WATERVILLE, Maine — After being awarded Colby College’s Elijah Parish Lovejoy award Sunday night — named for the Albion man who died in 1837 defending his printing press from an angry, pro-slavery mob — journalist Bob Woodward admitted that modern reporters don’t need to summon this sort of courage.
“Where’s the courage?” Woodward asked during his address at Colby’s Lorimer Chapel. “And quite frankly, it’s not with the reporters,” he said.
“The real risk is taken by the owners, the publishers,” Woodward said.
Among the few well-chosen “war stories,” as he put it, from his 40-plus year career, Woodward told of a lunch meeting he had with Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post. It was January 1973, and Woodward and his colleague Carl Bernstein had broken and furthered stories about the Watergate scandal that would lead to nearly 50 convictions of government officials and the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
At that point, the story had begun to gain traction but had not yet hit paydirt.
At the lunch, “She started quizzing me about Watergate,” Woodward remembered, and to his surprise, Graham was well versed in the finer points of the scandal. After some time, Graham asked Woodward, “When are we going to find out the whole truth about Watergate?”
Woodward replied, “Probably never.”
Graham had a wounded, stricken look on her face, and she said: “Never? Don’t tell me never.”
It wasn’t a threat, Woodward said, but nonetheless, “I left the lunch a highly motivated reporter.”
Woodward, Bernstein and former Post editor Ben Bradlee have talked about bolting a plaque in the newspaper’s lobby with Graham’s words: “Never? Don’t tell me never.”
“It was a tough time for her,” he said of Graham. The newspaper’s stock price had fallen, most Americans did not believe there was a scandal at the White House, and even most of those in the Post’s newsroom didn’t believe the Watergate stories, Woodward said. Yet Graham continued to back her reporters.
Memories of the Watergate stories and the book that put them into a larger narrative, All the President’s Men, may have passed into myth, Woodward suggested, recounting a dinner he shared at a conference with former Vice President Al Gore.
“Dinner [seated] next to Al Gore is, to be honest, taxing,” Woodward said. “In fact, it’s really unpleasant.”
It was 2005, and Gore berated Woodward, saying, “Why don’t you come out against Bush and the Iraq War?” Woodward replied that his work was to get at facts, not take a position.
Gore insisted that Woodward took a strong position against Nixon, and Woodward again insisted that the Watergate stories “were as empirical as we could make them.” Gore used a synonym for manure, saying “I read those stories.”
“And I wrote those stories,” Woodward replied, but that “did not move the needle of self-doubt” in the former vice-president’s mind.
In the conversation, Gore also said Woodward’s books and stories on the Clinton administration uncovered about 1 percent of the truth. But Woodward said, “I think we generally get to 60-70 percent.”
Yet the White House is more effectively tightening the flow.
“I think they get better almost every year at managing the message,” he said.
Despite Woodward’s view that reporters don’t face the sort of risk the award’s namesake faced, Colby College president William Adams said “It is not hard to draw a line from Elijah Parish Lovejoy to the young Bob Woodward.” During much of his work on the Watergate story, the reporter faced “great peril to his safety,” Adams said.
And Woodward was not “a flash in the media pan,” Adams continued. He has published 17 books on such topics as the CIA, the Supreme Court, Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the Gulf War and the 9/11 attacks. Woodward’s latest book is The Price of Politics, about the Obama administration’s management of the economy.
Woodward said he is often asked about threats to the nation: terrorism, a poor economy, wars. The most serious threat is none of these.
“We should worry the most about secret government,” he said. “My very first thought of the day is, ‘What are the bastards hiding?’ And they’re always hiding something.”