Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the episode. It's been edited for clarity.
Boyd Matheson: The state of integrity is never static. It's as susceptible to corruption and degradation as it is amenable to improvement or fortification. We're in unique times, challenging times, but with an age-old fight for essential principles. With the current backslide of public trust, we get a glimpse of what we stand to lose in our homes and our communities. The hard-fought for values of trust and integrity form the bulwark of strength for the nation, but that foundation will crack and crumble through apathy, arrogance and neglect. The issue of trust transcends today's headlines, the principle of integrity surpasses current politics and politicians. Beyond the government or the media, this is a We the People problem that requires We the People responses. The Deseret News will convene, in Washington, D.C., "Integrity and Trust: Lessons from Watergate and Today." We will be joined by legendary reporter Bob Woodward on this week's edition of Therefore What?
We are very excited to have Bob Woodward join us today for Therefore What? Bob, thanks for coming on the program. We are really looking forward to the event in Washington, D.C. next week at the Newseum, where we will talk about "Integrity and Trust: Lessons from Watergate to Today." And so I want to spend just a little bit of time doing just a quick backdrop in terms of the Watergate scandal, the lessons that you learned from that. Could you have imagined when you and your partner began that whole journey, where that would possibly lead you, not just in that era, but for the next 40 years?
Bob Woodward: No way. Of course, it was a piece at that time. What's interesting, in the context of what you're talking about today is, all the Watergate investigations, and of course, in the case of Richard Nixon, thousands of hours of his tapes, showed that Watergate was much larger than a burglary into the Democratic headquarters. It was a series of wars that Nixon launched a couple of years before the Watergate burglary, actually. And the focus initially was to expand wiretapping and break-ins at the people who were leading the anti-Vietnam War movement. And there was a document, top secret, signed by Nixon called the Houston plan. It was rescinded because J. Edgar Hoover objected. He felt the FBI, their job was wiretapping and breaking and entering. Then Nixon launched a war against the news media, 17 wiretaps on reporters and White House officials, the plumbers unit which went around and broke in to the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers, then the war against the Democrats, then the war against the system of justice, the Watergate cover-up and then Nixon spent 20 years after he resigned in a war against history trying to say, Oh, actually, it didn't happen that way, when, of course, the tapes documented that it did.
BM: So this was a long-running war, and obviously integrity and truth and trust were really at the core of that. As you began to kind of put some of those pieces together, what were some of the things that were surprising to you early on? What were the moments when you thought, Oh my gosh, this is way more than a simple new story we're doing?
BW: That's a great question. First was the amount of money involved, that it was hundreds of thousands of dollars, and you just knew from the way any organization works, or the Nixon re-election committee, or the Nixon White House, that if they're spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, that means there was higher level approval. So the follow the money directive was very important in this. And then you saw a strategy that Nixon launched to make the conduct of the news media the issue, rather than his own conduct.
BM: And I wanted to drill down on that. So let's sidetrack from the Watergate lesson to today's lesson, because obviously, you've covered every administration since Nixon, and a little before, and you've seen how that battle against the media plays out when a White House is going against that. Last year the escalation of the battle between the current White House and the news media really got to the point where the news media had to punch back a little bit. Over 300 newspapers across the country weighed in with editorials on that. We chose to do something slightly different here at the Deseret News, because we felt there were some, in the national press in particular, who were making themselves the story or the center of it. Obviously, the President was doing his portion. So for our editorial we simply ran the First Amendment with our most compelling one-word editorial that just said, ditto.
So give me your perspective, Bob. Where are we? Are we always going to have these battles between the press and the presidency? Where do we stand on that today?
BW: Well, there's going to be tension. But of course, President Trump has adopted the Nixon strategy with attacking the news media as fake news, enemy of the people. And it's worked to a certain extent and I think it's worked in part because many people in the news media have become emotionally unhinged about Trump, and particularly go on TV and show their hand that they are not just reporters, neutral fact gatherers, but have become advocates and I, in my book "Fear: Trump in the White House," tried to focus on scenes and actions where things happened that show the governing crisis we have now and that there's no advocacy. I was in Maryland last night doing a talk and being interviewed in Frederick, Maryland, in an old theater. 1,100 people there, and the discussion really was very much about the news media needs to stick to that and not become part of what's called the resistance. It's not our job and so the tension is exacerbated by Trump and, look, let's face it, sometimes the media I think we make mistakes. I know we make mistakes. I've made mistakes and you just need to own up to it and not get defensive. My overall conclusion is the news media, though sometimes we get too emotional or do make mistakes, most of the work is done in good faith
BM: One of the things I know you've mentioned from your Watergate episodes is this idea of restraint and that restraint always works. What really drilled that into you during Watergate and then how do you think that needs to be applied today?
