The Interviews

Interview with Bob Woodward

July 29, 1996

ST: We were just talking before we started the camera rolling about Jim Fallows and he had an Atlantic Monthly article that was entitled "Why Americans Hate the Media." Do you think Americans hate the media?

BW: No, not really. I think that everyone is kind of confused about the information they get from the media and rightly so. I'm confused about the information I get from the media.

ST: What is the media? I mean that covers a lot of ground.

BW: Well, anything. But the problem is, everything, even if you write a 400-page book, it gets compressed to a sound bite. And so people deal in sound bites and people are bouncing off not a full-bodied understanding of who political candidates are, but they're bouncing off sound bites.

ST: Fallows and [Howard] Kurtz and others critical of the media, of the way we cover politicians, have said that there's a lot, there's too much blurring of the lines. It's hard to tell what's Entertainment Tonight and what's the nightly news, who's a serious reporter and who's Geraldo Rivera. Do you think that has become the case?

BW: Yes. I think there's a dangerous blurring of those lines. But I think people are smart enough to sort it out. They know when they're watching David Letterman or one of these food fight shows where journalists sit around and yell and scream at each other, versus serious issue reporting or serious candidate reporting.

ST: What do you make of the Sunday talk shows? Do you do a lot of television?

BW: I do some. Yes.

ST: What's your feelings about the Sunday morning talk shows?

BW: I think when there's a reason to go on, when somebody knows something, like if I can go on and ask questions of people who are, say the Secretary of Defense, where I've done a lot of reporting, or if I've done a book or spent a lot of time on something or examined the candidacy or the noncandidacy of Colin Powell. Then it can be useful. Ultimately I think journalism gets measured by the quality of information it presents, not the drama or the pyrotechnics associated with us, but, is it good news quality information that defines who somebody is?

ST: Have you ever done the McLaughlin Group?

BW: No. I never have.

ST: Would you?

BW: No.

ST: Why not?

BW: Because that's not serious. Because that is, I mean, that's not a blurred line, that's over in, in the entertainment, comedy category. I recently did the David Letterman Show about my book. He was very serious and made no jokes and in fact it caught me off guard a little bit. But he was much more serious than some of the joke shows that journalists get on.

ST: What do you think of the phenomena that Howard Kurtz was talking about, the so-called "buckraking" where a journalist will --- in large part because of television -- become well-known and then hit the lecture circuit for large fees?

BW: Jim Fallows is exactly right when he said many of these people have their reputations as reporters and analysts because they are on television, batting around conventional wisdom. A lot of these people have never reported a story. I'm not going to name some of my colleagues who are very well-known for their television presentation--but they wouldn't know new information or how to report a story if it came up and bit them. They've never done it. But they have created personas that go around and, you know, now and then will say something clever. Maybe make an analytical point that even is good to profound. But journalism is information, I think, and they don't provide it.

ST: What's your own policy on lectures?

BW: I give lectures for money, but my wife and I have a foundation and all of the money goes into the foundation and all of the money from the foundation goes to charity. So, I make no money from it.

ST: You've said you don't want to name names. I don't want to push you. But there are three quite well known journalists on a relatively good TV program, the Brinkley show: Sam Donaldson, George Will, Cokie Roberts who all have gone on the lecture circuit, and have made a great deal of money. Do you think in those cases that that tarnishes their reputations?

BW: I don't think it helps their reputation. But I think people know what they're getting. Again, people are smart. When they tune in to something like that, they know that George Will is a conservative, a very smart conservative columnist, a learned man; that Sam Donaldson is kind of the razzmatazz, reporter, shake-em up, get them off guard, and Cokie Roberts presents a kind of Washington, Congressional perspective. People know that.

ST: In "The Choice," you write about Dole's speechwriter, Mari Will, who is married to George Will. There are a lot of these power couples in Washington, D.C [NBC correspondent] Andrea Mitchell, she has a relationship with Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. George Will and Marri Will, conflict of interest there? Should a reporter, even someone who is well-known as a conservative, report on political campaigns where his wife is writing speeches for one of the candidates?

BW: Well, they each have to have their own career and as long as it disclosed, I don't have any objection. I mean, there's too much insularity, too much, I mean we need to police ourselves in the media, but we, People aren't really concerned, is George Will married to Bob Dole's speechwriter? What they're interested in is, does George Will have a good point? Does Bob Dole give a good speech? As long as it's disclosed, it is something I wouldn't be overly concerned about. But there's a discomfort factor that everyone has, including those who are participating.

ST: Disclosure is the key? Remember the case where George Will had coached in a debate President Reagan and then commented on his performance. He didn't seem to pay a price for that. Is that one of those Washington things?

BW: Well, he did pay a price. A lot of people were upset. There was a lot of criticism. I think ultimately he realized he should have disclosed. Again, this is the narcissism of Washington journalism, sitting around kind of saying, "Well, what did he do and what did she do?" As long as it's out there, I think again it's the quality of the speeches and articles, of the books, of the commentary, of the columns that matter.

