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Woodward: 'How much do we really know?'

  • Bob Woodward
    Bob Woodward
    Journalist and author Bob Woodward spoke at William & Mary on Nov. 5, 2012.
    Photo by Erin Zagursky
  • Presidential poll
    Presidential poll
    Students raise their hands in response to Woodward's query on whom they planned to vote for.
    Photo by Erin Zagursky
  • Q&A
    Q&A
    A student asks Woodward a question after his speech on Monday night.
    Photo by Erin Zagursky

On the night before 2012’s Election Day, Bob Woodward presented a question to a room full of people at the College of William & Mary.

“How much do we really know about what goes on [in the government]?”

It is a question that the award-winning journalist and author known for helping uncover the Watergate scandal said “haunts” him. And it was the center of his talk at the Sadler Center on Monday night, which more than 500 students, faculty, staff and community members attended. The event, which was followed by a book signing, was sponsored by Alma Mater Productions and the Janet and Peter Atwater Lecture Endowment.

Woodward opened the evening by polling the audience on their picks for president.

“I think, in this presidential campaign, the voters haven’t been served as well as they should have by the media,” he said. “There’s been too much of a focus on gaps or apparent gaps, too much focus on polls.”

But that lack of important information available to the general public isn’t something new. Woodward recalled a discussion with Al Gore in which he asked the former vice president how much of what went on in the White House during the Clinton administration “was of interest of consequence” that is now generally known.

“He said 1 percent,” said Woodward, adding that he thinks we actually know more than that, but not everything.

Journalism is like the work of students or academics in that information begets information, said Woodward, who has worked for the The Washington Post for 41 years and written 16 non-fiction books.

“We reach a point where you don’t know everything, but you know a great deal,” he said. “But, what is left out? What don’t we know?”

Referring to the Watergate scandal, Woodward said, “We now know that the Nixon crimes were endless.”

“If you take some time to listen to some of the Nixon tapes or read the transcripts, what’s fascinating is the dog that doesn’t bark,” he said. “No one to my knowledge ever says, what would be good for the country, what would be right, what do we need. It was always about Nixon using the power of the presidency as an instrument of personal revenge.”

Woodward said that the biggest problem the country is currently facing is its national debt, which is currently about $16 trillion.

“The simple reality is that we do not have our financial house in order,” he said.

As for blame, Woodward, who recently released a book about the government’s attempts to fix the economy, said that “everyone is to blame” but “Obama bears the biggest responsibility here.”

“Why? Because he’s the president. We have to have a president who will lead. He’s done lots of good things, there’s no question about that, but on this issue, he has not found a way to fix it.”

Woodward concluded his talk by recalling a panel on aging that he attended, in which participants were asked to fill out health questionnaires that were supposed to give respondents an idea of how much more time they had to live.

Woodward said he watched former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger fill out one only to discover that “he had died four years ago.” Kissinger erased his answers and filled the sheet out again, resulting in a much more promising diagnosis of eight additional years of life.

Like Kissinger’s health questionnaire, in Washington there is constant “rescoring” going on, said Woodward, which makes his question all the harder to answer.

“The reality is that the message machine in the White House -- in all presidencies, but I think it gets better each year -- they know exactly how to spin and shape and rescore, so it makes it harder and harder to find out what went on.”

Despite that difficulty, Woodward recalled being inspired in his journalist work by Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. After the Watergate stories came out, many people did not believe them, but Graham did. She invited Woodward to lunch one day soon after Nixon won his reelection by a landside. Graham asked Woodward when they would know the whole truth about Watergate. Because all that he had seen and experienced in researching and writing the stories, Woodward answered, "Never."

"Never? Don't tell me never," Graham replied.

"I left the lunch a highly motivated employee," said Woodward.

That phrase was not a threat, but a statement of purpose, said Woodward. Graham loved her work and knew the purpose of newspapers, to pursue the question of what we don't know.

"Someday, we're going to put a plaque in the lobby of The Washington Post, and we're going to have it drilled it in so no one can take it out," said Woodward. "It's simply going to be, 'Never?' Don't tell me never.' Katharine Graham. January 1973."