Bob Woodward Speaks on the Role of the Media in the Age of Trump

Zach Brooke
Academic
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Bob Woodward Speaks on Trump and the Media at #AMAPublicPolicy
Key Takeaways

What? The opening keynote of the 2017 AMA Marketing and Public Policy Conference was delivered by  legendary Watergate reporter Bob Woodward.

So What? Woodward spoke about Trump and, what he called, one of the most powerful and successful marketing campaigns in history.

Now What? “No matter what moment or era we’re in, you don’t understand the full significance. Trying to find time to suspend judgment is one of the most difficult things for humans to do.”

​The Iconic Journalist cautions patience in investigation and evaluation Trump’s action and legacy.

The opening keynote of the 2017 AMA Marketing and Public Policy Conference was delivered by none other than legendary Watergate reporter Bob Woodward.  After some cursory remarks about the power inherent in the presidency, and a story about Jimmy Carter-induced cabin fever, the 74-year-old Washington D.C. journalism institution twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize got to the point of why he was here today.

“I want to talk about Trump,” he said. “Because you’re in the marketing business. If you want to look at one of the most powerful and successful marketing campaigns in history, look at the election that took place last year. And if any of you figure it out, please call me.”

The new president, Woodward conceded, has a lot on his plate right now. From North Korea ("This is the biggest strategic conundrum any president could face") to the Russia investigation ("People say it’s like Watergate. It’s not").

Woodward made several points about the current occupant of the White House, referring often to a revealing interview he conducted last year with now-President Trump as he was on the campaign trail.

In it, Trump revealed that he sometimes attacks people harder than may be necessary in order to win, while also offering that Nixon failed because people didn’t like him. He also contrasted himself with his predecessor on the philosophy of true power when Woodward read an excerpt of Obama’s 2009 inauguration address.

“Earlier generations … knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility restraint,” Woodward quoted Obama as saying. Trump replied, “Real power is fear.”

The reason Woodward shared so much of his personal take on Trump the man is because, in his words, there’s not much of a record to judge yet. “I’m interested in what Trump is going to do. He hasn’t done a lot so far. At some point, he is going to do something that is definitional and that’s going to be the measure of him. Until then, the question is what's inside. Who is Trump?” 

“Trump is a marketing wonder and triumph and he has moved the needle on the country’s behavior, whether you like it or not,” he added.

Woodward chastised both sides of Trump-media feud, saying that some have been “binge-drinking the anti-Trump Kool-Aid too much” and inappropriately smirking on TV when discussing official White House statements, while also claiming Trump’s attacks on the media are false.

“Don’t despise your enemies, they have a case,” he said, quoting Graham Greene.

He stressed patience with the current administration, noting that new presidents generally enjoyed surpluses of goodwill and moral authority for a longer period of time. And he also cautioned about the possibility of hardening inaccurate first impressions, citing an example from his time covering the Watergate saga.

It was late 1974 when Nixon finally resigned as the culminating act of a relentless barrage of information about his seemingly criminal actions. A month later, newly installed President Gerald Ford shocked the nation by announcing early on a Sunday morning he would issue Nixon a full pardon. Woodward was incredulous.

“It’s the final perfect corruption of Watergate,” he recalled thinking. When his partner, Carl Bernstein, informed him of Ford’s action over the phone, he phrased it by saying, “the son-of-a-bitch pardoned the son-of-a-bitch.”

It was only a quarter of a century later, as Woodward was writing a book on the legacy of Watergate, that he changed his opinion. Speaking directly with now former President Ford in a series of interviews, Woodward came to revise his opinion of the pardon.

“Gerald Ford turned out to be one of the most honest, direct people I’ve met in politics,” he said. Ford, Woodward said, told him there was no deal in place to resign in exchange for a full pardon although Nixon’s chief-of-staff had offered such an agreement weeks before Nixon left office. Ford told Woodward, "I knew Nixon was finished. I was getting my part of the deal no matter what happened. …I needed my own presidency. The country needed a new presidency. We needed to get Nixon off the front page and into history. The only way to do that was to use the pardon power.”

On the strength of Woodward’s book, Ford was given the Profile in Courage Award by Caroline Kennedy, for making an unpopular, but ultimately right, political decision. Woodward says it’s a “humiliating realization” to understand now his initial reading of the pardon was so off-base.

“No matter what moment or era we’re in, you don’t understand the full significance. Trying to find time to suspend judgment is one of the most difficult things for humans to do.”


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Zach Brooke
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