How Bob does it: 5 secrets behind the power of Woodward

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How Bob does it: 5 secrets behind the power of Woodward

The most important historical question about Woodward is: How does he do it?

Over nearly a half-century, no other person—including people wielding official power as legislators or prosecutors—has done as much to illuminate the modern presidency and help shape understanding of the nine people to hold the office during his career as Woodward, wielding only a journalist’s unofficial powers of curiosity, notepad, and recorder.

Yet even as Woodward has made it his life’s work to demystify presidents, his own style and methods remain shrouded in carefully cultivated mystique. This paradox—he keeps his secrets, while exposing those of his influential subjects–is central to his work.

I’m not asserting full understanding of the how-Bob-does-it dynamic. But I have had a decent window on the question from two perspectives. One is as a friendly colleague of Woodward’s—he’s a generation older than me—when we overlapped in my two decades at The Washington Post, and on numerous occasions I benefited from his generosity. The other is as someone who also has written and reported on the presidency (Bill Clinton’s most of all) and has spoken often with White House officials about their choices of whether and how to engage with Woodward. Almost invariably the answer to whether is “yes” and to how is “on terms favorable to Woodward.”

This makes him a great vehicle for understanding the culture and psychology of Washington, the interplay between government and media, and the ways these have changed in recent decades. Publicly, within the news business, there is almost universal respect for Woodward and his astonishing career. Privately, when reporters shoot the breeze among themselves or with sources, it’s not uncommon to hear grumbling about how his books don’t follow conventional journalistic rules of the sort that would apply to daily newspapers.

The great theme of Woodward’s career has been that every presidency is built to some degree on illusion, and that there is always a great story in exploring the gulf between illusion and reality.

The illusion is that presidents and the people around them are engaged in a solemn and dignified endeavor, that they are righteous people pursuing the public interest, and, above all, they are in control. The reality does not always contradict this illusion, but there is always a tension. That’s because the reality is by definition about life-sized people—full of blind spots, insecurities, and personal agendas—who can’t live up to heroic illusions. Real decision-making is harried and improvisational, not solemn and dignified. All White Houses are beset with rivalries and antagonisms; no White House is actually as in control—even of its own people and process, never mind events themselves—as it hopes to project to the public.

Never was the gap between illusion and reality starker than with the president at the beginning of Woodward’s career, Richard Nixon, who beneath his conventional and pious exterior was a man of agitated obsessions and criminality. Nixon’s entire political project was about covering up the artifice at the center of his career.

Trump puts the classic Woodward technique of exploring the gap between illusion and reality in an odd place. This president, a veteran of the casino business, has never pretended to be a man of convention or piety. The gap between the base motives and public chaos visible for anyone to see and the base motives and private chaos revealed by Woodward’s reporting is actually quite narrow. Unlike Nixon’s desperate bid to conceal his artifice, the biggest revelation in “Rage” comes from Trump positively boasting about his artifice, with his unselfconscious assertion that he intentionally played down the seriousness of coronavirus at the beginning of the pandemic to avoid public panic.

No matter. Trump was bested by the Woodward techniques no less than Nixon was. Those techniques rest on Woodward’s understanding of five types of power.

The Power of Tick-Tock

Woodward is sometimes referred to as an investigative reporter, but most of his career doesn’t reflect investigative reporting as journalists usually think of it. There’s a very common type—an obsessive, often socially awkward, person, who thinks of himself as a born outsider. This person uses documents and sources (often similarly obsessive types) buried deep within the bureaucracy to pry loose information that people at the top don’t want told.

Woodward, since he made the pivot decades ago to emphasize book writing over daily newspaper work, is a master of a different genre: The narrative reconstruction of how a decision gets made. Reporters call these “tick tocks” because they rely on the perception that readers are getting a moment-by-moment account of what really happened. Woodward used to tell young reporters at the Post that as a writer he sometimes thought of himself like a movie director, “building scenes” that would capture character and unfolding events in vivid ways.

