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Bob Woodward
Wednesday, March 29, 2000

 

With the permission of the people who put on this lecture series, we're going to have the first interactive Landon Lecture in its history. And by interactive, I don't mean it's not as if everyone has a little thing like on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and they get to vote, but I'm going to ask you to participate in the questions I am going to try to address.

If there is a theme for this lecture or a title, it's "What do you think?" or maybe the sub-theme would be "Honest communication." It seems to me in the newspaper business or in the book-writing business, the whole question always is to try to find out what really happened and with sources, or getting access to documents, finding out and establishing channels of really honest communication.

Back in the 1950s when network television began covering the national political conventions, it was fascinating. They would be on full time and so the floor reporters had to interview almost anyone who was available.

And in one of these episodes, a CBS reporter tracked down and saw at one of the conventions Conrad Hilton, who ran and founded the Hilton chain of hotels, stuck a microphone in Mr. Hilton's face. Mr. Hilton was not used to being on television and the reporter said, "Mr. Hilton, there are five million people watching, you can say anything you want." And he was flustered for a moment, and then he realized he had a very large audience, so he looked the camera dead in the eye like a profession and said, "Next time any of you are in any hotel anywhere and you are planning to take a shower, please make sure that the shower curtain on the outside goes inside the bath tub." 

He knew what was important, he knew what his audience was, and he knew what he wanted to say. And if you think about it, it's probably one of the most honest moments in modern media communication.

There are four questions I want to address, and I'm going to give you what the questions are and then the key here is for you to participate and give very short answers to the questions. Now, these questions can be answered with a word or a phrase. They shouldn't be answered by you with a speech. I get to give the long-winded answer to each of the questions after three or four.

This is the first question: Whatever your feelings about Bill Clinton, he has been successful at his chosen career. Why?

Second question is: Why was President Clinton, when he was impeached by the House in the Senate trial last year, why was he not removed from office? Why was he acquitted? What was going on there in the politics of our country, in the culture, what occurred? You remind people that it was about a year ago that Clinton was on trial and the reaction almost universally is, "The Clinton impeachment trial, wasn't that at the time of the Korean War?" It seems ancient, but it really was a short time ago.

The third question is, who will or should be elected the next president of the United States? A very simple question to answer.

And then the fourst question is, and hopefully there won't be a lot of time to dwell on this, but the fourth question is, why do people dislike and distrust the news media? Maybe there will be no time. Maybe we could have a show of hands of people that would like to address that question first, but I'm going to maintain the order.

Now, let's go to the question of why has Clinton been such a successful politician? Raise your hand and shout it out, or you can go to the microphones, or I will attempt to repeat it. Sir.

Audience member: Riding in on the waves of a robust economy.

Mr. Woodward: The economy, stupid, which was, of course, his 1992 campaign motto. Okay. What else? Why has he been so successful? I'm going to call on the governor who knows President Clinton. Why has he been successful?

Gov. Graves: I think he's a brilliant person.

Mr. Woodward: he's a brilliant person, clearly has the intellect. What else is going on? Sir.

Audience member: He's articulate.

Mr. Woodward: He's articulate. Gee, you all sound like his campaign managers. What else?

Audience member: He has charisma. Hiring the right people. He hugs enough grandmas and kisses enough babies.

Mr. Woodward: He hugs grandmas and babies and those in between. That wasn't a setup. Okay, now let me attempt to give, you've given very positive answers, let me give you my answer.

I never fully appreciated Clinton until I went to interview him. I think it was in January of 1994 in the Oval Office for the book I was doing called "The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House," about how he made his economic policy. It was about 5 o'clock in the afternoon, went in and immediately he drilled me with this eye contact that was perfect and unrelenting, and it almost threw me back and it almost creates a gravitational force.

He has trained himself to use his eyes and focus on people. and I suspect that this is somebody who -- as we know now from the history of his life -- wanted to be president at a very young age, was willing to do anything and commit anything to that task, and in a sense he committed every organ of his body to that task, and that includes his eyes. And most of us, with our eyes, we let them buzz around the room as we're talking and listening. It doesn't hurt, it's not painful, focused.

