ford had a letter, from Leon Jaworski of the Watergate prosecutor saying, “Nixon, now as a private citizen, is going to be investigated because of the magnitude of criminality on the tapes. Thousands of hours of tapes that Nixon will clearly be indicted, tried, probably go to jail. And so Ford said, “My God, we’re gonna have two or three more years of Nixon and Watergate. The country could not stand it. I had the power to pardon and preempt the process. So, I pardoned Nixon in the national interest.”

And he said, ‘I had to. I could only see that from my vantage as president and to feel what is my responsibility, not to Nixon, or myself, or my political future, but about the country.”

And, so, in Shadow, I wrote, that instead of this being corrupt, it was rather gutsy, and I got a call from Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of the late president John F. Kennedy, saying she and her uncle Teddy Kennedy had read this and agree with him, and we’re gonna give Gerald Ford the Profiles in Courage award given each year to somebody who essentially, in John F. Kennedy’s book, Profiles in Courage, are politicians who self-sabotage their career in the national interest.

And she said, “This is what Gerald Ford did, and we’re not giving him this award for his lifetime achievement, we’re giving it to him for the single act of having the courage to pardon Richard Nixon.” They had a ceremony at the Kennedy Library. I did not go, but I watched it.

And there’s Gerald Ford, somewhat vindicated, and Teddy Kennedy getting up and saying, “At the time of the pardon in 1974 I thought it was almost criminal act, but I was wrong.”

And I’m watching this and — to be honest — what a cold shower. What a humbling, humiliating experience to be so sure, 25 years earlier, that this was corrupt, and then you look at it through the neutral lens of history and what I would have staked my life on about corruption turns out to be the precise opposite: courage.

You cannot have that experience in my business and not realize that we try to gather facts, but we don’t know what they mean. And when Trump was elected president, I realized that we’re in a pivot point in history, this was very different.

And I dropped out from work at The Washington Post, doing television that had not been previously arranged, and went into the night which quite frankly I’d been derelict in doing. I built relationships of trust with key people in the Trump White House and the Trump administration because I realized: We can’t wait 25 years to figure out at least what happened, but still left with a giant question. We don’t know, I certainly do not know, what it means.

Thank you, very much.

Transcription by Abigail Seaberg.

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Awards

Damon Runyon Award 2020 Banquet will be virtual

The Denver Press Club’s board of directors has voted to move the format of the 26th annual Damon Runyon Award Banquet to a virtual experience, broadcast 6-8 p.m., on Saturday, Sept. 12, live from the Denver Press Club.