At a packed lecture in the Law School auditorium Tuesday afternoon, Bob Woodward ’65 told the audience that it is the media’s “job to get our finger in the eye of the government.”
An hour before the renowned Washington Post reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist entered the auditorium, a mixed crowd of students and community members had already gathered to watch Woodward’s lecture, entitled “The Press and the Presidency: What Went Wrong.” During his speech, Woodward discussed the presidencies of both Richard Nixon and George W. Bush ’68, and contrasted the media’s changing roles and tactics during both eras.
Though Woodward did not talk about his own role in exposing the Watergate scandal, he discussed the Nixon administration’s criminal activities more generally and — through anecdotes about his Washington Post superiors’ persistence — he repeated his belief that journalists exist “to get to the bottom of things.”
Woodward said he believes the lesson of Watergate goes beyond the former president’s illegal activity and demonstrates the need for both transparency in government and a free press.
“Hate was the poison driving the Nixon organization,” Woodward said. “The real threat is a secret government.”
Woodward said his experiences have led him to believe that the most important trait for a president to possess is “the courage to have taken a road … and say you’re on the wrong course.” While Nixon failed to show contrition for his actions until it was too late, it is still too early to pass judgement on the Bush presidency, he said.
When Bush granted Woodward an interview before last year’s election, the journalist asked 500 questions during a period of three and a half hours — making it the longest ever given by a U.S. president on a single topic, Woodward said.
From his experience during that interview, in addition to his other contact with the president, Woodward said he thinks Bush has two defining characteristics.
“At the spine of George W. Bush … is the duty and zeal to free people,” Woodward said.
Though he maintained that it is the role of the media to act as a government watchdog, Woodward said there are significant problems with journalism today. Reporting is often conducted in a more rushed and impatient manner than in past years, and journalists are not spending enough time to fully analyze and understand pressing issues, he said.
While Woodward did not criticize Bush for his specific policies, he said the presidency has become more secretive and hidden in recent years.
Some students in the audience said they thought Woodward was both absorbing and funny.
“I was most impressed by his personal anecdotes from his interview with Bush and the respect that he showed for Bush’s directness and simplicity,” Sam Slavin ’08 said. “He left open the possibility that his dedication to humanitarian good in Iraq is genuine, an opinion that I haven’t heard very often from the liberal media.”
Chris Baker ’09 said he enjoyed Woodward’s discussion of the role of the media.
“His presentation was good and he made a lot of good points about the responsibility the press has in keeping government honest and accountable,” Baker said.
But other students said they wished Woodward had gone into greater depth about his opinions on the current administration.
“He did avoid a lot of questions from the audience,” Jason Davis ’06 said. “Although a lot of those questions were politically bent, so he probably had good reason to do so.”
Woodward’s lecture was part of the Gary G. Fryer Memorial Lecture series, which commemorates Gary Fryer, former director of Yale’s Office of Public Affairs, who served from 1994 to 1997, when he died of cancer.