When legendary Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward turned his attention in 1991 to a telling of the events that led to the First Gulf War, it was critical that he sit with General Colin Powell, then the chairman of the US joint chiefs-of-staff.
The story goes that he agreed to talk with the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, but Powell’s wife advised strongly against it, urging him to be very careful. Powell went ahead and spoke anyway.
“Woodward had the disarming voice and manner of a Boy Scout offering to help an old lady across the street,” Powell later observed in his autobiography. Nearly three decades may have passed since that wry observation, but Woodward is still using all the charm of a Boy Scout to disarm and ultimately inform, as his latest book Fear: Trump in the White House does.
The book offers a worrying and highly detailed perspective of the siege mentality and personalities clashing in the current White House administration, with United States President Donald Trump dismissing him and it as a “con”.
The reality, though, is that Woodward, is truly an “icon”.
Some 35 years ago, for this young journalism student, All the President’s Men was mandatory viewing on reporting and the use of sources. That 1976 movie, starring Robert Redford as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein, details the events and reporting that led to the resignation of former US president Richard Nixon in the wake of the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up attempts by the White House. It came two years after the Woodward and Bernstein book that told the story of how their basic reporting, following the money, digging a little deeper, talking to people and knocking on doors ultimately led all the way back to the Oval Office — and the tape recording system there. And when there was a roadblock, Deep Throat, a source who knew details of the cover-up, was there to point — and developing those sources and building trust and credibility is one of the most challenging aspects of journalism.
Today, many journalists are reluctant to leave an office, instead doing research from a laptop — “churnalism” as I like to describe it. For Nixon, who famously sat with David Frost in a series of televised interviews, Woodward was the reason former first lady Pat Nixon suffered a stroke and ultimately died, and spoke of the journalist with visceral hatred to the day he passed on.
The ironic thing is that Woodward was turned down for a reporting job at the Washington Post after an initial two-week trial. He had spent five years in the US Navy, coming out in 1970 as a Lieutenant who fancied the idea of being a journalist. He went to a Washington suburban daily instead for a year to learn the ropes, then was hired by the Post after that first failed attempt. He was 29 and just weeks into the job when he got a tip about a burglary at the headquarters of the Democratic National Convention. That tip was to shake Washington, the Oval Office, the Presidency and the entire Constitution of the US to its core — changing his life forever.
With Fear, the associate editor of Washington Post has now penned 18 books on the presidents and events that have shaped that institution, that city, that country and touched others around the world, based solely on the personal preferences and prejudices of presidents and policy advisers orbiting that Oval Office.
While the current reaction to Fear has been to condemn it from inside the administration, Woodward spent hundreds of hours talking to sources, researching the minutia of the moments, reconstructing events. Reporting. If all the classes and theory of the news business had to be distilled down to its most basic essence, it would be this: Tell what happened — and get it right.
Put together that, in essence, is what makes this 75-year-old veteran of the news business so impeccable and so unimpeachable by the criticism and barbs of those who feel the weight of his words.
His works and words have been aimed insightfully on the entertainment industry, the Justices of the US Supreme Court, the intelligence community and US military leaders, the US Federal Reserve as well as former presidents Nixon, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
For the marriage of the Clintons, the details reported by Woodward were excruciatingly painful — and accurate.
For president Bush, who sat for hours with Woodward, the Washington Post veteran was equally as devastating, painting the images of holder of the highest office in the US dealing with the aftermath of 9/11 and making the decision to invade both Afghanistan and Iraq — and to use torture and other immoral techniques in a quest for American “justice”.
There is a weight of evidence that suggests that the details reported by Woodward are surprisingly accurate and unembellished by agenda or any grievance.
There’s a saying too in the news business that journalists are only as good as their last byline. Woodward has amassed so many bylines and books over the past five decades that he writes with gravitas and credibility. And while the political mud will be thrown at him, it won’t stick — Boy Scout uniforms always come good in the wash.