While the news has been described as the first rough draft of history, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Bob Woodward has discovered history always has another story to tell.
Woodward and his colleague Carl Bernstein broke the Watergate story in 1972 after five people, some with connections to President Richard Nixon, were caught trying to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee. The pair of Washington Post reporters uncovered the massive campaign of political spying and sabotage which eventually led to the president’s resignation.
From their reporting, Woodward wrote and also helped write several books about Watergate. He thought the Nixon story had been told.
But then Woodward sat down with Alexander Butterfield, Nixon’s deputy chief of staff. Butterfield was the individual who had disclosed the secret tape recording system and, when he left the White House in 1973, took scores of previously unknown documents.
Woodward writes about the 89-year-old Butterfield and another piece of the Nixon puzzle in his latest book, “The Last of the President’s Men.”
The new book, history, and the lessons of leadership will all be part of Woodward’s talk when he comes to Indianapolis Nov. 6. Woodward is the keynote speaker at the Indiana Bar Foundation’s 65th anniversary benefit dinner.
Interviewing Butterfield and reviewing the documents, Woodward realized the story that propelled his career had another chapter.
“I guess it underscores the point that history is never complete, here are always things out there,” Woodward said. “Even with Nixon, with all the thousands of hours of tape, all the memoirs, all the documents, all the investigations, all the inquiries, you would have thought it’s over, but it’s not.”
Looking back, how do you view Watergate? Did it create a real crisis for the foundation of our democracy or did it show how well our Constitution works?
What went on in the Nixon White House, the criminality, the effort that was successful to keep the Democrats from nominating Sen. (Edmund) Muskie who would have been a stronger candidate (for president); so in a sense, Nixon tampered with everyone’s vote in a process that should be clean and open. This was an assault on democracy.
Nixon was pardoned for his role in Watergate. Was that a just outcome?
At the time in 1974, I had one reaction, and then after studying it and interviewing President (Gerald) Ford for hours about it, I came up with a different interpretation (because I) learned some things that I did not know. Which again underscores the point, in the moment, you think you know certain things, and then 25 years later you look at them or you get new information and things are different.
How has Watergate impacted the presidencies that came after?
My view is no president has been sufficiently transparent, and the lesson should be it’s better to be transparent and let things out and explain them rather than try to conceal them.
How does the lack of transparency hurt our democracy?
In my view, the concentration of power in the presidency has only grown and, in a democracy, we’re supposed to know what the government is doing. Look at the secret things that have been done, look at the failure to explain and, well, to hide. What is going on is contrary to everything I think that democracy stands for.
If there was greater transparency, if the media was able to do in-depth reporting, how do you think the voters would respond?
People can accept, read, absorb, act on, or ignore information, but the question is, “Is the totality of the information sufficient and accurate?” and too often it’s not. If there’s one thing I worry about more than anything, it’s secret government. Secret government will do us in.•