Iconic Journalist Bob Woodward Talks Journalism, Trump and Watergate in Virtual Installment of Pasadena Distinguished Speaker Series

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Now, 3/18/2022

Bob Woodward, the legendary Washington Post journalist who broke the Watergate scandal along with his colleague Carl Bernstein, was scheduled to speak Jan. 26 in Pasadena as part of the Distinguished Speaker Series. Due to the Omicron variant of COVID-19, that event went virtual instead.

The Distinguished Speaker Series team traveled to Washington, D.C., to film a wide-ranging interview with Woodward that covered Watergate, dealing with Deepthroat, his working relationship with Carl Bernstein, the Trump administration, the coup attempt on January 6, the pandemic, journalism and more.

Five wars of Watergate

“It turned out there were five wars of Watergate, all led, instigated, supported and funded by Nixon or the government,” Woodward said. “The first was a war against the anti-Vietnam War movement. The second was a war against the news media, [including] covert wiretaps on reporters and White House aides. The third was spying and sabotaging the Democrats. Then when they were caught with the burglary [in the Watergate Hotel], they had to cover it up and so that was the war against the system of justice. And then even after Nixon resigned, the fifth war was the war against history, to say it really was inconsequential and not that meaningful.”

He pointed out that Senator Sam Ervin, who was the head of the Senate Watergate Committee called Watergate “an effort to destroy the process of nominating and electing a president.” Woodward added that it actually worked.

“For about $200,000 in dirty money, Nixon and his people launched a campaign of espionage and sabotage against the Democratic frontrunner in 1972, Senator Ed Muskie—totally derailed him with dirty tricks and spying,” Woodward said. “They got a nominee, Senator George McGovern, who they believed—and they turned out to be correct—that they would be able to beat much more easily, and so Nixon won in ‘72. Nixon found the soft spot in the system we have of nominating and electing presidents.”

As it turned out, the Washington Post almost didn’t hire Woodward before the Watergate story broke. Seeing that he had no journalism experience when he applied, they gave him a two-week trial period, during which he wrote a dozen stories that they didn’t publish. Harry Rosenfeld, who was the Metropolitan editor at the time, told Woodward, “You don’t know how to do this.”

Woodward thanked him, and Rosenfeld said, “Why are you thanking me? You’re not hired, you’re finished.” Woodward replied, “Because I know this is what I want to do.” Rosenfeld helped him get a job at a weekly paper in a Washington suburb, where he worked for a year before the Post took the plunge and hired him in fall 1971. He was the lowest paid reporter in the newsroom. Nine months later, Woodward was assigned to cover a burglary that would change the course of American history.

“I was always available for the dreary assignments, and [Watergate originally] looked like one,” Woodward said. “It was a beautiful Saturday, June 17, 1972. Who would be dumb enough to come in and work? They immediately thought of me. The city editor called me and said, ‘Come in, there’s been a burglary.’ They thought it was kind of a routine assignment. I was covering night police and they sent me to the courthouse.”

Deep background from Deep Throat

It was the first story on which Woodward and Bernstein worked together. Woodward had, however, already met the man who would become known to the world as Deep Throat, W. Mark Felt, second in command at the FBI. The secret informant was given the lewd moniker by Post managing editor Howard Simons, a reference to the 1972 porn movie of the same name starring Linda Lovelace as well as to the source offering information on what is known as “deep background” in the journalism industry, in which the reporter can use the information without attribution to the source.

Woodward was serving as a lieutenant in the Navy when he first met Felt. He was asked by an admiral to deliver papers to the White House, and while waiting outside the Oval Office, he struck up a conversation with a gray-haired man wearing a white shirt.

“We were like two strangers on a long airplane flight,” Woodward said. “ He said he worked at the FBI, had a senior position, had gone to law school. We talked and I got his number and called him a couple of times about career questions, whether to go to law school and so forth. And then I wound up working at the Washington Post and realized, ‘Oh my god, this is the guy who’s in charge of the Watergate investigation.’ I called him, he didn’t want to talk much, so we arranged for secret meetings in a parking garage. Which I thought was kind of normal. Turned out it was not normal, but he was very secretive.”

Deep Throat was not forthcoming with everything he knew, but guided Woodward and gave him leads and clues that helped unravel the case all the way to the Resolute Desk and eventually led to the first resignation of a president in U.S. history. Felt was appalled at how the White House was trying to control and limit the Watergate investigation.

“His sheer presence in an underground parking garage at 2 a.m. said to me, ‘Hey, something’s going on here that’s very important and very hidden,’” Woodward said. “I don’t think he wanted to help me, he wanted to help himself.”

