Presidential Lessons from Watergate Reporter

Woodward VerticalBob Woodward, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, examined “Presidential Leadership and the Price of Politics” for 300 people on Jan. 16 in the Coral Casino at the Four Seasons Santa Barbara Biltmore. The legendary journalist, who has worked for the Washington Post since 1971, said it is not enough for a president to simply provide moral and ethical leadership.

“A president should always consider the next stage of good for the country and then execute it,” he said.

That didn’t happen with President Richard Nixon, who Woodward says abused his power by exacting revenge on those who opposed him. Woodward recalled the day of Nixon’s resignation when the president said: “Always remember, others may hate you but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”  Woodward said, “That’s quite true, but the hating is what Nixon practiced and it destroyed him. It was the poison of the Nixon presidency.”

Woodward says he was sure that President Gerald Ford’s pardon of Nixon was the ultimate corruption of Watergate, but in a later interview, Ford explained to Woodward that he did it for the country to put an end to Watergate and what would have been two or three more years of court proceedings. “I needed my own presidency,” Ford told Woodward. “The country needed a new presidency. We needed to dispose of Nixon and Watergate. And the only way to do this was the route of the pardon.”

“In fact, the pardoning of Nixon was very much a gutsy thing to do,” Woodward says. “It was a necessary thing to do in the national interest. The next stage of good is getting rid of Richard Nixon. And this is the only way to do it.”Woodward Horizontal

Woodward questioned the fast pace of internet journalism and talked about the time it takes to thoroughly research and write a story. He quoted a former boss at the Washington Post who said, “You can’t understand a man in an afternoon.”

Woodward criticized Obama for not building relationships with politicians in both parties. “It’s hard to not like someone who says they like you,” Woodward said quoting Katharine Graham, the late publisher of the Washington Post. “(Both Republicans and Democrats) feel he doesn’t like them. You have to have relations with people. Obama doesn’t do it and it hurts him.”

In looking at the current state of stagnated politics, Woodward recalled in 1978, when President Carter invited Menachem Begin, the Israeli prime minister, and Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt, to Camp David for two weeks, eventually leaving with a significant Middle East peace treaty.

“I asked one of Carter’s close aides how Carter did this amazing thing,” Woodward said, “And he says, ‘look, if you’d been locked away at Camp David for 13 days with Jimmy Carter, you too would have signed anything.’”

Woodward credited Carter for focusing on one thing and seeing it to completion. “I’ve checked the daily schedule of all the presidents, and Obama is a little of this a little of that, maybe a two-hour meeting, but there’s no focus,” Woodward says. “And one of the things that I have tried to learn is you have to focus.”

Woodward said that President Ronald Reagan’s next stage of good was removing the threat of nuclear annihilation and providing the intellectual basis for ending the Cold War.

Woodward, who spent 30 minutes answering questions from audience members, admitted that political partisanship and rhetoric are getting in the way of compromise in Washington.

“Negotiation takes time,” he said. “Obama will meet with the Republicans for an hour or two. That doesn’t do it. You’ve got to have an all-nighter or an all-weekender. Then you get to a point where you solve the problem. You’re exhausted and say, “What do you want the most? This is what I want the most —one for you, one for me. You can’t be embarrassed about compromise. You, in fact, are proud about compromise. Compromise isn’t a dirty word. It’s embedded in a constitutional system based on shared power. So maybe the idea of all of them going to Camp David with Obama and Joe Biden and so forth is a good one.”

The luncheon was part of the Mosher Foundation’s series on Moral and Ethical Leadership in the American Presidency, which continues with Doris Kearns Goodwin at the Westmont President’s Breakfast on March 6 and Ron White at Westmont on May 29.