YAKIMA — For 25 years, Bob Woodward believed that President Gerald Ford pardoned former President Richard Nixon as a deal to evade prosecution for Watergate.
“I remember at the time (Ford pardoned Nixon) thinking, ‘Hah, it’s the final, corrupt act of Watergate,’” Woodward told an audience at The Capitol Theatre Wednesday. “Ford gets the presidency, Nixon gets a pardon, there’s no jail.”
But, when Woodward was writing his 1999 book “Shadow” on the legacy of Watergate, Ford told Woodward in a series of interviews the reason he pardoned Nixon. Ford did it to get Nixon and Watergate off the front pages, so he could concentrate on dealing with national issues such as the economy and the Cold War, as well as “have my own presidency,” Woodward recalled, realizing he would face a political blowback.
Ford’s decision to pardon Nixon was considered by many to be a factor in his loss to Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election.
“My thought in 1974 that this was the ultimate act of corruption was actually an act of courage and sacrifice,” Woodward said. Ford received a John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in 2001.
America, Woodward told the Yakima Town Hall series audience, needs more leaders like that, who will put the nation’s interests ahead of personal or party agendas.
Woodward was the kickoff speaker for this year’s lecture season. He is an associate editor at The Washington Post, where he and Carl Bernstein broke the story of the Watergate scandal that would topple Nixon.
Woodward also spoke about some of the parallels between Nixon’s Watergate and former President Donald Trump’s lies about losing the 2020 election.
Watergate, Woodward said, was about Nixon’s attempt to manipulate the 1972 election to guarantee his victory in the general election.
In one of the White House recordings, Nixon is heard after his landslide victory telling Henry Kissinger, his Secretary of State and National Security Adviser, that they would outlive their enemies, whom Nixon identified as the press and the professors, Woodward said, telling Kissinger to write that on a blackboard 100 times so he would never forget.
Trump would echo a similar sentiment, telling his followers that journalists were “enemies of the people.”
“I think a more important statement to write on the blackboard 100 times and never forgetting is ‘How do we create and have a political system that depends on the national interest rather than the individual interests of the parties of politics?’” Woodward said. “I believe someday we will have candidates who are running who will think of what is in the national interest. That is something attainable.”
People want four basic things, Woodward said: A secure country, safety in their communities, a decent health care system and a good education system, Woodward said.
Instead, the current political system “has gone off the rails,” Woodward said.
State of democracy
The current battered state of the news industry, affected by economic and political factors, is a warning sign of problems with American democracy, Woodward said at a news conference before the speech.
“Our democracy has problems that go way beyond journalism,” Woodward said. “And it’s our job to find out.”
Journalists, he said, can tell people what has happened or what is now happening, but they cannot say what is going to happen in the future.
“You have to go back and excavate what has happened,” Woodward said. “If we can ever understand what really occurred, that is the goal. That is something that cannot be done in a year.”
Ben Bradlee, The Washington Post’s editor during Watergate, would say that it takes time for stories to be fully unearthed, a process that could take days, weeks or even years, Woodward said.
People also need to not demonize those they disagree with. Quoting novelist Graham Greene, Woodward said that it is important to remember that people on the other side of an issue have their case, and that case deserves to be heard.
When writing about Supreme Court, Woodward said one justice told him that when he had to write a majority opinion for the court, he would assign one law clerk to work on the majority position, while another clerk would be tasked with writing an opposing argument, which the justice would use to test his opinion and see if he needed to rethink his position.
Woodward said when he was writing “The Brethren,” about the Supreme Court, that there was one justice who would not speak to him: William O. Douglas, who graduated from what is now Davis High School and would become the longest-serving jurist in the high court’s history.