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Bob Woodward discusses Trump, journalism and the future of politics

Bob Woodward’s journalistic career has spanned 50 years, nine presidencies and hundreds of hours of interviews with some of the most influential people in the world.

On Monday, Feb. 15, Woodward added Miami University students and staff to the long list of people he’s had conversations with.

In his virtual lecture, titled “How We Got Here: The State of the American Presidency,” Woodward shared stories and insights from his long career writing about presidents. The lecture was the first in Miami’s 2021 lecture series.

Woodward first rose to prominence when he, along with fellow Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, began reporting on the Watergate scandal in 1972. The pair’s 1974 book, “All the President’s Men,” detailed the scandal and was the first of Woodward’s 20 books – most of which focus on presidents and their administrations.

Woodward opened his lecture by discussing the nine presidential administrations he’d reported on, which, he said, were all rife with varying degrees of chaos and dishonesty.

“You go from Nixon to Trump – what an adventure for the American people,” Woodward said. “The theme [has been] failure to tell the truth and understand the truth.”

After his opening discussion, Woodward began answering questions from the audience. The first few asked him to speculate about the future of American politics in the post-Trump era.

Woodward said he felt it’d be irresponsible to try and guess what the future holds, but that the country needs to mend its divisions if it expects to heal from recent hardships, such as COVID-19 and the Capitol insurrection.

“One of the lessons of the American political system is normally if there’s a crisis, it will bring people together,” Woodward said, “but the country is so divided right now – 74 million people voted for Trump.”

Though he criticized Trump for his handling of the pandemic and for playing a role in the country’s divided state, Woodward has seen a side of the former president that most Americans are unfamiliar with.

In preparation for his 2020 book “Rage,” Woodward conducted a series of interviews with Trump that amounted to more than nine hours of recording. During those interviews, Woodward said Trump was rather charming and surprisingly compliant.

“He kept saying, ‘You’re going to destroy me in this book; you’re going to do what you did to Nixon and George W. Bush,’” Woodward said. “But I just let it go, and he was always willing to continue the conversation. I was kind of surprised, frankly.”

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After answering questions about his interviews with Trump and his private personality, Woodward began discussing journalism as a discipline and shared some of his unconventional methods for getting difficult sources to speak with him.

To demonstrate the importance of being an aggressive journalist, Woodward told a story from his research for one of his books on George W. Bush. When a particular four-star general repeatedly refused interview requests over the phone or email, Woodward found his address and knocked on his door one evening – a tactic he’d also used during his Watergate investigation.

Though he said journalists need to be assertive, he also underscored the necessity of respecting sources and avoiding smugness.

“I think it's very important when you interview somebody to take them as seriously as they take themselves,” Woodward said. “Let me give you some advice: Beware the demon pomposity.”

To wrap up his lecture, Woodward left the students in attendance with some advice: Do what you love, and don’t worry about what your parents think.

“When I called my father to tell him I was going to work as a newspaper reporter at a weekly paper in Maryland instead of going to law school, he said, ‘You're crazy,’” Woodward said. “At that moment, I knew I was on the right track.”

@madphabes

phabymr@miamioh.edu 

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