In Woodward’s tick-tocks, he may have some sources lower down but the most important ones are higher up: Principals, including presidents, who share their stories. With these sources, they may feign reticence but unlike in classic investigative reporting they aren’t throwing up stone walls. Woodward, and other practitioners of this genre, tap into an essential dimension of human nature: People find their own stories quite interesting, and want to tell them. At a minimum, they do not want other, potentially biased or adversarial sources, telling the story.

George Stephanopoulos, in his 1998 Clinton-era memoir “All Too Human,” gave the best account of what it’s like as a White House official dealing with Woodward. “I knew that Woodward always beguiled sources into saying more than they should,” Stephanopoulos wrote. “But like so many others who had supped at his table and spoken into his cassettes under the cover of ‘deep background,’ I was arrogant enough to believe that I could beat him at his own game, that my spin would win.”

The Power of Deep Background

With few exceptions, almost all of Woodward’s interviews are on this condition: He can use the material, but with no direct attribution.

As a rule, journalists are always supposed to prefer on-the-record quotes to background material. Woodward usually frames his use of background as a necessary protection granted to sources to get them to speak honestly.

What he doesn’t emphasize is that this gives him a huge advantage over subjects: It allows Woodward to assume the Voice of God. Since the reader—or even other sources with first-hand knowledge—can’t know for sure who said what, it allows Woodward to recount episodes as something close to omniscient narrator.

If every single source agreed to talk but did so on the record, with his or her own transcript made public, it would be hard to write a Woodward book in the classic style. It would reveal what most people intuitively know about any important episode in any arena of public or private life: There are key facts that can be reasonably ascertained, but there is rarely capital-T Truth. What there is are fragmentary memories, conflicting accounts, distortions caused by ignorance and ego, or sometimes just differences of emphasis between people of equally good intentions.

The Woodward narration techniques are one of the main things that makes many other journalists bridle. He typically recounts extended passages of dialogue between principals. Unless someone is secretly taping a meeting, it is unlikely indeed that the conversations from memory are ever so precise. Try it yourself about some meeting at your workplace—who exactly said exactly what?—even 30 minutes after the fact.

For my part, I don’t have to believe that dialogue is precisely accurate to assign it value as a faithful expression of the general spirit of what happened.

The Power of Status

Woodward’s career overlaps with two related trends in Washington culture. One is the now commonplace tendency of once-anonymous senior governmental officials to capitalize—with both money and media attention—on their public service tenures. The other is the blossoming of journalism, at least in the Washington context among the best-known journalists, into a profession with high social status.

Both trends help Woodward’s cause. A White House chief of staff or national security adviser may briefly, as long as he or she is in the job, have more Washington swan than a famous journalist like Woodward or, say, Wolf Blitzer. But the journalists have more enduring swat, and the chief of staff or national security adviser quite likely will want to stay on their good sides once out of power running their own lucrative consulting firm. Woodward met Deep Throat at a parking garage in Virginia just over Key Bridge from Georgetown (and just up the street from the POLITICO newsroom) but these days he is more likely to stay in Georgetown to interview sources who are flattered to accept an invitation to talk over dinner at Woodward’s own house.

A president’s realization that subordinates often are more invested in reaping the rewards of permanent Washington than they are loyal to him can be a searing experience. After Woodward wrote “The Agenda,” about Clinton’s early budget battles, the president was shocked by how much inside information had been shared by subordinates. From then on, he changed his style in meetings, no longer thinking out loud or believing that what was said would stay in the room. “That Woodward book tore my guts out, and I didn’t handle it completely well,” Clinton later told Stephanopoulos.

For his part, Woodward told “60 Minutes” that Clinton’s operating style was, “Chaos, absolute chaos”—a line that looks quaint by the standards of the Trump era.

The Power of Mystery

The identity of Deep Throat—unknown for 33 years until the revelation that it was senior FBI official Mark Felt in 2005—is obviously the signature mystery of Woodward’s career.

