The Interviews

ST: What about the other wife? You write that Elizabeth Dole had to schedule an appointment with her husband to discuss whether he would run for president.

BW: There's a whole new portrait of Elizabeth Dole in this book, as somebody who is the counselor to her husband. Who demands and insists on a more orderly process of decision-making than he would naturally arrive at. So he makes an appointment with her to sit down for a couple of hours and consider the upside and the downsides of running for President. I have detailed accounts of that meeting, and you see she is asking exactly the right questions. "Is this what we want to do with the rest of our lives?" Somebody who is married to somebody, who at that point Dole was 71, should ask that question. Fully the right one. She wrote him a memo after he decided to leave the Senate this year and said, "Well, here are the downsides, let's consider that."

ST: The book is called "The Choice". Was it originally going to be called "The Race"?

BW: Well, that was just a working title.

ST: Was it originally going to be primarily about the Republicans?

BW: Yes. It was. It started out as that and I realized that the more interesting book would be a contest between Clinton and whoever the Republican nominee was.

ST: "The Choice" is the the title of FRONTLINE's documentary on the presidential campaign every four years.

BW: Can I tell you that I had no idea of that until somebody told me.

ST: You don't watch "Frontline"?

BW: Yes, I do. I knew it was one of those titles that you'd used that in '92. But.....

ST: Don't worry about it. Interviewing techniques. John Sununu once attacked you, saying, "You are probably one of the best practitioners of the art of blackmail in Washington." Do you blackmail people to get them to talk to you?

BW: Isn't that a stunning use of the word? It's called "reporting." You have information. And you call people up or you go see them and you say, "I understand the following happened. I want your version. I want more information."

For that to be talked about in those terms, displays a failure to understand how a journalist works, or how a journalist who doesn't have a political axe to grind, functions. And that is, you go to people, everyone involved. And you go back to them. For that to be perceived as something untoward, it's just professional responsibility. And for somebody to take that as intimidating or threatening or blackmailing is such a sad commentary. Certainly on them, and perhaps on something that's happened in the media. It's that certain political figures think when you call them and ask them for a comment, you are somehow doing something that you shouldn't be doing. Well, it's absolutely mandatory. It's Journalism 101.

ST: Fred Barnes: He tells us the story that he was in Iowa covering the primary and he was covering Dole, and trying to get Dole to talk to him and he was in a crowd waving at Dole in a car and he says you're inside the car. There are a lot of people in the press corps who are envious of your ability to get inside, close to power.

BW: But it's not, it's not me, it's the information I might have. And when I started this project, Dole was very standoffish. I had to show up at lots of speeches. Talk to lots of his aides, and said, "I want to do this book. I want to do it correctly." And I don't recall in Iowa being inside the car. But it's possible I did. I know in New Hampshire I was riding around with Dole as part of the coverage to interview him. But I gained that because I had information. High quality information. That I was interested in dealing with him seriously. People have read this book and said, "Oh, Dole comes out fine to good." Other people have read this book, the same information and said, "My God, Dole can't make a decision. He's passive. He's not Presidential." It seems to me that, and, and I've talked to Dole since the book came out and his attitude is not one of, "Oh, I loved the book. Isn't it great." His attitude is one of deep ambivalence, because he knows it's honest, it's truthful, it does show a decency that he has. Which I believed in, you know, walking the walk and going the rounds with all kinds of people, going into his camp. He is a decent man. But he's not a great communicator. He has his flaws or his inconsistencies. There are all kinds of things there that I'm sure he would just as soon not be in the book. .

ST: Joe Klein and Anonymous. The "Primary Colors" affair. What do you think of that?

BW: Joe Klein should have told the truth after he got caught and apologized, and he failed to do that. A great lesson of Watergate was if Nixon had apologized early, or even mid-way through the scandal and demonstrated some soul-searching introspection, he would have been forgiven. Joe Klein, it's not too late to step up. Give the big apology. What Ben Bradlee used to call "the 100 percent grovel."

ST: And then he could come back? I mean, he's now temporarily on leave from Newsweek and he resigned from CBS. But there's still a lot of hostility, even more than I expected...