And we were conducting the interview and I was asking my questions and he was so focused on it, I thought, "Wow, he realizes how much work I've done and how brilliant my questions are."

He almost had the capacity to create a sub-channel of communications with the eyes, not just the words that we were exchanging. And so I could kind of go with my eyes like, "Let's move on to the next and wrap that answer up," and he would immediately tune in and stop talking and let me ask the next question. Something dropped over the corner of the Oval Office and everyone looked over -- two of his aides were there -- back at him, perfect, unrelenting eye contact.

He was drinking a Coca-Cola in a glass, and got down to the bottom of it and was chewing the ice and I looked down at a question, looked up at him, and realized he was chewing the ice, and I looked through the bottom of the glass and there at the other end were two little beady eyes maintaining eye contact. As somebody said later, if you can do that you don't need a wife who talks to Eleanor Roosevelt.

Absolutely incredible. I thought it was a marvelous interview, that I'd gathered all kinds of information. I went back home, madly transcribed it, and realized there was not much of anything there of any use, but it sure had felt good. Not only one-on-one, but in small groups, I've interviewed people who have been with Clinton and I remember one woman was there in a meeting of half a dozen people for an hour, and she said she never said anything, but she did add, she said, "I know he agrees with me."

Where does that really work out? Obviously, on television. Television, he is a master. Go back and look at some of the Ronald Reagan clips. Reagan was dubbed the great communicator. Compared to Clinton he is an amateur. Clinton knows how to communicate in a way -- and if you go back and look at actors, people from the legitimate theater, movies, politicians, no one has perfected that art form. And it is a communication style that is, as has frequently been characterized, "I feel your pain, I identify with you, I listen to you." And so he is able to bring people in his orbit and he also is able to stump the political opposition.

Now, I could go on and answer some of the answers you gave, which I think are, indeed, quite correct, particularly the economy, which I think will turn out to be the crown jewel of his presidency. The boom we are in is an extraordinary period.

Now to go back into the dark history of the Lewinsky scandal and the Ken Starr investigation. The second question is, why, after he was impeached, what happened, what was going on in America about 14 months ago when he was acquitted by the senate? and raise your hands and give your answers. What was happening there, because I think it not only tells you about that moment, but some other important things. Where are the hands?

Audience member: The Democrats stayed united.

Mr. Woodward: Okay. The Democrats stayed united. All 45 Democrats in the Senate, and, of course, he needed about 12 or 13 of the Democrats in order to remove him under the two-thirds rule. So that is a practical matter, but why did the Democrats stay there? What happened? What was going on?

Audience member: No one wanted Gore to be president.

Mr. Woodward: No one wanted Gore to be president. You know, sometimes -- I mean, I don't know whether people were thinking that far down the road, but that is an interesting thought. What else happened? Anyone else have any quick answers?

Audience member: The economy.

Mr. Woodward: The economy? Okay, people felt good about the economy so they said, "Who cares."

Audience member: We were bombing Iraq, Sudan and Kosovo.

Mr. Woodward: Okay, I mean in that period, yes, that's true. Sir?

Audience member: People felt maybe the impeachment trial was rushed through the House.

Mr. Woodward: Okay, too much rush to judgment in the House impeaching him. Sir?

Audience member: I think people didn't want to impeach him. He was too popular.

Mr. Woodward: He was too popula. He had public opinion on his side. There's no question about that.

Let me give you my answer. First of all, when you are -- I have never been on a jury and certainly never been a Senator at an impeachment trial, to say the least, but you find that that world rather than being large gets small. And you deal with the presentation of evidence before you. There is the political noise outside; there is the reality of the economy; there is the reality of the public support, but basically trials are decided and jurors are quite wise almost all of the time in making a judgment on the weight and power of the evidence.

And what happened -- a couple of things happened in the Clinton case, that when you examine the evidence, and I have examined it in detail, read a lot of the Grand Jury testimony, the whole Starr report and so forth, you see that there is no evidence that Clinton committed a crime. There is abundant evidence and by his own admission that he had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, but no real evidence that a crime was committed.

