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Watergate reporter still fears government secrecy

By Anthony Mancini
Staff writer

Investigative journalist, Washington Post editor and author Bob Woodward, who helped unveil former President Richard Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate scandal, gave a speech at Union College discussing his career and several current political topics including government secrecy and the 2012 presidential election. Photo by Amanda Verrette.
April 23, 2012
Bob Woodward, the reporter who, along with Carl Bernstein, exposed former President Richard Nixon's involvement in the Watergate scandal, gave a speech at Union College last Thursday where he discussed issues such as government secrecy, the 2012 presidential election, the Supreme Court's hearing of President Barack Obama's health care plan and the allowance of unlimited campaign contributions.

Woodward told the audience he had a conversation with former Vice President Al Gore, where they debated the sensationalism of Woodward and Bernstein's "All the President's Men," a book that recounts the duo's reporting during Watergate. Woodward said this led to a conversation about former President Bill Clinton's administration.

Woodward said he asked Gore, "What percentage of what went on in the White House do we now know?" to which Gore replied, "One percent."

"Is it possible there are that many women we don't know about?" Woodward joked.

Woodward said he asked Gore how much the people would know about the Clinton administration if he wrote a tell-all book about his experiences. Woodward said Gore replied, "Two percent."

Reporter Carl Bernstein, left, Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham and reporter Bob Woodward during the Watergate scandal. The two reporters linked the Nixon administration to a break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s offices. Woodward said Graham highly motivated him to continuing digging for information about the scandal. Photo by courtesy of The Washington Post.
"That's the question," Woodward said. "What don't we know?"

This anecdote led to Woodward telling about his experiences trying to report on Watergate, the Nixon administration's attempted cover-up of its involvement with the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. He said the publisher of the Washington Post at the time, Katherine Graham, asked him the "killer question: "When is the truth going to come out?"

Woodward said he replied, "Never."

"Because it was criminal conspiracy all the incentives were not to talk," Woodward told the audience. "There was this wall. There was this wall built around Nixon and his people."

The reporter said Graham responded, "Never? Don't tell me never."

Woodward said Graham's words were a motivating factor to continue on with his reporting of the scandal. "It was a statement of purpose," he said. "Keep on the story. Keep digging."

Woodward explained his techniques when reporting on government figures who are naturally secretive. "The argument I always make to people in government is transparency works. Tell me what's going on," he said.

The veteran reporter and now Washington Post associate editor said he sent former President George W. Bush a 21-page memo with questions about his decisions to go to war in Iraq. Woodward said he was able to talk to Bush because his administration knew he would write about the president with or without him.

"His answers hold up," Woodward said. "It's a record that doesn't exist for other presidents."

Woodward told the audience "don't jump to conclusions" about the U.S. Supreme Court's decision on the constitutionality of Obama's Affordable Care Act, which requires Americans to have health insurance or pay a penalty. Woodward said the judge's decisions could change a lot between now and June, when the case is expected to be ruled on.

The reporter noted eight members of the Supreme Court reversed their decisions on whether to send boxer Muhammad Ali to jail for refusing to be drafted into the military during the Vietnam War. Woodward said the justices didn't want to send a famous American to jail, did not want to look racist and believed Ali's conscientious objector argument was a valid legal argument.

Woodward said the 2012 presidential election is going to be significant because of the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, where the court ruled 5-4 to allow unlimited political campaign contributions by corporations and unions. The reporter called this decision one of the "tragedies of the Supreme Court."

Woodward expects the campaign advertisements funded by super political action committees to be highly negative attacks. He said the real contest will not be between Obama and expected Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

Instead, the reporter said, "The contest is going to be the super PACs versus the news media."

Woodward questioned whether it would be possible for the media to effectively sort through the expected onslaught of political advertising. "Some of the negativity is going to be true," he said. "Some of it is going to be untrue."

The reporter asked the audience if they believe what is reported in today's media. The few who answered were split between whether to trust the news or not.

Woodward said of all the issues dominating discussion today, the most important issue is a secretive government. "Democracies die in darkness," he said. "What's going on is probably worse now in 2012 than it ever has been."

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