BW: Well, there's hostility to lying and there should be.

ST: Okay, "The Choice". The New York Time review said this was all inside baseball. And I must say I learned more about Dick Morris than Clinton in your book.

BW: Well, I can't believe that. Dick Morris is a factor in the Clinton Presidency, that the reality, the inside baseball of politics becomes definitional for candidates. Whether to go for a balanced budget, to sign a welfare bill, whether to make a big aggressive tough foreign policy decision has immense political ramifications and when you find the political people involved in this, that's part of the story.

ST: So the idea that Clinton would turn to a Dick Morris tells us more about Clinton.

BW: Well, Dick Morris is irrelevant except to the extent that he is part of the Clinton Campaign and he is advising Clinton on winning on many of the key decisions to position Clinton to the center. Dick Morris is what biographers call a reflector. When you establish the people in somebody's life that you are writing about, in trying to ascertain what their behavior is, you need reflectors. Hillary Clinton. White House Chief of Staff Panetta. National Security Advisor Tony Lake, George Stephanopolos, Mike McCurry, all of the people in the White House are part of the functioning daily life of the President. And when you see how the President makes decisions, political or policy decision, what the input is, what the debate is, you see who he is. The essence of the Presidency is decision-making. I'm interested in what the decisions are. But when you peel the onion on the process, you learn a great deal about what weight, in this case Clinton, gives to the political ramifications. Any suggestion that I'm writing about political operatives because I'm interested in political operatives misses the entire point. The business of running the Presidency involves polls, speechmaking, position-taking, going out. Going to X instead of Y. Listening to Advisor A instead of Advisors B and C. I don't really give a hoot, I don't think voters give a hoot about the character of their political advisors, except to the extent that character reflects on the candidates.

ST: Okay. Dick Morris works for Clinton. But he has also worked for Republicans. In the book you talked about him working for William Weld, at the same time he was advising Clinton. What does that tell us?

BW: Well, I think it's working both sides of the street in a rather cynical way. That it says politics is like a sports commentary and you can go from the Oriels to the Yankees without batting an eye and there is no team loyalty. There is no city loyalty. Well, politics isn't baseball. Politics has to do with positions, what matters and values. And the idea of Dick Morris slipping around shows an inconstancy and shows this is just a game to somebody like Dick Morris.

ST: One criticism of insider political coverage is that by showing on people like Dick Morris, on the process, on how the sausage is made, you make people more cynical, and turn them off to politics. Do you think that's the case?

BW: Well, I think we're showing them real life. And what has happened here is that there is a lot of press baggage that comes with the coverage of '96. And the press baggage is something called Vietnam and Watergate. And in Vietnam and Watergate, the central lesson was, when you look at the making of sausage, you understand what's really going on. The fact of the Watergate cover-up is not nearly as interesting as the step into making the cover-up. And when you understand the step, you understand that Richard Nixon lied. That he was a criminal. And when you see the criminality in the testimony, in the documents and in the most glaring form, in the tape recordings, his own voice, saying, "We have to stonewall. We have to lie to the Grand Jury. We have to pay burglars a million dollars for their silence so we don't implicate the people running the Nixon campaign, so we don't implicate people in the White House." It's all too clear the horror of what went on. implement them?"

ST: My reading of the book is that it ends on a fairly heroic note for Bob Dole. Is the book more favorable to Dole because he talked to you, and Clinton did not?

BW: The reading, and I'm talking to hundreds of people and getting letters, it's a mixed reaction, people have to this. I indeed talked to Dole for hours and hours, and his point of view is reflected in here. I wrote Clinton a letter, explaining, saying that I talked to Dole. I had his personal point of view on these things and wanted to get more of Clinton's input. I had it from dozens and dozens of hours of people in the White House staff. People in the Clinton campaign. Clinton declined to do this. Certainly his choice. But then I redoubled my effort and went back to the White House and the Campaign. And Clinton's attitude, fundamentally is reflected on every major issue in the book.

ST: Are you a Republican or a Democrat?

