Is the Russia investigation the new Watergate? Not quite, Bob Woodward says

ST. PETERSBURG, Florida — Bob Woodward would know better than most of us if Donald Trump was the new Richard Nixon.

But he's not, said the reporting icon responsible for breaking the Watergate scandal during a talk at the Mahaffey Theater on Wednesday night. At least, it’s too early to tell.

“We talk about maybe what Russia did or the extent to which they did — it’s not clear — meddle in our election,” he said to a predominantly older audience of several hundred people. “But in 1972 we had the real thing: the inside destruction of our electoral system, funded, organized, championed, led by Richard Nixon.”

The talk, which began around 7:30 p.m. and ran a little more than an hour, centered on some of Woodward’s key points about the presidency, gleaned from his more than 40 years of experience covering national politics. He related many of those observations — presidents live in the unfinished business of their predecessors, are immeasurably self-validated by the position and have incredible agenda-setting power — to the current political climate in the U.S.

But despite the similarities between the Nixon and Trump administrations — the constant drip of investigative stories, attacks on the media, potential meddling in elections — he cautioned against oversimplifying past political scandals to fit today’s news cycle.

“We do not know where this is going,” he said.

Woodward, now an associate editor at The Washington Post, has worked for the paper for more than 40 years. He and reporting partner Carl Bernstein famously reported on the Nixon administration’s coordination of a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in D.C., coverage for which the paper received the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1973. He has also authored or co-authored 12 No. 1 best-selling non-fiction books, including “All the President’s Men,” which he drew upon heavily while speaking about the challenges that face America’s leaders.

After stressing the need for presidents to bring all parties to the table for negotiations — and contrasting that point with the Republicans’ recent tax bill — Woodward said the biggest piece of unfinished business for Trump left over from the Barack Obama administration is figuring out how to deal with unstable countries around the world, particularly North Korea. He identified Trump’s spontaneous tweeting as a key obstacle to solving those problems.

That’s compounded by the nature of the current media landscape — especially TV news, Woodward said.

“I think there are too many people in my business, on both sides, who’ve become emotionally unhinged,” he said. “We’ve somehow decided to give opinion too many times more value than fact, but we should give the facts. We should be straight. We should be dispassionate.”

Interspersed between Woodward’s astute observations about politics and media in Washington were detailed stories about the reporter’s encounters with some of the powerful people of his day. In one, he recalled a meeting at Gerald Ford’s house in Rancho Mirage, California, in which he learned — after repeatedly asking the same question — why the former president had pardoned Nixon following Watergate.

“I said, ‘Why did you pardon Nixon?’” Woodward recalled in response to a question about past presidencies he considered decent. “He said, ‘I’d been president for 30 days and there was such distrust in the government. It was shocking to me … So were we going to get two, three more years of Watergate? The country could not stand it.’”

“I didn’t do this pardon for Nixon or for myself — I had to, as president, look down and say, ‘How do we move on?’”

The people Poynter spoke with after the event, which was sponsored by the Sabal Trust Co. and Bill Edwards Foundation for the Arts, said those stories were their favorite part of hearing Woodward speak. The audience in general leaned left; when Woodward took a poll to see how people voted in the 2016 presidential election, most people raised their hands for Hillary Clinton.

Colleen Hamilton of Clearwater said she was inspired to hear Woodward draw upon his experiences as a reporter to comment on politics more broadly.

“This is what old-time reporting is all about,” said Hamilton, who previously worked for 38 years as a reporter and producer. “He gave really good perspective on Trump.”

One of the most gripping moments came near the end of the talk, when Woodward recalled one of his encounters with Katharine Graham, the publisher who greenlighted The Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. When the two had lunch together in January 1973, Graham pressed Woodward on when he and Bernstein were going to get to the bottom of Watergate.

“To be quite honest, she blew my mind with how much she knew about what was going on,” Woodward said of Graham, whom he said Meryl Streep portrayed “perfectly” in “The Post” movie. “She had this leadership style later described as ‘mind on, hands off’ — intellectually engaged, knew what was going on, read everything, but didn’t put her hands on editors or reporters.”

It was a perilous time, Woodward said. Nixon had won reelection in 1972 and his administration was challenging The Washington Post Co.’s Federal Communications Commission licenses, the paper’s credibility was in doubt and the Justice Department’s investigation of the ongoing Watergate revelations was going nowhere.

So when Graham asked him that question, he answered in kind.

“There was a political climate of, ‘Okay, Watergate’s over,’” he said. “So I said, ‘Mrs. Graham, your question about when all the truth is going to come out — my answer is never.’”

Graham didn’t like that answer very much.

“I remember looking across the table and seeing this pained, wounded expression on her face — an expression you never want to see on your boss’ face,” Woodward said. “She said, ‘Never? Don’t tell me never.’ It was not a threat — it was a statement of purpose.”

“And then she asked this question: ‘Why do you think we keep going?’ And before I could answer, she said the following: ‘Because that’s the business we’re in.’”

Woodward was 29 years old. Nixon’s resignation would come a year and a half later, after repeated scoops from The Post.

“It’s one of those moments you don’t forget,” Woodward said of his lunch with Graham. “Someday we’re going to put a plaque in the lobby of The Washington Post, and it’s going to be drilled in so nobody can take it out, and it’s simply going to say, ‘Never? Don’t tell me never.’”

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