Lessons from Bob Woodward

Originally published on shfwire.com for the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire.

Shelby Coffey III, left, and Bob Woodward, talk to a sold-out audience at the Newseum Wednesday night to mark the 40th anniversary of the Watergate scandal. Photo by Emily Siner

The craziest thing happened on our way here,” I said, walking out of the Newseum Wednesday night. SHFWire intern Chelsea Boozer and I had just heard Bob Woodward speak, and we were on our way to dinner with some other interns we met at the event.

“Chelsea and I walked into the side entrance of the Newseum at first, and they told us to go to the front. So we were walking around to the front, and this guy passed by us, and then all of a sudden we heard someone go, ‘Mr. Woodward, welcome.’ It was Bob Woodward! He had just walked right past us, and we didn’t even realize it was him.”

Our group of interns was approaching the side entrance. “It was so frustrating, “I said. “He was right there.”

“Like … right now?”

Someone in our group stopped and pointed. There was Bob Woodward, exiting the side entrance of the Newseum and looking frazzled, surrounded by an entourage of men in suits.

Chelsea looked at me. “I’m not going to miss this opportunity again,” she said. With Woodwardian determination, she held out her pen and a piece of paper as he tried to walk away.

“I know you just want to get out of here, we are nobody, but …”

“Yeah,” said Bob Woodward. “I am trying to get out of here.”

“Would you just sign this real quick?”

He rolled his eyes, grabbed her paper and signed his name.

Sorry, Mr. Woodward, but you were the one who told us that journalists have to be aggressive.

“You don’t know what’s really going on.”

Woodward, after all, is the classic aggressive reporter. In June 1972 – exactly 40 years ago – the Washington Post covered the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. Rookie reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein soon found out it was connected to President Richard M. Nixon.

Over the next two years, they exposed more and more corruption in the Nixon administration – much to the disapproval of the Nixon administration itself. It takes a certain amount of determination and aggression keep reporting on a topic when the president of the United States wants you to shut up.

Woodward and Bernstein showed the world that politicians don’t always act in the interest of the people, but with the right amount of persistence, journalists have the means to uncover even the most important exploitations of justice.

There’s a rule Woodward lives by, he said Wednesday night: “You don’t really know what’s going on.” Until, of course, you dig a little deeper.

“Dammit, Woodward, I was up on the roof!”

Unlike so many of the aspiring professional journalists in the audience, Woodward just walked into the Washington Post and asked for a job. No J-school, no professional clips, not one summer reporting internship. I guess they were impressed by his gutsiness  because the paper gave him a two-week trial, during which it became apparent that he didn’t know much about journalism.

So he worked for a year at a weekly newspaper and then began agitating the editor (Woodward’s words, not mine) for a job. Woodward eventually called the Post editor at home to ask to be hired. When the editor finally got to the phone, he was not amused. “Dammit, Woodward, I was up on the roof!” he shouted, and hung up. But then he realized that Woodward had the near-crazy persistence of a good investigative reporter and hired him anyway.

All I’m saying is, it’s a good thing Woodward gave us his autograph at the Newseum, because otherwise we would have had to pull a Woodward on him and follow him home.