Few people understand presidential politics like Bob Woodward, the legendary Washington Post journalist, who is best known for his crucial investigative reporting during the Watergate scandal in the 1970s.
The celebrated author closed the American Apparel & Footwear Association’s summit on Thursday and captivated the crowd with his unique take on the 2016 campaign and his thoughts on President Obama’s mistakes. He also stressed the importance of journalists’ critical role in the current election.
Read on for key excerpts from the conversation:
On the current election cycle:
“Clearly, what’s going on in American politics is astonishing. I think it’s a pivotal point in history.”
On the Nixon White House tapes:
“They are astonishing. Nixon viewed the presidency as an instrument, a personal instrument of revenge and reward. It was all about [him]. What never came up is, ‘What did the country need?’ Nixon held that it was an office he had to retain and was almost entitled to. The lesson from Nixon . . . is that the office of President is something people get for a while, and then [they have] have to walk away from it.”
On President Obama’s missteps:
“[During his first inauguration], Obama said: ‘Our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.’ It is a wonderful idea, but it doesn’t work in the world. I remember having an off-the-record breakfast with a leader of one of our closest allies. I said, ‘What do you think about him?’ He said, ‘He’s smart, I like him, but no one is afraid of him.’ My heart sank because I realized it is quite true.”
The general idea when you’re commander in chief is that you want to comfort your friends and scare the hell out of your enemies. What happens with Obama is he comforts our enemies and scares the hell out of our friends.
If you compare it with the Reagan presidency, what Reagan did in the first term was to be really tough. In the second term, he negotiated and worked with [Mikhail] Gorbachev. You have to start tough as nails and then you can become a negotiator. In the presidency, you have to have strategic planning. You have to think a year or two years out about where do you want to be. You have to be willing to change along the way.”
On what an intense eight years it’s been for Obama:
“Obama told his closest aides one night, ‘I’m going to leave the White House and I’ll be 55. It has taken a psychological and physical toll on me like I never imagined.’ He said, for example, that the Secret Service doesn’t want him walking outside unless he plays golf. He takes two steps and then gets into the car. He was getting nowhere near the 5,000 steps a day that a person is supposed to do. He had a new treadmill installed. Michelle goes to bed, and he stays up . . . and gets on the treadmill for about an hour and a half.”
There is a concentration of power in the presidency, much greater than it was in Nixon’s day. If you compare it to Jimmy Carter, Obama is doing two or three times more work.”
On the Republican party’s current woes:
“Recently, I called one of the elders in the Republican party. He was in virtual despair and said, ‘There are no elders.’ Actually, there are about five and they are taking Valium and in a corner with their blankies. I found another elder and he reminded me that Reagan was the third choice of the hard Conservatives to be president. I asked about what was going on now. He said that in 2016, anything is conceivable. . . . If you parachute in from Mars and ask who’s most qualified in the Republican party, it’s probably Paul Ryan.”
On the crucial role of the media today:
“One of the things Nixon said that I agree with was that instead of looking in the mirror, the media ought to be looking out the window. The issue for this campaign should be, dramatically, ‘Who are these people?’ [Amazon chief] Jeff Bezos, who owns the Post now, said we need to explain who these candidates are with such depth and such objectivity. In the news media, there are so many people who have a nervous breakdown about Trump. The job is, ‘Who is He?’ No one has a bigger biography than Donald Trump.”
The only person that might is Hillary Clinton. . . . When I get up in the morning, my first thought is ‘What are the bastards hiding?’ There is a concealment that goes on. What should we worry about the most: the economy, foreign affairs, how the world can blow up any minute? My answer is that what we should worry about is secret government. The darkness can be self-imposed by us not doing our job to explain and dig in to who these people are and tell the whole story.
On how a potential Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump presidency would play out:
“I don’t think I can answer that. You don’t know what’s coming. You don’t know how they’re going to moderate their views or fail to do that. In many ways, presidents have to be on a learning curve. We don’t know what learning curve these two people might be on if they become president. The past and their behavior in the past . . . is what we need to tell people [about].”
On being played by Robert Redford in “All The President’s Men”:
“You don’t know how many women I’ve disappointed.”