Bob Woodward is regarded as one of America’s preeminent investigative reporters and non-fiction authors. He has worked for The Washington Post since 1971 as a reporter and is currently an associate editor of the Post. While a young reporter for the Post in 1972, Woodward was teamed up with Carl Bernstein; the two did much of the original news reporting on the Watergate scandal that led to numerous government investigations and the eventual resignation of President Richard Nixon. Woodward has authored or coauthored 16 non-fiction books in the last 36 years, all of which have been national bestsellers. On Thursday, November 18, Woodward visited the Yale Daily News and was kind enough to let the Magazine record his responses to student questions, some of which are excerpted here.
Can I ask why you didn’t do the Yale Daily News?
Because I had no idea I was interested in journalism. I did the Yale Banner and was chairman of the Yale Banner…. I wrote some things for them, but not much. It was mostly business, managerial.
Has your process in reporting investigative pieces changed at all because of technology or changed since you first started?
It really hasn’t — the process I have is total immersion: living with the people and getting to know them, multiple interviews. The way I organize my data is two-fold: by people — a President Obama file, a Joe Biden file, a Secretary Gates file, and so forth…. Then the second way I organize it is by chronology. I write the book almost always in pure chronological order, because it’s easier, because one common feature we all have — presidents, students, or reporters — is we all live our lives in chronological order….
The Internet is a tool. I have a couple of assistants working for me full time who are geniuses — they can find anyone or anything. I have a Facebook account and they manage it…it’s not a radical change for me…. The good quality information about Watergate and, quite frankly, all of these things I tried to work on, is not on the Internet. It’s secret, or it’s classified, or people aren’t going to talk about it. And you have to dig it out.
How do you conduct interviews and prepare?
Lots of preparation…. You really want to prepare, not just do a Google search on somebody. If they’ve written an article in Foreign Affairs 25 years ago, look it up and read it. And then, when you’re talking to them, say, “On page 36, you say the following. What did you mean?” And they’re astonished — they thought that only their mother read the article. And it’s not a ruse. What I’m trying to do [when I interview you] is understand where you’re coming from, what your values are, what your sense of your job is…. I am taking them as seriously as they take themselves. That is something you [as reporters] can leverage. You want to be neutral. And you go back again and again.
You, as a relatively young reporter, almost took down a president, but after, you didn’t bank on that, you kept going after the Supreme Court. And in the current age, you’ve talked to President Obama. What keeps you driving? And also, has there ever been anything as tough an assignment as Watergate?
They’re all tough. You have to peel the onion, you have keep going back, you have to have iron pants. When I was doing the Obama book [Obama’s Wars], to one of his top aides I will not name, early on, I said “I’m going to do a book on national security,” and he said, “ok, good luck, you’re not going to find many Deep Throats around here.” By the end of the process, reporting this summer, he was getting his top secret notes out of this safe and reading them to me. I restrained myself and did not say, “Oh yeah? Is it hard to find Deep Throats around here?” But’s it’s always hard. There’s always an element of surprise.
Are you compelled to uncover secrets all around you or is it just about the government?
Hopefully, you’ve gained a level of trust and intimacy with those around you…. This isn’t true with the government, however, which has an extraordinary concentration of power. It’s always hidden; it’s not what you think. I get up in the morning, and I ask myself the question, “What are they hiding?” Because they’re hiding. And so it’s very much a process of helping the government make itself transparent. And you know it’s a great life. If somebody came from Mars and spent a year in the United States and they went back and they asked this visitor, “Well, who has the best job in America?” what do you think they’d say? Sportswriters? Quarterbacks? Presidents? Who has the best job? Journalists. Why do we have the best job? Because we make momentary entries into peoples’ lives when they’re interesting, and we get out.
Can you talk about returning to your sources? When do you know when you’re done doing the story?
You never are. When I interviewed Obama for this last book, I walked into the Oval Office and he said, “OK, Woodward, you’re on the clock.” And I pushed the time. I had sent him a 20-page memo headlined “lynchpin moments,” key lynchpin moments in the decisions you had to make in these wars, and as time was running out and he was going like this in his chair [Woodward fiddles], I said, “Well, there are more questions.” And he said, “there are always more questions.”
In terms of state secrets or national security interests, when will you allow someone to tell you what not to print?
They’re not in charge. They don’t get to decide. I get to decide. But I went to the Intel chiefs before this book [Obama’s Wars] was published, and it’s a scene out of a John le Carré novel: “Ok, there are ten things that I’ve got here and this is the form I’m going to publish them.” And we went through and [they said], “Oh, this gives us gas pains, that gives us gas pains, but oh, we can live with it.” And then there was one where they jumped. And I said, “On a scale of zero-10 where is it on the Richter scale?” And the answer, after looking out across the Virginia countryside from the top floor of the CIA: a nine. Because they made arguments [that] it would jeopardize lives and operations and things. And that’s not something — it’s a hell of a good story — but I’m not going to do that. There is nothing illegal about it, it’s something for my memoirs some day.
You said not a lot of people actually read what’s in the book Obama’s Wars. And it seems like the wars right now are kind of a non-issue in comparison to a lot of things going on here. And to me that’s kind of strange considering especially college campuses’ past with protesting. Do you think that we should be more aware about that, and do you think the press has a responsibility to push that on the public?
I think that the press has an obligation and part of the reason I picked the war was because, look, read history as you do, it’s a history of wars in many ways…. We’re defined by our wars to people abroad. I think we’re defined to ourselves by our wars…. The dog that hasn’t barked recently since 9/11 is a terrorist attack in this country. And when that happens, I talked to Obama recently and he said, and I quote him in the book saying, we can absorb another terrorist attack. Can we absorb another terrorist attack? It’s like the head of Goldman Sachs saying we can absorb another financial crisis. It’s probably true but it’s probably not the best thing to say. I think he said it because he lives in a sea of warnings, and they’re going to come, and it’s going to happen.
And Woodward’s general advice for aspiring journalists:
Go to the scene — no matter where it is, no matter what you’re doing…. Go to the scene; human sources; and documents, books, Internet, and so forth — there’s not a story you do or would do that shouldn’t have elements of all three.