When Ken Starr started his investigation of Lewinsky it looked like there was going to be all kinds of evidence. Linda Tripp came in with all of these tapes. There were suggestions of obstruction of justice, of perjury. From that date to the Senate trial of about a year, the evidence, instead of getting stronger, got weaker.

If you or I are ever charged with a crime or have to stand trial, we are going -- one of the things that's going to happen to anyone standing trial almost always is there's going to be a human witness, he's going to come into the courtroom and say, "I was there, I saw this, and this happened, and it was criminal or corrupt."

What happened in Clinton's case, the three human witnesses who might have turned on him, Monica Lewinsky herself, Vernon Jordan, Clinton's good friend, or Clinton's secretary, Betty Curry, you read their testimony; it turns out they say exactly the opposite. No crimes, no offer of a job for silence, no obstruction of justice. So when you get into that narrow business of deciding something based on evidence, there was no evidence of a crime really.

And though technically impeachment and removal does not require a crime, there was a sense that that is the threshold and there was, when you get right down to it, zero evidence on that.

Now, the second thing that saved Clinton, I believe, is very simply Watergate. That Watergate was background music to the Lewinsky affair and Clinton's impeachment and his trial, but all of the Senators in one way or another remembered Watergate, in many cases very vividly.

And what happened in Watergate with Nixon 25 years earlier was what? Nixon resigned because there was a mountain of evidence of criminality. First his tapes. If you follow the news there is a new batch of Nixon tapes that comes out each season. At the Washington Post, we refer to this as the gift that keeps giving.

If any of you have listened to those tapes or go read the transcripts or have read what has come out, it is chilling. It is a president who regularly is ordering crimes, cover-ups, stonewalling, ordering the use of government agencies -- FBI, CIA, IRS, Secret Service, you have it -- to essentially screw his enemies and settle political scores.

And if you actually go clamp on the headphones and listen to the tapes at the National Archives, what you find -- and this is even almost more frightening than the criminality -- is how small the talk is, how no one ever says the dog that does not bark on the Nixon tapes.

Those I've read or heard so far, is no one ever says, "What would be right? What would be the best for the country?" It's always the political gain, and how do we fix somebody or how do we help somebody. In addition, what happened in Watergate, it's a time when people actually wrote things down and there are file cabinets full of documents showing the schemes, the enemies list and let's spy on so and so, let's screw so and so, the abundant money trail. And then in the end, almost everyone who is close to Nixon, his top aides, testified that Nixon regularly ordered criminal activity in cover-up.

So when you have Watergate as the backdrop for Clinton's impeachment and trial, the Senators essentially said, and it turned on those 25 Democrats, no evidence, and this just does not even come close to getting in the realm of something that a president should be removed from office for, because of Nixon's crimes and what he did.

Now, there is a dark side to all of what happened in the Lewinsky affair, and I think it's worth mentioning. Somebody here mentioned about Clinton; Clinton is brilliant, there's no question about it. Probably so smart that he, maybe more than any president, other than FDR in the 20th century, had the capacity to define the next state of good for a majority of people in this country. And I would say that's probably a president's job. What's the next state of good for a majority of the people? Define what that is, develop a plan and execute it. If it's conducting a war, if it's getting us out of a depression, if it's fixing social security, if it's fixing the economy, if it's civil rights legislation, whatever it is, that's the president's job.

What happened to Clinton after he passed his economic plan in 1993? The Whitewater investigations began and Clinton -- and there is a pattern of this from '94 really up to the present -- whenever thse allegations surface, the Clinton reaction, the White House reaction is to stonewall, to withdraw. Clinton became so isolated.

In the last book I did, "Shadow: Five Presidents in the Legacy of Watergate," half of the book, more than half of the book is about Clinton's troubles. And repeatedly, when there was an allegation, something came out, there was never a full disclosure, there was never, "We will answer everything."