Woodward, of course, kept Felt’s identity a secret for decades, until 2005 when Felt revealed himself. He died three years later. Woodward did, however, tell someone back in the 1980s—his date.

“Elsa Wolf, who’s now my wife, asked me when we were just dating who Deep Throat was,” Woodward said. “We had a love affair built on trust and I told her. But frankly, in a practical sense, it helped me as a journalist [to keep the name secret], because people would know I’d protect somebody. It set a climate of disclosure that I think did not naturally exist.”

Because his reporting took down a Republican president, some may accuse him of being partisan, but he doesn’t see it that way at all.

“I’m interested in the facts, I don’t have a partisan view,” he said. “I think partisan views get in the way of obtaining the facts.”

‘A failure of leadership’

Pasadena Star-News columnist Doug McIntyre, who conducted the Distinguished Speaker Series interview with Woodward, asked him how history will remember the pandemic. Woodward co-wrote the book Peril with Post reporter Robert Costa, which broke news about former President Donald Trump’s early reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic when it was released last year.

“We don’t know the outcome, that’s the beauty of journalism,” Woodward said. “You look back, not ahead, and you can predict and you can guess, but the future is not known. But happily the past is, and that’s why most journalistic efforts should go to the past.”

McIntyre also asked the level of Trump’s culpability as it relates to the pandemic.

“Turns out, his responsibility is absolute,” Woodward said. “He disclosed what he knew in a way that was criminal, actually, to say he knew all of this so early.”

Woodward sat down with Trump in the Oval Office in February 2020 for an interview for Peril, in which Trump said the virus was airborne and serious before most people understood that about COVID-19. And in late January, Trump had received a top secret briefing from then-National Security Adviser and Pasadena resident Robert O’Brien, who told him the virus was going to be the biggest national security threat during his presidency.

“It was a full ringing of the alarm bell, that this was going to be a pandemic, much worse than the SARS pandemic, which really didn’t strike the United States,” Woodward said. “Imagine you’re the president of the United States, and you’re sitting in this top secret briefing and [then-Deputy National Security Advisor] Matt Pottinger, who’d been a Wall Street Journal reporter in China, a real expert on China, says, ‘I have contacts who tell me that 650,000 people are going to die in the United States from this.’ And that’s precisely what happened. Trump told me what he learned but didn’t tell the public and kept on this course of denial.”

Trump told Woodward he didn’t want to panic people, and that’s why he painted a rosier picture just before the pandemic essentially forced the shutdown of the whole world.

“This is the failure of leadership, because leadership has to tell the truth,” Woodward said. “Trump could have mobilized the public and said, ‘I’ve been warned, I’m going to share that warning with you.’ But he failed to do that.”

McIntyre asked why Trump would want to talk to Woodward, knowing that the result likely would not be flattering to Trump.

“Certainly he was trying to get his point of view across, but one of the things you learn in journalism is that you’re better off not trying to speculate on people’s motives,” Woodward said. “You can only describe somebody’s behavior in actions and statements.”

‘Zero’ evidence

Regarding the insurrection at the Capitol Building on January 6, Woodward speculated that there was more coordination of the attack than is currently known, which is part of what the House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack is investigating.

“Whether they’re going to find it or whether it’s going to be one of these historical mysteries, like the Reichstag fire in Germany in the 1930s, we’ll see,” Woodward said. “What binds Nixon and Trump is that capacity to see weakness in a system, this great democracy that’s functioned for a long time. It had its moments of failure historically, but it never failed as greatly as it did under Nixon in 1972 and potentially under Trump in the certification process on January 6.”

In Peril, Woodward and Costa broke the story that conservative lawyer John Eastman—who recently featured in a lawsuit between the Pasadena Republican Club and the city of Pasadena that was decided in favor of the latter—wrote a memo in which he “laid out a coup scenario for Trump and met with Trump to go over it,” Woodward said.

Woodward and Costa reported that Republican senators Lindsey Graham and Mike Lee read the Eastman memo and investigated some of Rudy Giuliani’s claims about election fraud, and subsequently determined that there was no evidence that the 2020 election was stolen.

“Zero,” Woodward said. “Now, if you go back to Watergate, suppose two of Nixon’s biggest supporters investigated and concluded Nixon was behind it—it would have had immense credibility. I’ve gone on national television repeatedly and said, ‘Call me, here’s my phone number. Give me some evidence that this election was stolen.’ Never heard from anyone because there’s no evidence. They call it ‘the big lie.’ I don’t call it the big lie. There’s no evidence, no case at all. A big lie often has a little bit of truth in it. This has no truth.”

Upcoming talks in the Distinguished Speaker Series include Jay Leno and Malala Yousafzai. Learn more at speakersla.com.