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Renowned journalist discusses Nixon, Trump during Bucksbaum Lecture

Bob Woodward onstage Photo by Grace Altenhofen | Editor-in-Chief

Legendary investigative journalist Bob Woodward spoke at Drake University on Tuesday, April 4 at the 44th Martin Bucksbaum Distinguished Lecture.

The Martin Bucksbaum Distinguished Lecture was started in 1996 by Martin and Melva Bucksbaum as a gift to the school. Past Bucksbaum Lecturers include Magic Johnson, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Megan Rapinoe and this year, Bob Woodward.

At the Bucksbaum Lecture, Woodward spoke about his career, including his work on the Watergate scandal, the aftermath of Watergate and his interviews with former President Donald Trump. Woodward was first hired for The Washington Post in 1971 and had his first blockbuster story when he and Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein reported on the Watergate scandal, which eventually led to Richard Nixon’s resignation of the presidency in 1974. 

Woodward mentioned a call he received one morning in 1974 from Bernstein, in which Berstein lamented that President Gerald Ford had pardoned Richard Nixon for his crimes. 

“‘The son of a bitch pardoned the son of a bitch!’” Woodward recalled Berstein saying. 

Woodward said he believed back then “this is the final corruption of Watergate.” He claimed that the pardon was the most likely reason Ford didn’t win reelection in 1976. 

According to Woodward, Ford pardoned Nixon not because of corruption but rather because it was “in the national interest.” At least, that’s what Ford claimed in an interview with Woodward. 

“Back in ’74, I was sure it was corrupt,” Woodward said. “What I thought was corrupt was courage.”

In an interview with The Times-Delphic, Woodward also shared his thoughts on Trump being charged with 34 felonies on April 4. He said that serious cases like this may not have a decision for a while. 

“I think it’s possible we won’t know the outcome of this case now,” Woodward said. “They said the next hearing is in December…things get postponed, delayed, motions are filed.”

Woodward had previously interviewed Trump multiple times while writing his book, “The Trump Tapes.” During the lecture, Woodward talked about how he was able to call Trump whenever he wanted and Trump could call Woodward whenever he wanted.

“Is it one of our daughters? Is it a friend? Is it a robocall? Or is it Donald Trump?” Woodward recalled asking his wife more than a few times when the phone rang. 

Woodward said he asked Trump “What is real power?” and Trump answered, “Real power is, I don’t like to say it, but real power is fear.”

“He doesn’t understand democracy,” Woodward said of Trump. “He doesn’t understand the job of President of the United States.”

Woodward shared another story about one of his interviews with Trump regarding COVID-19. Woodward had previously met with Robert O’Brien, a national security advisor under Donald Trump, in which O’Brien said he told Trump, “Mr. President, the virus is coming. It will be the biggest threat. It will be the biggest national security threat of your Presidency.”

Woodward claimed that Trump proceeded to cover up and deny the severity of the pandemic. 

In July 2020, Trump told Woodward over the phone, “We have it under control,” in regard to the COVID-19 pandemic. Woodward responded, “Mr. President, 140,000 people have died because of this virus you knew that in January. How can you say that?” President Trump responded to this by saying he would have a plan in 104 days, which Woodward realized corresponded to the 2020 Presidential Election. Woodward said that Trump was only worried about the election and about himself.

After Woodward finished his lecture, he allowed the audience to ask questions. During audience questions to Woodward, one person asked if it would be in the national interest for President Biden to pardon Trump, making the crowd gasp. Woodward gave a similar answer when he talked earlier about President Ford pardoning Richard Nixon for the national interest.

“I’ve heard other people say that sometimes it’s a way of closing the history book,” Woodward said. 

He then referenced his last interview with Ford after his time as President, in which Ford said that “acceptance of a pardon is an admission of guilt.” Woodward said that it would be “a deal Trump wouldn’t make.”

Dean of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Catherine Staub, shared her thoughts about the Bucksbaum Lecture in an interview with The Times-Delphic.

“My biggest takeaway was not one specific story but rather everything that Bob Woodward said and stands for and has demonstrated over his career–that essential nature of journalism, news journalism in particular to a functioning democracy,” Staub said.

Following the audience questions, the award-winning journalist received a standing ovation.

 

Woodward’s Q&A with the School of Journalism and Mass Communication

At 4 p.m. on April 4, Drake University hosted a Q&A event in the Cowles Library Reading Room in conjunction with the 44th Bucksbaum Distinguished Lecture series.

The Q&A is a built-in component of the Bucksbaum lecture series. Students and faculty in disciplines most closely related to the speaker’s area of expertise are invited to attend. In attendance at Woodward’s Q&A were 40 students and staff from the SJMC.

Woodward offered his advice to students in attendance. Woodward stressed the importance of going to the scene regardless of the story and to always take interview subjects seriously.

Woodward described an experience early in his career in which he was assigned a story about a famous hotel’s coffee shop closing due to its abysmal health inspection score. Woodward’s editor insisted that he “get your fat ass out of the chair” [sic] and go to the scene, where he discovered that the coffee shop was not in fact located at the famous hotel. Thus, Woodward advised the journalism students in attendance to always go to the scene when reporting.

“I liked [when Woodward said] you can’t form relationships unless you go to the scene,” junior Luke Clausen said. “For me, just yesterday, instead of calling the Des Moines Capitol, I went there, went outside the chamber, and gave a slip for a legislator to come and talk…I’ve learned some things you can only know by talking to people.”

Woodward also encouraged the audience to take their interview subjects seriously. He described that writing a 50-page memo on former president George Bush landed him an interview because Bush saw that he was taking him seriously. 

Next, Woodward addressed the ever-changing field of journalism and the recent introduction of artificial intelligence into writing.

“’Hi, I’m Artificial Intelligence and I’d like to talk to you.’ How far would that get?” Woodward said. “When giving important information, it involves a relationship of trust. How is artificial intelligence going to establish trust? It can’t. And that’s the one thing journalists have.”

And although Woodward said his advice can apply to any discipline, he was adamant about his viewpoint of journalism as an enjoyable career.

“As a reporter, I always say that if someone came from Mars to the United States for a year and the Martian goes back. They would say, ‘So, who has the best jobs in America?’ It’s the journalists,” Woodward said. “Why? Because journalists get to make momentary entries into people’s lives when they are interesting, and then they get the hell out.”

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