From Watergate to Obama: Woodward waxes political at Holocaust Museum dinner
Journalist Bob Woodward speaks at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center's Humanitarian Awards Dinner last week in Skokie. | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times
Updated: April 15, 2013 6:18AM
If ever someone was qualified to talk about “the power of one” — a central theme of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center’s Humanitarian Awards Dinner Wednesday, it’s legendary Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward.
Long before Woodward wrote 17 books, won Pulitzer Prizes, found himself embroiled in a bit of recent controversy with Democrats and the Obama administration, he was a somewhat green reporter, only in his 20s, and helping to bring down the Nixon administration by determinedly pursuing the truth.
Watergate made him and colleague Carl Bernstein the most famous reporters on the planet in the ’70s, and they helped change the face of journalism. But when Woodward, now a veteran associate editor with the Post, delivered the dinner’s keynote speech Wednesday, he recognized that the state of journalism, and Washington politics for that matter, is entirely different from the era that launched his career.
He teasingly told Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who attended the dinner with many other dignitaries, that he is missed in Washington.
“You’ve left a legacy,” he said. “It’s not all your fault, but there is a hyper-partisanship. It’s so off the charts. I’ve never seen anything like it. The White House and the Republicans all play it. There is so little focus on what’s real, what’s true.”
Even so, he said, none of the presidents he covered since Richard Nixon are of the same cloth.
Nixon, he said, used the presidency as “an instrument of personal revenge. The piston driving the Nixon presidency was hate.”
Addressing nearly 2,000 people at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago, Woodward did not directly confront the most recent story that he became part of himself.
The matter concerned an op-ed piece he was writing about the sequester and an email he received from Obama economic adviser Gene Sperling. Woodward considered the email threatening, which was denied by Sperling and others and ultimately released, although reports say that the spat has now been patched up.
Those wanting a direct reference to the controversy had to settle for a few zingers from Emanuel before Woodward even spoke.
“I, in fact, was going to send an email to Bob, but I thought I better not do that,” Emanuel said. “Bob, if you thought Gene Sperling’s email was a political threat, to quote a line from ‘The Untouchables,’ you’re not from Chicago. I was a little hurt that you actually thought Gene Sperling was more threatening than I am.”
The mayor further zinged that Woodward has “spent a little too much time in garages and inhaling a little too much car exhaust,” a reference to his relationship with Deep Throat during the Post’s Watergate coverage.
While the esteemed journalist didn’t directly take on the brouhaha, he reflected on Obama and the political times in which he governs.
“One of the things that journalists and the political system (are) not able to deal with is what I call the paradox of Barack Obama,” he said.
He called Obama “a politician that plays that game to the hilt,” but at the same time, a pragmatist.
“What’s fascinating about Obama,” Woodward said, “is that he’s also an idealist.”
In his second inauguration address, Obama recited one line that received no attention but had Woodward “almost jumping out of his chair.”
“If we are true to our creed, when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else.”
“Now we know that the little girl born into the bleakest poverty in our lifetime and the next lifetime is not going to really get the same chance,” Woodward reflected. “But here’s the president of the United States laying out in so many senses the idealistic marker and saying that’s where we’re going. That’s where we need to be as Americans.”
The Illinois Holocaust Museum’s “Power of One” theme is all about one person being able to make a difference and courageously standing up for what is right when it isn’t always easy to do so.
Woodward gave two examples from his own career.
In 1973, after the Post had published pieces about the Watergate scandal and they initially were not believed, Woodward and Bernstein had lunch with Publisher Katharine Graham.
She was well versed on all the details of Watergate, Woodward said. “She blew my mind with her questions.”
She fully backed the reporters and wanted to know when the full story on Watergate would come out. There was so much incentive in Washington not to talk that the then 29-year-old Woodward answered he didn’t think we’ll ever know.
Graham shot back: “Don’t ever tell me never.”
The truth did come out, and later President Ford pardoned Nixon, prompting a call from Bernstein to Woodward.
“The son-of-a-bitch pardoned the son-of-a-bitch,” Bernstein told him in disbelief.
Ford paid a price for the pardon. It may have cost him the election, Sen. Ted Kennedy called it “a criminal act” and there was great suspicion from the public and from the two golden reporters at the Washington Post.
Only years later, Woodward said, did he learn the truth about the pardon from Ford while researching a book. Ford had been offered a deal – Nixon would resign if Ford would guarantee his pardon – and Ford turned it down.
He later pardoned Nixon anyway, but not to help Nixon and certainly not to help himself. He genuinely believed it was best for the country.
Kennedy later said he was wrong about his initial reaction and so, too, did Woodward.
“It was a very gutsy thing to do,” he said.
Woodward concluded that among all issues confronting the country today, the one he worries about the most is the potential for “secret government.”
“Secret government would really do us in,” he said. “That’s what Nixon tried. As we’ve grown, there’s more concentration of power in the presidency, more secrecy. We need to keep digging at it in a neutral, non-partisan way, very aggressively.”
That’s the role of an independent media.
“The judge who said it got it right,” Woodward said. “Democracies die in darkness.”