There was never a really serious effort to kill something like these inquiries with the real truth. Clinton became isolated, did not confide in his staff, I believe did not confide in his wife, Mrs. Clinton, did indeed not confide in his lawyers, he lied to his lawyers about everything.

So here we have the irony of the most powerful man in the world literally for five or six years of his presidency is not getting advice; he is not confiding his people, and what it yielded is -- if I were going to do another book on the Clinton presidency, I would call it The Tactical Presidency, that everything was, "How do you get through the day?" There was never a real large vision. The Clinton presidency became risk averse.

Clinton himself on the eve of his acquittal in the Senate trial told one of his friends he knew he was going to be acquitted the next day. He said, "It will never be the same." He's smart enough to realize, and what that meant is, it'll never be the same with the public, with the Congress, with foreign leaders, with his staff, with his wife, with his family and whith history; that what Clinton had done is he had sacrificed this wonderful moment in history of no large war, no economic problem, in fact, a fantastic unparalleled boom, a time when he could have done things that each one of us would have appreciated at the time or in later years.

And so the Clinton presidency has been a time when a great price has been paid by everyone because of these inquiries and investigations. And I think probably the trait a president can display that is the most important is courage, and throughout all of this Clinton really did not give himself the opportunity to display real courage.

And by courage, I mean courageous presidents or leaders in any field of any institution, there always comes a time when you have to walk the road alone, when you have to do something when the polls and your advisers and your friends, and everyone says, "No, that isn't the right course." You have to say, "No, I am making judgment and I am walking that road," and sometimes it's a very lonely road, but really great leaders need to do that. I would argue that Clinton had the capacity and it was at this moment in history when all kinds of things could have been fixed and developed that were not.

Now, to turn to the question and dispose of Clinton at least in this morning's discussion. Who will or should be the next president of the United States? And maybe before starting, if I can -- like Dick Morris, Clinton's failed political strategist in the '96 campaign, Morris never liked to do anything; didn't even like Clinton to go on vacation without taking a poll.

So let's take a poll. How many people expect they will vote in the fall for George W. bush, please raise your hand.

How many expect they will vote for Gore? Fewer, a lot fewer.

Okay. Taking those candidates, tell me -- you know, let's start with Bush, some of the people who feel strongly that he will or should be president, raise your hand and say why. Come on, I know the support's not that deep. The governor, here we go now. You can stand up and you have three minutes.

Gov. Graves: I simply think he is a man of great integrity; he's done an outstanding job of a difficult situation in the state of Texas. He has experience in some presidency -- we shouldn't underestimate what you learn in those years where your father was president.

Woodward: Gov. Graves, do you think he has that trait of courage, and if so, when has he demonstrated it? Or would we be electing him on the anticipation that he has that trait?

Gov. Graves: It's likely. You see it in different situations he has faced as governor of Texas, but I think he has demonstrated the ability to get things done.

Woodward: His greatest strength clearly is that ability to develop a consensus and bring along people from all walks of life, Democrats, Republicans and so forth. Now, how about anybody want to take on the governor here?

Gore, and why would people be voting for Gore? What's the reason? If not, I'm not going to be forced to defend no controlling legal authority. Sir.

Audience member: Had the press handled Gore like they did Dan Quayle, Gore would be a laughing stock of the United States.

Woodward: Okay. Now, is that support? You have an indirect way of doing things here in Kansas. The press has been tough on Gore in many ways.

I did the stories in 1997 about his campaign fund-raising and there were multiple investigations, and I can assure you I am not on his Christmas card list. I'm on another list that may be just as long, but it's not as desirable. So I would argue the press has been tough on Gore. You know, maybe not tough enough. We can always be tougher if its done in a fair way. But who would support Gore and give the reason why? Sir.

Audience member: Everyone likes the Internet.

Woodward: Everyone likes the Internet. Okay. we have yet to find a Gore supporter who will stand up for their candidate. Sir.