BW: Well in Watergate we had the great editor Ben Bradlee who would always say, like the night Nixon resigned, he ran around the newsroom and said, Don't gloat, just play it straight. And I think that's really good advice always. And too, you need strong editors. The scenes in our book, "All the President's Men," and the movie version where we would write a story and it was Bradlee who would slap the copy and say, No, you don't have it yet, go talk to more people, get more sources, get more specifics, the building blocks of good journalism. And so there was no political posturing on his part and I think that's essential to any good journalism.
BM: So as you look at that, Bob, you know, integrity obviously is not party specific. You can just look at anything happening on any day of the week and there's something going on, whether it's a Democrat or Republican or a business person or a media mogul. And so it's not party specific for sure. But from a journalism standpoint, how do you balance — some of the politicians are saying, well, the ends justify the means; some reporters are saying, well, the ends justify the means. How do you balance that?
BW: Well, I think the ends don't justify the means. And we need to really, really be careful about that. And you've just got to be cool. I have the luxury of time working on books. So I can work for a year or two on one, don't have to rush to print, can try to get specifics, documents and meeting notes. And it's the authenticity. People can look at that. I've found Trump supporters who've looked at my book on Trump and they don't like it, but they realize that it's done, in fact, the moderator last night in Frederick, Maryland, was saying he'd read the book and he thought it's very fair. It let's Trump have his say. You see where he asks very good questions in a number of meetings, and so forth. So that's part of the story and we're not prosecutors, we are journalists.
BM: And don't you think, too, that we live in this age of — I think one thing that battles the truth is instant certainty. You know, we have to have that instant hit or you've got to be the first to the story or the first talking head to declare this or that. Is that an enemy of truth?
BW: Yes, that's a great term, instant certainty. And what happens, particularly on cable TV, both sides, left, right, with Fox News, people are so, This is the way it is, there's no alternative. There's not another side. And the point I was making about my book on Trump is very tough. And I think it establishes there's this, as I call it, the governing crisis. But at the same time, it's not saying, Oh, this means only one side. What it says is it's a story. And, you know, we learn, and this is the great teaching, I think that comes from trying to understand human nature.
In the end, of course, no one, certainly myself, understands human nature. But everyone is a mixed bag. They may have positive traits, negative traits, and even the great leaders in the American presidency. Look at Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt and there were negative traits also. And things that they did that maybe reached too far. So in journalism, you need to absorb that understanding of human nature and apply it in a way that is — go back to that word cool. You've got to be emotionally detached from what you're trying to explain and understand.
BM: I think one of the things that you proved out during the Watergate, not only during the Watergate area, but in your work since then. It's an old quote that's attributed to Buddha. I'm not sure we can confirm that or not. But it says "three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon and the truth." And so two-part question for you on this one, Bob. One, how have you seen that play out? How did that play out in Watergate? And in particular, how did it play out in terms of your relationship or your perception of then Vice President Gerald Ford?
BW: Well, first of all, I don't know about the sun and the moon. The truth, as Ben Bradlee said, the truth emerges. But it takes time. It is the enemy of your notion of instant certainty. You need to dig and listen and revisit and adopt this stance of, as I say, you need to be a little dispassionate, you need to show some forbearance, but also you need to be as aggressive as possible. So it takes time and that's the patience. You need the boss to be patient.
BM: OK. And as it relates to Gerald Ford, how did that emerge for you?
BW:Well first, when Ford announced he was pardoning Nixon 30 days after Ford became president, my immediate reaction was, this is corrupt. It had the aroma of the deal. I, 25 years later, did a book called "Shadow," about the legacy of Watergate and the presidencies of Ford through Clinton, and discovered in the documentation and extensive interviews with Ford that there really was no deal and that Ford took the high road, trying to do what was in the national interest, and that was to get Nixon off the front page. Everyone was consumed, what's going to happen to Nixon? As a private citizen in September 1974, 30 days after he resigned, and it was continuous. And Ford said to me, in a very plaintive voice, I needed my own presidency. So he acted on the pardon, in what he deemed to be the national interest. And I think he had a strong case, I think he acted in the national interest and it was not a corrupt deal.
BM: Do you think we have many in Washington today who are asking that question? What is in the best interest of the country?
BW: Well, that's the question, isn't it. No, and we've set up a political system that's become increasingly polarized, obviously, and everyone's looking at their own personal interest, or the interest of their party or their interest group. There is such a thing as the national interest. You and I could sit down with a whiteboard — what are the things that we really need to accomplish, the whole nation? Or at least what will be what I call the getting to the what is the greater good for a majority of people in the country and not be interest group or party-driven.
BM: Absolutely. Well, I want to shift now, we're going to have this event that the Deseret News is hosting at the Newseum on Jan. 14, and I'm really looking forward to not only have you on the stage for a Watergate perspective, and a perspective on integrity and trust, but you're going to be joined by Elder D. Todd Christofferson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and he obviously has a very interesting connection to Watergate in that he was the young law clerk to Judge John Sirica, one of the first to hear the Watergate tapes. Tell me, what is interesting to you, what are you looking forward to in terms of your interaction with Elder Christofferson?
