Woodward: America should know more about 'what goes on in the centers of power'

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Bob Woodward was the speaker for Elon's Fall Convocation on Sept. 29. 

Drawing from decades of experience covering U.S. presidents from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, acclaimed Washington Post journalist and author Bob Woodward on Thursday cautioned that ignorance about what goes on at the seat of power threatens to shred our modern democracy. 

A Pulitzer Prize winner and the featured speaker at Elon University’s Fall Convocation, Woodward pointed to the unknowns the American public now face about the two top contenders to become the next president, and said “we should be doing better” understanding what’s guiding decisions during what he called “a very troubling time.”

“I think the biggest problem is that we don’t know enough about what goes on in the centers of power, particularly the White House,” Woodward said to a crowd of more than 1,000 in Alumni Gym at Elon. “There is a history of democracies shredding themselves when they live in the darkness. It could happen if we are not vigilant.”

During his long career as a reporter and editor with the Washington Post and as an author of more than a dozen books, Woodward has specialized in uncovering the inner workings of the presidency and the federal government, time and again shedding light on many of the activities and motivations he cautioned against during his talk at Elon. He rose to fame reporting on the 1972 break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. that led to indictment of dozens of government officials and the eventual resignation of President Nixon.

Woodward offered up vignettes from his career interviewing the most powerful people in the country as he delivered insights into leadership, the state of the U.S. presidency and the historic nature of this year’s presidential campaign. 

From his perspective, “it’s the age of the American presidency,” with the office of the president “more important than ever,” with “more power than ever,” he said. As evidence, he pointed to the string of wars since World War II that have been waged by the United States without a formal declaration of war by Congress. But despite that increase in the power of the presidency, modern presidents seem less likely to set an overarching agenda, and a timeframe and plan for accomplishing it, he said. 

“My definition of what a president must do is to figure out what the next stage of good is for the majority of the United States,” Woodward said. “Presidents in this atmosphere we have now hopscotch around, and we do not have this kind of vision of what the really big deal is we need to settle. I think it’s one of the problems of the presidency.”

Turning to the 2016 presidential election, Woodward delved into the unexpected rise of businessman Donald Trump to become the Republican nominee, and the challenges Democrat Hillary Clinton faces in generating a larger base of support. He said the public deserves to know the unknowns in the race, including information in the unreleased tax returns of Donald Trump, and the content of thousands of emails deleted by Hillary Clinton. 

Trying to answer the question of what has driven Trump’s popularity, Woodward said Trump has tapped into growing disdain for what’s considered the “establishment,” as the definition of the establishment has broadened to include leaders across both parties. “He picked up on — some people call it anger, but it’s not just anger — it’s a sense of, ‘things have not worked out for me, and I would like them to be fixed,'” Woodward said. 

Woodward noted that during an interview of Trump, the Republican was proud of his ability to “bring out rage in people.” But Woodward questioned whether that should be something a president attempts to do. “What’s the job of the president, to bring out rage in people?” Woodward asked. “The job of the president is to bring people together.”

While Clinton has built a career as first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state on being prepared and understanding policy, her reaction after her widely praised performance during this week’s debate exhibited “self-satisfaction, self-congratulations, and unfortunate lack of humility and smugness.”

While Clinton said she was prepared for the debate, and to be president, “what she didn’t say was, ‘I was prepared because I want to do things for you, the public,'” Woodward said. “The focus in Hillary Clinton is so often, even with all of her skill, on herself.”

Woodward’s speech was filled with anecdotes from what have often been intimate interviews with the most powerful leaders in the country. He remembered a moment during an interview with President Barack Obama after a moment of silence when Obama shared what he said his biggest fear has been as president. “He said he worries the most about a nuclear weapon going off in an American city, and it’s the right thing to worry about,” Woodward said. 

Woodward recounted how years after pardoning Nixon for his role in Watergate, President Gerald Ford revealed the root of his decision, debunking theories that the pardon was part of an corrupt deal for Nixon to avoid jail time. But without a pardon, the country faced several more years of the Watergate case, Woodward said Ford told him. 

“I needed my own presidency,” Ford said, according to Woodward. “The country had to move on from Watergate.”

Woodward’s convocation speech was the highlight of a day spent at Elon that included leading a class in the School of Communications, having lunch with journalism students and staff of Elon News Network, as well as a reception at Maynard House.