BW: I'm a reporter. And when you, when you practice reporting for as long as I have, you quickly become, not cynical or distrustful. But you keep yourself at a distance from True Believers. Either conservatives or liberals or Democrats or Republicans. You find if you have a political or emotional inclination toward an issue or a personality, it gets in the way of doing the job. And it's kind of the same reason they don't let doctors operate on family members. If you have that level of personal or emotional attachment, then you need to not operate.

ST: One of the strongest criticisms of "The Choice" was that it had no vision, no ideas, it was all insider baseball. How do you react to that?

BW: I don't think it's useful for somebody to argue with reviews. The idea that there's no history or ideas in this book--it's all about history and ideas. It's about, for instance, Dole's confirming his own history in the 1988 campaign and setting up the 1996 campaign so it would be different. So it would be more disciplined, so it would be message-disciplined and so forth. Whether he has ever achieved that simply is open to debate. The idea of what the size of government should be, what the extent of safety social net should be, is continually debated in this work. In the case of Clinton, it's all about his history and his vision of the Presidency. Even at one point he says, "I wish I'd been President during World War II, because it would have been simpler, it would have been identified enemies and a much simpler mission as President."

So I'd say anyone who has that reaction, I guess, I'd have to say, hasn't read the book, or hasn't read the book in the context of the life of these candidates.

ST: One thing and this maybe tells us who you are as a reporter, you don't make a lot of judgments on things. There's not a lot of critical analysis. You present what happens. Readers pick up a Bob Woodward book and Woodward tells them everything they want to know about who did what to whom on the campaign trail, right?

BW: But when you read about who did what on the campaign trail, and let's take the Hollywood speech. That's not about a power struggle between the Press Secretary and the chief fundraiser for the Dole campaign. That is about the issue of values and whether you're going to make a speech about it, whether you're going to do something about it. It's about the issue of what's on television, what controls families should have, what controls people in the entertainment business should have. ST: Let's take the Hollywood example After all this was said and done, the campaign manager for Bob Dole said, "Wait a minute, we made two mistakes. Dole didn't see the movies he criticized and he said that Arnold Schwarzenegger's movie 'True Lies' was a family values picture."

BW: Or he implied it was. Yes. Yeah.

ST: All right. Now you, you just say that in the book, but you don't make a judgement. You don't say, "So, this is a terrible thing. This is a hypocritical thing." Nor do you take the other side and say, "This is a very important thing to do. To share his values. He made a very important stand."

BW: And the reason for this is quite simple. I. Don't. Know.

It's like George Bush. Read. My. Lips.

I don't know. Dole didn't know. The Dole campaign didn't know. Other people reading that are going to have entirely different reactions to it. Well, Dole did something gutsy finally. Or that this is all campaign manipulation and trying to fish for a message that will sell with the American public.

Again, you know, it's a matter of whether you think people want simplicity. Whether you think people want to be told. My experience is, and you know the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people who will read this book will, I have found people don't want to be told. That they can figure it out. Now there are obviously people who want to be told and writers, great writers, who want to tell them. I'm not one of them.

ST: This book is already on the bestseller list, in fact it's one of eight consecutive bestsellers you've written. As I understand it, you are the number-one bestselling nonfiction author around. When you sit down to take on a project, how you deal with the pressure? How much pressure is there?

BW: Well, there's no, the pressure is to get the information and find a good story--and find new information. Again, it goes back to, when you've done this. I've done this for almost two and a half decades, almost 25 years. You know your audience. They write and they call and they react, and people still want information

ST: This book is already on the bestseller list, in fact it's one of eight consecutive bestsellers you've written. As I understand it, you are the number-one bestselling nonfiction author around. When you sit down to take on a project, how you deal with the pressure? How much pressure is there?

BW: Well, there's no, the pressure is to get the information and find a good story--and find new information. Again, it goes back to, when you've done this. I've done this for almost two and a half decades, almost 25 years. You know your audience. They write and they call and they react, and people still want information.