ST: Speaking of narcissism: we covered one of the White House Press Correspondents dinners. What do you think of those dinners? Do you ever attend them?

BW: I used to. I don't go anymore. I think they're boring and the narcissism is almost terminal, and the sense of self-inflation and self-importance is not healthy. And you can go to one of those dinners, and I've gone to them, and you feel you've learned something,that you've gained insights and, of course, you haven't. And you have to go to the next stage and realize that that insight is an illusion. You have seen a show.

ST: The show that we saw involved not only Washington politicians and the Washington press, but people from Hollywood. Republicans from Hollywood, Democrats from Hollywood. Sonny Bono. Is there like more overlap these days, with celebrity-hood?

BW: What is the meaning of that? I don't see any meaning in that frankly. So, people from Hollywood come to Washington dinners and then people go to Hollywood dinners. I don't know how much it takes you down the road in terms of describing who people really are which is the function of journalism.

ST: One of the things you reported in your book is Dole's values speech in Hollywood. Marri Will wrote that speech?

BW: Yes.

ST: My impression from reading your book is that Dole basically didn't want to give that speech and had to be dragged into it.

BW: That's right. Dole has great difficulty talking about values. He has to be pushed. He's been pushed by his wife, Elizabeth, by his speechwriter Marri Will, by the people in the campaign. A lot of Republicans think '96 is going to be about values. The thing Dole did in 1995 that he's most known for, the attack on Hollywood, he almost did not give. He was changing it. His chief financial person, John Moran, was advising him not to do it. That it would offend the money people. That they did not want somebody coming to them and getting in their face and saying, "How can you do this to make money?" I talked to Dole at length about that speech and he acknowledged that even when he was at the podium, he was not sure he was going to give it. He was doubtful. That he was worried people were going to get up and walk out. He thought it was kind of rude. And there's a moment, and this is a classic in how Dole's mind works, where momentum is the final decision-maker, carries him over the finish line, and he gave it and was amazed that he got such a response.

ST: I've heard that. That Dole just doesn't understand the power of modern mass communications. He's from a different generation.

BW: Well, I think Dole is gaining a sense of mass communications. But his instincts are Kansas. Go around, talk to everyone in the room. The significant communication event at a Dole speech is his interaction with the audience. But, in fact, as we now know, and as he is coming to learn, the important interaction is his communication with the camera.

ST: Does that incident indicate pasasivity on Dole's part? One interpretation might be that he is really led through this by his campaign staff.

BW: One interpretation is intense passivity. The other interpretation is great caution. And the legislator learns that you, when you talk a lot, you get in trouble. What you have to do, is listen a lot in order to make deals.

ST: You wrote a book that became part of this campaign. Early on, in a campaign preview, the New York Times reported that you book would be out about July 15 and they said, "It's not Watergate. But Bob Woodward's probe and tell book" will come out and Repubicn candidates like Lamar Alexander are scared to death. Unlike many other campaign books, the Teddy White books, for example, which were written after the fact, your book comes out during the campaign and becomes a part of the campaign.

BW: Yeah, but the New York Times was wrong there to say that people were sweating about it. Maybe Lamar Alexander was, but he didn't get the nomination. One of the things the book shows is that Dole didn't sweat it. Dole talked to me for hours. No questions were off-limits. I could ask him anything. He was rather fearless in dealing with it. And, of course, that's part of the message he wanted to convey, but in fact that's truthful. That he was not hiding from somebody like me, who was looking at how he ran his campaign, his past, finances, his policy positions. For instance there's a continuing flap about his position on assault weapons. I learned that his letter in 1995, saying he would seek to repeal was not signed by him. It was signed by some staffer and he was not happy with her, but did not want to denounce his own letter, even though he had not signed it. And so was letting the issue sit. When I asked him about it, he acknowledged it fully. He said, "I was not happy with the letter."

ST: There was another incident like that, the Log Cabin Republican Club. One thousand dollar donation. It turns out that Dole wasn't pleased with that. Again, that was done by campaign people.

BW: That's right. But again he, from the beginning, was not happy that the money had been returned to the gay group the Log Cabin Republicans. But he didn't stand up and tell his staff, "No. We're going to accept that money. I'm a tolerant person." It took him two months for that to come out.

ST: Again, passivity? Caution? What's this indicate about him?

BW: Well, what is interesting to me, having done this book--I think it's been out now about five weeks. And there've been all kinds of reactions to it. And there's a simple truth in all of this, that when you look at Bill Clinton and Bob Dole in depth, really examine their values, their behavior, trying to understand what their fundamental attitudes are, you realize that they're mixed bags. That there are a good number of strengths in both candidates, a good number of weaknesses in both candidates. It doesn't come out in a way that a sound bite does any justice to, not only the book, but the candidates. And I find myself, as somebody trying to do in-depth reporting, at war with the whole media culture, the whole political reporting culture of "What's the latest? Give us the latest development." People would ask me, "Well, what do you think of Dole's decision to name Susan Molinari the Keynote Speaker?" Well, that came out after the book, and my answer is, "I don't know." But they want a reaction to the immediate event.

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