In fact, for people really in the know, it may not have been that much a mystery. As early as the fall of 1972, well before Deep Throat became immortalized in Woodward’s and partner Carl Bernstein’s “All the President’s Men,” Nixon and Bob Haldeman were recorded on White House tapes speculating accurately that Felt was feeding information to the Post.

Woodward evidently believes that keeping as much mystery about his work—What’s he working on? Who’s he talking to? What’s it going to say?—for as long as possible is an important part of his personal brand.

Leonard Downie Jr., the former executive editor of the Post, says in a new memoir (“All About the Story”) that Woodward was cagey and secretive even with him— the boss of the newsroom—about the news in his forthcoming books.

This is different than the style of most journalists, who tend to be inveterate gossips about their own work and everyone else’s. But it clearly works for Woodward—it was his fame and the mystique about his work that caused Trump to give him 17 self-damning interviews for “Rage.”

The Power of Defiance

Woodward is modest and self-effacing—and impressively persistent—while carrying out his reporting. “I’m humbled by what I don’t know,” he tells sources.

But he is as ferociously self-protective as any politician about defending his work after publication. This side of him has been on display in controversies such as his arguments with relatives of former CIA director William Casey about a purported deathbed interview he gave to Woodward at a hospital for the 1987 book “Veil.” In Woodward’s account, Casey admitted to helping hatch the Reagan-era Iran-Contra scandal, because, “I believed.” Some Casey family members have insisted that it was impossible this encounter took place. More leniently, some people have speculated that perhaps a barely coherent Casey—who died before the book came out—might have mumbled “Leave” to the inquiring author. Woodward has yielded nothing.

In 2012, Woodward defended himself with equal vigor when Jeff Himmelman, a biographer of the late Watergate editor Benjamin Bradlee, unearthed a transcript from 1990 in which Bradlee expressed “fear in my soul,” that Woodward and Bernstein may have embellished some details—like putting a red flag in a flower pot when Woodward needed a meeting with Deep Throat—in “All the President’s Men” for dramatic effect. Woodward told Himmelman he was using Bradlee’s words out of context and warned him not to “give fodder to the f—ers.”

The lesson, perhaps understood by the presidents Woodward has written about, is that maintaining an effective mystique means answering every serious criticism and never yielding ground.

The reality is that—no matter what thinks of some of the dramatic devices in Woodward’s books—no one has ever challenged the basic truth of his reconstructions, which are often invaluable starting points for later historians, since they capture recollections of principals in near-contemporaneous fashion. He has earned his outsized reputation.

Woodward’s career in some ways reflects the increasing velocity of history. Once, the vivid scenes in his books echoed for years to come. There was Nixon and Henry Kissinger on their knees praying in the Oval Office, from 1976’s “The Final Days.” Or CIA director George Tenet saying weapons of massive destruction in Iraq was a “slam dunk.” (Tenet says Woodward took the quote out of context.)

Lately, those anecdotes have had a shorter half-life. Woodward’s previous Trump book was 2018’s “Fear.” Quick: can you remember the killer anecdote in it? (Most accounts said it was the news that aides sometimes took papers off of Trump’s desk because they didn’t trust him not to act irresponsibly on information.) We live in an age when outrages and revelations arrive so quickly most people labor to recall what they were up in arms about last week.

In “Rage,” however, Woodward has once again produced a revelation that everyone will remember for a long while: Trump putting the knife into himself in his own excitement and vanity about talking to a journalistic legend.

The question now is how long Woodward will keep going. One little-noted fact: Among the only people who has had such a prominent record in Washington for so long is Joe Biden. Both are 77, and were born within four months of each other during World War II. Both made their Washington debuts in 1972, when Watergate started to boil and Biden was elected to the Senate.

Biden’s primary mission, in many ways, is to restore normality and conventionality to the White House. After the dramas of the Trump years, would that make for an interesting Woodward book?

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