Or so he told the standing-room-only crowd at the Gloria and John L. Blackburn Academic Symposium Lecture Friday night, as a guest of The University of Alabama’s Blackburn Institute.
Woodward became a household name in the 1970s when he and fellow Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein wrote a series of stories uncovering the Watergate scandal that eventually resulted in the resignation of then-president Richard Nixon. The two won a Pulitzer Prize for their work.
Woodward, still at the Post as an associate editor, visited with Blackburn fellows and others to largely speak about his most recent book, “The Price of Politics.” But his views of journalism played a significant part in his talk.
“At the center of journalism – I think at the center of being a citizen, really – is, how much goes on in the government that we don’t know?” Woodward said. “We don’t know enough. The impulse to be secretive in the White House is so great.”
He said one of his greatest concerns is lack of transparency in government. Woodward said shedding light there is the job of journalists, though he thinks the news industry has been crippled by cutbacks and the fast-paced market for news today.
“If we don’t really get a pretty good idea of what’s going on – I think that’s what will do us in,” he said. “If we get secret government, beware. That’s the end. That is the thing that I worry about the most.”
Woodward, a Yale graduate, began his professional life as an intelligence officer in the Navy. After being discharged from the military, he considered going to law school but instead applied to work for the Washington Post. An editor agreed to give him a two-week trial period, but he ultimately wasn’t hired because he lacked journalism experience.
Woodward went on to gain experience at a smaller paper outside of Washington D.C. After his trial run at the Post, he knew journalism, not law, was where he wanted to make a career. The unpredictable nature of reporting pulled him in.
“By definition, the news is not boring,” he said. “It’s unexpected and always a little mystery. But you have to keep going.”
Woodward was eventually hired as a Post reporter and just nine months later began to break the story on the Watergate cover-up. In addition to reporting for the Post, Woodward has authored more than 15 nonfiction books that take an in-depth look at various administrations and government agencies.
When the floor was opened for questions, an audience member asked Woodward which presidents he most liked, admired and thought were misunderstood. He said he found Bill Clinton to be the most compelling.
“He drilled me with this eye contact that almost created a gravitational field,” Woodward said of a January 1994 meeting with Clinton. “You’re staring at this unblinking president. There’s a sense of being enveloped.”
Woodward said he left the interview thinking he had gotten some great material, but later realized Clinton’s charisma had simply overpowered him.
“One thing we think we can trust – our own experience,” he said. “You have an experience like that and you’re sure it’s important, but it’s not. We kind of think of our memory as vivid and unchanging, but it’s not.”
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