Bob Woodward Talks Presidents Past, Present, and Future

Bob Woodward speaks at the Coral Casino during a Westmont College sponsored lunch.
Paul Wellman

Bob Woodward, the journalist renowned for his work that uncovered the Watergate scandal and his decades of Washington Post reporting since, delivered a quip-rich speech to a packed room at the Coral Casino on Friday.

In his talk, put on by Westmont College, Woodward riffed on Edward Snowden (“Anyone who thinks they have any privacy is deluding themselves”), torture (he joked that Westmont president Gayle Beebe had “a waterboard here in the back in case I don’t answer fully”), and the Charlie Hebdo attack, faux-imploring Beebe to “answer the question” about whether such a publication could exist on campus. Beebe said he couldn’t imagine that an outlet attacking religion would be successful in America in general.

Bob Woodword (right) takes questions from Westmont president Gayle Beebe
Paul Wellman

Woodward, 71, kept the crowd laughing throughout his speech. When Beebe mentioned recent Westmont guest speaker and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Woodward replied, “Did he say anything that was true?” When asked how he felt about Robert Redford portraying him in a movie about Watergate, Woodward sighed and said, “You have no idea how many women I’ve disappointed.”

But Woodward’s remarks — he’s written 16 books, including his most recent, The Price of Politics — always circled back to a serious analysis of different presidents. The real job of the commander-in-chief, Woodward said, is to “define the next stage of good for the country” and assess threats and areas of concern.

With Nixon — whose resignation came in the wake the Watergate coverage — “it was all about using the power of the presidency,” Woodward said. Although Nixon did right in creating the Environmental Protection Agency and strengthening relations with China, he also “routinely and obsessively” broke the law, Woodward continued. Hate overtook Nixon, he said, with “the lust for political power and retaining political power” marking his ultimate downfall.

Bob Woodward
Paul Wellman

Moving on to Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, Woodward called it a “gutsy” move for Ford to pardon Nixon and that doing so encouraged the country to move on. Still, Woodward recalled, he agreed with reporting partner Carl Bernstein’s concise assessment of the pardon: “The son of a bitch pardoned the son of the bitch,” Berstein said at the time.

Speaking about Ronald Reagan — Woodward acknowledged author and former Post colleague Lou Cannon in the audience, who he said “has written 734 books” about Reagan — Woodward kept his comments short but laudatory. Reagan, he said, “provided the intellectual basis for ending the Cold War,” and as such, fulfilled his obligation to the future. There is “no better stage of good than to not have a nuclear war,” he said.

He didn’t mention Bill Clinton — Hillary was alluded too, however — and touched on George H.W. Bush only through his analysis on George W. Bush. “His dad’s war lasted 40 days. We are still in the Iraq War in 2015,” Woodward said.

Of Barack Obama, Woodward said he has seen “a very significant shift” in the current president’s view on war, having previously deemed it an expression of “human folly” but seeming to have changed his tune with the current situation in the Middle East. Overall, Woodward continued, Obama is “the supreme idealist but lacking in realism.” He has the “armor of a good heart,” the reporter stated, but “I think he hasn’t learned enough as president.”

What he’s most interested in, Woodward said, is who will succeed Obama. It could be an outsider, he said, pointing to the relative obscurity of Bill Clinton and Obama when they launched their campaigns. But Woodward made his predicted front-runner clear. When asked what titles the next president will need to have held, Woodward responded with law school graduate, First Lady of Arkansas, First Lady of the United States, senator, and cabinet officer.

In the meantime, Woodward said he didn’t think it would take anything less than a crisis to get the governmental branches working together again. He said, “To even call it gridlock is too nice to the word gridlock.”


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