ST: A very specific question. The idea of this Beltway Bob. Is it Beltway Bob or is it the Man from Russell, Kansas? I mean here's this guy who lives in the Watergate Apartments, and then vacations in a Florida condo with Dwayne Andreas of Archer Daniels Midland and David Brinkley and Bob Strauss -- all Washington insiders. Isn't this man a creature of Washington, who is now trying to run as an outsider from Kansas?

BW: Well, what Dole says, and people will have different reactions and judge him differently on that, is that he realized this Spring that he was Beltway Bob, that people associated Washington and the Senate with him, to his detriment. And that he needed to cut that cord and resign completely from the Senate and he did so. And whether people buy that or not is up to them. But he did take the Beltway out of Beltway Bob.

ST: Look, I don't have to tell you, you made history. You and Carl Bernstein. And you've gone on to write a series of books, which reveal a lot about how this government works. The hardest knocks on you as a reporter, come from a lot of people who are trained investigative reporters who say, "God, Woodward brought down a President. Woodward is a tough, incredible reporter," and these days, maybe you're a little softer and the phrase that sticks in my mind is "stenographer to the stars." Sitting down and getting incredible access to people. But basically taking people at their face value and writing what is said, as opposed to muckraking or digging. What do you think about that?

BW: I wish people could see my life. Because it's in the trenches and I guess people sometimes don't read.

For instance, in this book "The Choice"--revealing that Clinton personally was controlling $25 million of Democratic National Committee advertising, personally approving the ads, the fund raising for it, which was done in a separate operation, Clinton approved. Deciding where the ads were going to run, pointing out the content of the ads really. With a possible deceptive, certainly a possibly deceptive, that the whole thing is possibly illegal. Showing that the playing field was not level at all. That the spirit, if not the letter of the Watergate reforms was completely thrown down the toilet, personally by the President. I don't think there's a reporter around who would suggest that you get that from being a stenographer to the stars. That is an absurd, ignorant suggestion.

The biggest rap on me is that I don't find a Watergate every couple of years. Well, in fact, Watergate was unique. It's not something Carl Bernstein, I, or the Washington Post caused. I really need to say to you, the mythologizing of our role in Watergate has gone to the point of absurdity, where journalists write in reviews of this book that I, single-handedly, brought down Richard Nixon. Totally absurd. The Washington Post stories had some part in a chain of events that are described in our book, that were part of a very long and complicated process over many years. But people will write, "He single-handedly brought down a President, and now all he's doing is telling us about $25 million of illegal advertising or totally turning the campaign over to a Republican [Dick Morris]. We're not going to have another Watergate, probably, in our lifetime. I'm sure. I've looked at the Whitewater allegations against Clinton at some length. There is a big aroma. There are lots of questions. I think those questions should be answered. I have done some reporting on it. What's interesting is that I have not yet seen, and I think people who have written about this, their umbrella conclusion is there is no credible evidence, from multiple witnesses, document, the kind of evidence you could bring into a courtroom to show criminality on the part of the Clintons. I have published my phone number, I have gone on the air and announced my telephone number at the Washington Post. I go into the night, talking to people, looking for those things. I have not found them. Now, the great dreaded thing every reporter lives with is what you don't know. The source you didn't go to. The phone call you didn't return. The back of the document you didn't look at. The eternal pursuit. It goes on all of the time. But for somebody to suggest that I'm not working in the trenches--just doesn't understand what my life is.

ST: There are a lot of political books out there this season. There's one book by a man whose name is Roger Morris, who was in the government at one point. It is filled with accusations about, and again, not just Whitewater, but drug running in Arkansas and so forth. That book is a bestseller too. What do you make of that?

BW: I haven't read it.

ST: Another bestseller is "Unlimited Access" by this former FBI agent, who has made accusations that Clinton was sneaking off for trysts at the Marriott Hotel.

BW: Totally unsourced. It's not corroborated. It's up in the ether. It's one of the stories going around. Let me tell you about some of that stuff. Because of Watergate in part, I am kind of a magnet for calls and information and suggestions. And I've heard some of these Clinton rumors. And back in '93, '94, was hearing them, they had reached such a crescendo. I finally heard one where somebody said, A said that B said that C said that D had observed E do the following. And I said, "Okay. Here's a name of a person in a very sensitive position. I'm going to go track it out." And I went and tracked A, B, C and finally got to D and E.

