On Tuesday, Sept. 25, VCU’s Singleton Center for the Arts was packed with over 1,300 guests, both VCU students and Richmonders alike, with a line expanding back to the Cathedral on Cherry St. The occasion? The College of Humanities and Sciences, along with the Office of the President and the Robertson School of Media and Culture presented “A Talk with Bob Woodward” as par of the Fall 2018 Speaker Series. The visit came just two weeks after the publication of Woodard’s 19 book “Fear: Trump in the White House,“ which has already sold millions of copies worldwide.
Woodward is best known for his prize-winning coverage of the 1972 Watergate scandal alongside fellow reporter Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post, the reporting of which caused President Nixon to resign. He has been with the Post since 1971, and is the current associate editor for the paper. The book he co-authored with Bernstein about the scandal, “All the President’s Men” (1974) was later turned into a critically-acclaimed film of the same name. When Richard Godbeer, Ph.D, brought up that Robert Redford had played the role of Woodward in the film, Woodward joked “you have no idea how many women I’ve disappointed because of that movie.”
The event, starting at 6 p.m. with doors at 5 p.m, had a line starting around 3:30 p.m., with guests bringing lawn chairs as they waited to get first-rate seats to see the esteemed journalist. The Singleton Center, which can comfortably seat up to 1,300 guests, was completely filled. The three “overflow” rooms for a live broadcast of the talk (located in the Cabell Library lecture hall, Black Music Center recital hall and a lecture hall in Temple Building) were all filled to capacity as well.
Woodward took the stage after a lengthy introduction from Godbeer, being introduced as the “ultimate inside man” and one of “the most celebrated journalists of our time.” As acknowledged by both Godbeer and Woodward, the journalist has written 19 books about 9 presidents over the past 50 years (with three of them being #1 best-sellers); a total of about 20 percent of the United States presidents. Woodward joked about how he brought that up at a talk in a high school, and he was asked by a student “what was Calvin Coolidge like?”
He wasted no time in getting straight to his new book, joking about how “‘Fear’ just came out–Trump loves it,” referencing the personal call the president made to Woodward to complain about the supposed “unfair” portrait that was painted of him, as well as the tweets published by Trump blasting both the author and his book.
Woodward explained that there should be three main takeaways from “Fear:” the first being that Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, once had to remove a letter on the desk of the Oval Office that would have ended the United States’ trade agreement with South Korea. Cohen explained to Woodward that, if the letter was out of sight, Trump would forget about it entirely. The second takeaway is that, when discussing the South Korean trade agreement, Trump had to be explained to by a member of his cabinet that they were “doing [the trade agreement] to prevent World War 3.” The last point Woodward wanted the audience to know was that “all president’s live in the unfinished business of their predecessor,” letting the audience make up their own minds about what Trump is doing with the “unfinished business” of the Obama terms.
Woodward described the Trump White House as being a “living, breathing mental breakdown,” suggesting that “we are at a pivot point in history–the old order is there, and the new order is taking its place.” Though he bordered on it, he was careful never to completely disparage the President, acknowledging that “the job of the journalist is political neutrality” and all reporters should strive to be an “ultra-centrist.” He mentioned that presidents, not even just Trump, often feel like being President “was their destiny–the power of the President is staggering.”
The majority of Woodward’s talk was devoted to a question and answer portion, many of which were asked by Robertson School students. When asked what advice he had for aspiring journalists, he half-jokingly suggested “working for a paper that Jeff Bezos buys.”
Woodward also tackled a tough question about the “fake news” phenomenon. When this question was asked, Woodward turned to the audience and asked for members to please raise their hand if they do not trust any news outlet–less than a dozen hands went up. When Woodward asked who does trust a news outlet, an overwhelming majority of the audience raised their hands. Woodward was obviously shocked by this, and asked “can I stay here?” He explained that at most places, the majority is those that do not trust the press–the fault of which he places on the press themselves. He observed that the press has to “do better, be better,” and “bunker down to improve the product” (meaning the news content they put out).
One of the questions, Woodward seemed to have no trouble answering. When asked the difference between this White House and previous ones, he answered, without missing a beat, “oh, nothing.” When the audience laughed, he revealed that he was serious. He noted that “there are people of conscience and courage in any White House,” and that coverage of any White House is going to be tricky. He observed that a reporter can be aggressive and fair in their reporting of a President, which he believed to be important.
One of the final questions Woodward was asked was whether he knew the effect that his and Bernstein’s Watergate reporting would have on journalism. As if he knew the question before it was asked, Woodward answered with a resounding “no.” He revealed that at the Post during the investigations, they all avoided the word “impeached” as though it were taboo. Woodward explained that “impeached” was not used in the newsroom until the news broke that Nixon was, in fact, resigning–a lesson for all current and future journalists not to count their chickens before they hatch.
The crowd at the Singleton Center is not likely to forget the lessons taught in Bob Woodward’s speech, nor how lucky the audience was to hear such insights and advice from such a journalistic legend. A huge thank you to none other than Woodward himself for spending so much of his evening in Richmond; it was a talk not likely to be forgotten by anyone.