Okay. The Supreme Court nominees -- there is an expectation that the next president's going to appoint a number of Supreme Court justices. I did a book 20 years ago on the Supreme Court, and I remember during the Carter administratoin there was this sense there were all these old -- at the time, only men on the court, and they certainly will retire or pass away and there will be lots of appointees by Jimmy Carter. How many court appointees do you think Carter made? Zero. There's something about the air in the Supreme Court building that they ought to bottle, because it keeps people alive and working into their 70s, 80s and sometimes 90s. So that may not necessarily happen, but that certainly is an issue, and if you look at the polls, most people on the abortion issue are pro-choice and if that becomes a factor as perceived to be a factor, that could be.

What about Gore support on the issue of being able to be an effective president? Is there anyone who feels Gore -- sir?

Audience member: I think the best argument that can ever be made for any president, is to have a president that is from a different party than the majority of Congress. We did the least amount of damage.

Woodward: So you not only believe in the government that does the least, but does nothing? Okay. Well, I'm going to leave Kansas with a definite feeling that Gore's meager support here is paper thin, or at least, not vocal. Sir.

Audience member: I think Gore is clearly brighter and far more knowledgeable.

Woodward: Okay. That's possible. Let me give a quick answer to the question, and I don't know who will or should be president. I decide who I'm going to vote for in that 10-minute walk from my house to the polls each time. But there are a couple of points that I think could be made about what is going on in politics in the country.

It was very interesting to watch the insurgencies of John McCain and Bill Bradley, and it definitely suggested that there is in the politics of this country a certain willingness among lots of voters, not a majority, to reform or take risks or do something new. I mean, McCain and Bradley represented what I would call the counter-politics, that really goes back to the anti-Vietnam war movement, goes through Watergate, you could draw a straight line from that -- those movements, those insurgent movements to Ross perot in '92. Colin Powell in '96 was ahead in the polls and decided not to run, and McCain and Bradley in 2000.

But what's interesting, and I think we've lost a little bit of sight of what happened, is the voters in a rather overwhelming way said, no, we want what I would call the preservationist candidates to head the ticket in both the Democratic and the Republican party, the kind of no-party solidarity, some of the stuff that McCain was talking about, though it had an appeal to a clear minority, it was a minority. And that in this country there is the sense we want the next president to be somebody who will preserve what we've got. I think that was the very, very clear message.

We now see in March of 2000 that both Gore and Bush are trying to pick up the McCain voters, the Bradley voters, and they are both campaigning in a very visible and aggressive way as reformers.

My guess, and it's only a guess, is that the one who is going to win is not going to be the one who convinces the public that he's a reformer, and the most sincere and aggressive reformer, rather the one who is going to win is most likely -- the most likely outcome is going to be the one who can say, "Look, here is where this country is, extraordinary economic boom."

I'm doing a book on the economic boom now and talking to lots of people about why we have it, who created it, when and why it might end, and this is not something I'm doing to manage my own stock portfolio, I assure you. But it is a fascinating moment in economic history in this country. If you took -- and I've talked to some of the best economists in the country -- go back to the beginning of the Clinton administration in January '93 and say, "What are the odds, what is the probability of having the Dow Jones average at 11,000, inflation at about 3 percent, unemployment at an incredible low 4 percent, and growth at 3 or 4 or 5 percent?" Economists said the chances would be roughly anywhere from one in one million to one in one billion.

So we are in an economic era that is so unique, whether intellectually or not, I think intuitively people in this country understand it, or most people understand it, and I suspect the vote is going to turn on the issue not of reform, but of preservation. But that is only a guess.

Now I see, unfortunately, we have a little bit of time left to turn to the subject of the news media and why -- why do we have this sense of distrust that people feel toward the media, to the point often of loathing and contempt. What's going on here? And don't hesitate to speak freely. Sir.

Audience member: They try to shape the news instead of reporting it just so it makes it on TV.

Woodward: Okay. TV is the worst offender in your view and it's shaping the news or that there's a bias you sense. Is it a political bias?

Audience member: Probably.

Woodward: Probably. Okay, that's a good answer. What else? Who else has a feeling about why there is sense of distrust? Sir.

Audience member: I think you've got one of the good advantages here today (remainder inaudable).