BW: Well, the whole role of Judge Sirica in this was incredibly significant and he was very tough when he sentenced the Watergate burglars and others at the middle level who were involved in this. He was the one who said no, Nixon had to turn over the tapes and that eventually went to the Supreme Court and he was vindicated. So I want to ask Todd about what was it like? I've heard stories of the first moment Judge Sirica heard some of these tapes and what his reaction was, and his reaction was, as I understand it, he was appalled that the President of the United States was ordering all kinds of illegal activity. And he said, we can't have this and so there was a trial subpoena for the tapes and Sirica said it had to go forward and was vindicated in the Supreme Court. And finally, it was just two weeks after the Supreme Court ruled in Judge Sirica's favor that Nixon resigned.
BM: I know that Elder Christofferson was often the spokesperson for Judge Sirica in that whole process. Were there any moments you remember crossing paths or any of those moments jump out?
BW: Not with him, but with Judge Sirica, I was at a meeting in the whole Watergate process. And Judge Sirica said to me that he, of course, presided at the first Watergate trial where the prosecutor said it was the five burglars and their two operation directors, Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt, who did all this on their own. And Gordon Liddy was the mastermind. Carl Bernstein and I had written in the Post before this trial, higher-ups were involved, we're proving the money and so forth, including the former Attorney General, people in the White House, people in the Nixon campaign. And Sirica said to me, it was very important, he saw the total contradiction of what was appearing in this courtroom with what we were writing in the Washington Post. And so he started questioning people as judge in the case. And eventually one of the burglars, the lead burglar James McCord, wrote his famous letter to judge Sirica saying there was cover-up, higher-ups were indeed involved. And so the pressure that he applied was critical to getting to the truth here.
BM: And I remember there was the scene where Fred Thompson was questioning, during the Watergate hearings, and it was an open hearing. And he asked Andrew Butterfield if there were any recordings. And then when he said yes, it was sort of this stunned moment. I was curious, were you there that day? Or if not, when you heard that? What what kind of chaos did that bombshell cause in your newsroom?
BW: OK, well, it was Alexander Butterfield who was one of Nixon's top aides, and the Friday before that public testimony two people had told me that Butterfield had come in for a confidential interview and disclosed this taping system. And I was stunned and finally called Ben Bradlee at home on Saturday night and said, Nixon taped himself. And Bradlee was stunned also. But I said, What do you think? And should we try to do a story, should we pursue it? And Ben, in his style said, Well, I wouldn't bust one on it. And I said, Well, what do you think overall? I said, I think it's just a B-plus. And so I took the next day, Sunday, off and when there was that testimony, which was on live national television, it just, it was an explosion, talk about a bombshell. And Bradlee came by my desk and knocked it and said, OK, it's more than a B-plus.
BM: Definitely more than a B-plus on that one. Well, as we come down the homestretch here, Bob, I want to have you just weigh in a little bit in terms of the lessons for today from Watergate. We call this show Therefore, What? for a reason, because we always like to end with a focus on Therefore, What? Those who've been listening for the last 20 minutes or so, what do you hope they come away with? How do you hope they think different? How do you hope they act differently?
BW: Well, you know, that's not my job. As a journalist, it's to try to find out what happened and present it in articles or in books, and in the most authoritative way. And I have a kind of undying optimism and belief in the political system we have in this country. And it's the job of the politicians, particularly, to sort through what the facts are and decide what to do. And that's in the hands of the politicians. I think it's, in the end, in the hands of citizens to make their own judgment, and they should, but I can't step back. We were talking about the Ford pardon of Nixon in '74, I was sure it was corrupt. Twenty-five years later, I investigated in detail what happened and it turns out not to be corrupt, it turns out to be that Ford was operating in what he deemed to be the national interest. So that gives you pause as a journalist, and so you know, it's in other people's court, in my view, and I think too many people in my business, even opinion writers, are saying this and that, and it means the following and that's fine. But for me, I stand on the sidelines and try to find out as much of the truth and what the facts are as possible.
BM: Fantastic, Bob, we appreciate you joining us today. We're looking forward to a great conversation, "Integrity and Trust: Lessons from Watergate to Today," featuring Bob Woodward and Elder D. Todd Christofferson. Thanks so much for joining us today. Bob, we look forward to seeing you on Monday.
BW: Thank you.26 comments on this story
BM: Remember, after the story is told, after the principle is presented, after the discussion and debate have been had, the question for all of us is Therefore, What? Don't miss an episode, subscribe to this podcast on Apple podcast or wherever you're listening today and be sure to rate this episode and leave us a review. Follow us on DeseretNews.com/Tw and subscribe to our newsletter. This is Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News, thanks for engaging with us on Therefore What?