And they sat and looked me in the eye and just said, "Nothing of the kind ever happened. And I was not even in a position to observe that. Here is what I really do." And it just, if you could have seen it, it was just like something that was solid.

There is a garbage culture out there, where we pour garbage on people. And we pour more garbage on people. Then the pollsters run around and take a poll and say, do you smell anything? And of course you smell something.

And the job of the reporter is, what are the contents of the garbage? Who's pouring it? And what really happened?

And sorting this out, has become incredibly taxing, incredibly difficult. And then you find somebody comes along with a book and they just kind of throw in, "Well, I've heard this." Or "This might have happened." And so forth.

I deal with first-hand sources. And give the people, even John Sununu, the opportunity to respond to what I've been told by first hand sources.

Now could some of these things be true about Clinton? Absolutely. Can you ever assert, can I assert that A to B to C to D to E didn't happen? No. But what I can say is as a reporter I did the work, and the story totally evaporated.

So, how a voter going to make sense out of it? I think the business has to make a very strong declaration that this is our method. We use first-hand sources, and we check. Yes there are going to be contested grounds. The best stories are contested. I don't mind a story that's contested, as long as you have first-hand sources.

But for it to be something said by somebody who hates the Clintons... And there are lots of people who hate the Clintons, just sitting around, kind of, "Well maybe this happened, or it could have happened." Or " I heard something."

And there are people out there who take rumors and embellish them in a way that can be devastating. And this pollution has to be eradicated by people in our business as best we can. And things that have no basis need to be called things that have no basis.

ST: Well, in that case, this was Gary Aldrich's book, there was the big accusation about this alleged trysts. David Brock said he was the source of it, and he didn't really know. It was all a rumor. And yet, that book is now very high on the New York Times Bestseller list. So, again, doesn't there seem to be a sort of insatiable public appetite for scandal, true or not?

BW: Sure. Lots of people dislike the Clintons and think the worst of them, and it's hard for a reporter to sift through.

ST: [The late investigative reporter] I.F. Stone is something of an icon in some circles. He was a guy who saw himself and always acted as an outsider, a guy who never went to any press conferences. He was blind as a bat, he went and looked through these thick lenses at the Congressional Records and dug up information that way. How do you see yourself as an investigative reporter? Within Washington. You've been here a long time. How would you describe yourself, your role?

BW: I don't go to press conferences either. And people like to describe and pigeon hole and say, "Well, I'm a Washington insider" and you know, that's quite silly. What does "an insider" mean? I talk to the people I write about. Sometimes they'll talk to me. Sometimes they won't. But I spend most of my time interviewing and dealing with information that comes from people who are witnesses that you may know the name of, or you may not know the name of. I mean, people will write reviews of this book and say I'm "the consummate insider". That's laughable. My wife and I go off to a place south of Annapolis on the weekends and I don't think once we've had, once or twice we've had people there who would be considered Washington insiders. And that's over the course of the last nine years. If you knew my life and how I work, it wouldn't compute.

ST: Do you make an effort to separate yourself? I mean, look. Here you are. You're a celebrity journalist. You have made a lot of money doing this stuff. How do you, do you have to work at keeping a sort of outsider status?

BW: You know, I have written things that Republicans and Democrats and all kinds of figures have either hated or felt very uncomfortable about. Because in doing these long projects and books, you get close to the bone. And they're not calling me up and asking me for dinner.

ST: Do you think that the Washington Press Corps has gotten out of touch with, you know, what Pat Buchanan might call the common man? I mean, are we reporting now too much on the same class?

BW: I think that's really a good point and Clinton makes that point in my book. He believes that the Washington Press Corps is so out of touch that it is absolutely inconceivable that reporters would understand the issues that people are really dealing with in their lives. And Clinton feels a profound alienation from the Washington culture here and I happen to agree with him.

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