Woodward: Perjury is a crime, that you can get all kinds of lawyers, including 10 Republican Senators, who voted not to convict Clinton on the grounds of perjury, because they would argue, and I would -- listen, I tell you, I am not a Clinton fan, and could not be more unwelcome in the White House.

But in terms of the kind of evidence that would prove that there was perjury -- and remember, I'm sorry, this is technical -- Clinton was charged in the Senate trial only with perjury in the Grand Jury, that the House did not vote on an impeachment article on perjury in the Paula Jones civil deposition. I would agree there clearly was perjury in that, but you can't convict somebody on something that they're not charged with.

And in Clinton's Grand Jury testimony, and this was the brilliant legal strategy, he went in and changed his story. He wouldn't go into detail, but he said, "Yes, I did have this inappropriate intimate relationship with Monica Lewinsky," which was completely different than the story he had told. So for technical legal reasons I tell you there is a powerful case to be made that that was not perjury. But I take your message, and it looks like I'm advocating something on Clinton's behalf, which I am not.

Who else? Why do you feel uncomfortable, distrustful, angry? Or you can say you really like the media, too. Sir.

Audience member: The press is often shallow and fleeting and has no historical background.

Woodward: Other than that, it's great. It's shallow, fleeting and has no historical background or context, right? That is too often the case. Let me give my opinion on this quickly. I think obviously a couple of things are going on. One is the 24-hour television. It is a magnet for people who want to offer inflammatory opinions and rush to judgment, and it's this element of speed which has taken so much. You know, back during the Watergate story, Carl Bernstein and I could work on something for really a good number of weeks, write it, the editors would review it, and then they would say, "Go back and get more corroboration, more sources, more information, more historical context," and so forth, as we, believe it or not, would hvae two weeks at times to work on such a story. Now an editor would likely say, "Can we get it on the Washington Post Web site by noon?" There is a feeling of let's do everything real fast.

The other element -- and the Seaton family has practiced this, I think, magnificently in Kansas, the Graham family that owns the Wsahington Post, I believe has practiced it -- and the theory is quality of news. If you invest in reporters and editors and pay them well, allow them to really look at subjects in depth, it will pay off, and that is a business decision. Quality is a very good thing. And I think what has happened in the news business is we've shifted to the quick and the glib and that we don't spend enough time getting to the bottom of things.

And I tell you, if a newspaper, if the Mercury or the Washington Post or the New York Times or any newspaper, or television station really got to the bottom of things that are going on, and did it in a really compelling way, and you could see the level of effort in the reporting, and did it time and time and time again, that would be the preeminent news organization, not only in the country, but in the world, given the Internet.

If you have unique exclusive quality information and you can explain to people what's really occurring and why, you will survive. But all of the pressures have gone in the direction for quick and down and dirty, and particularly on television.

And television is a deadly, a deadly communications media. The English language is like a golf ball, or at least mine. It never can go straight. It always spins one way or drops or does something. You can't hit the English language perfectly straight. When you do it on television sometimes the intended or unintended sneer or the tonal, "Can you believe that?" or the use of language conveys such a sense, not necessarily of political bias, but of judgment and that that's what -- it almost looks like the reporters, particularly on television, are judging the people that they are reporting on, and I think people don't like that. They don't want final judgments; they want information. So there's much more to do on that.

Now, what I wanted to do is say one more thing and then spend as much time as Chuck Reagan will allow for questions. But this story goes under the theme of no one likes what we do in the newspaper business or the book writing business.

The head of Simon & Schuster a number of years ago, after I'd published one of my books, took me out to dinner and said, "Okay, what's your next book? When are you going to do it?" And I said, "Well, I was going to take a vacation." And he said, "Look, we're in the marketing business. We need more books. Let's go," really needling me very hard. And I finally said, "Okay, well, my next book is going to be on the publishing business in New York City." And he was delighted to hear that and said, "That's terrific, because I have a great title for you." I said, "Well, I don't think there's such a thing as a great title. There are good titles, not great titles." He said, "This is a great title. Your book on the publishing business in New York City will be titled "My Last Book." And he really meant it.