A secret government unchallenged by an aggressive press could erode the system of accountability that enables democracy to properly function, famed Washington Post investigative reporter Bob Woodward said in a lecture Tuesday night at McLennan Community College.
“When I wake up in the morning, my first thought is, ‘What are the bastards hiding?’ ” Woodward said, drawing laughter from the crowd of about 900 residents and students at the MCC Conference Center.
“When you dig into the story and you think you know something . . . and then a memoir comes out and you go, ‘Why didn’t I know that? Why didn’t the public know that?’ ”
Woodward’s comments came in a 90-minute talk as part of the college’s Distinguished Lecture Series.
The large turnout forced the college to set up two overflow areas on campus, including one area for about 200 Baylor University journalism students in the Michaelis Academic Center.
Woodward, best known for his tag-team reporting with fellow Post reporter Carl Bernstein that broke the Watergate scandal that eventually led to President Richard Nixon’s 1974 resignation, also issued a call for more in-depth reporting despite the increasingly speedy news cycle.
Yet he acknowledged that the nature of the governmental bureaucracy may preclude the full details of an incident from ever being known.
“No one ever tells you everything,” Woodward said. “You get what Carl (Bernstein) and I call the best attainable version of the truth. But it’s not an engineering drawing. It’s the best effort, but it’s not everything.”
Woodward also cautioned the White House against considering the outcome of the 16-day partial government shutdown as a political victory when the country’s financial future still is unresolved.
“There’s some high-fiving around the White House like, ‘We won one,’ ” Woodward said. “This isn’t a political contest. There’s obligations to fix things like the unemployment problem, the problems with spending.
“It is not governing, and I think that’s a real problem.”
Woodward has written four books on former President George W. Bush and two on President Barack Obama’s administration.
He last visited the Waco area in 2002 to interview Bush for Woodward’s book “Bush at War,” which focused on the buildup to the Iraq War.
“I asked him, ‘Are we going to war in Iraq?’ and he told me, ‘I’ve not yet seen a successful war plan in Iraq,’ ” Woodward told the audience. “I wish I had the foresight to say to him, ‘You’re not going to see one.’ ”
On Obama, he said many members of Congress and fellow reporters share the view that the president is closed off. Woodward said one high-ranking Democratic senator characterized two phone calls from Obama during the last five years as him actively reaching out to his base.
“I think when you’re a leader you have to adopt the ‘Hillary Clinton Rule,’ which is (to) fake it until you make it,” he said, again to giggles from the audience.
A second Clinton joke came at the end of Woodward’s assessment of Nixon’s failures as a president. Woodward said Nixon’s problem was that “blind rage” driven by hatred fueled his actions in office, including ordering break-ins and wiretapping to blackmail opponents.
“Presidents after Nixon, you can offer less criticism of them (in that) none of them are haters, that they play rough, they play dirty sometimes, they go over the line, but the central political impulse is not hate,” Woodward said. “Take Bill Clinton, he was a lover.”
Woodward said the lasting impact of the Watergate scandal was that it represented “an assault on the rule of law and the Constitution.”
“You go through the tapes . . . and no one ever says, ‘What does the country need? What are the national interests?’ ” Woodward said. “It was all about Nixon and Nixon’s political interests, and in abusing the power of the office of the president as an instrument of revenge. That is not in the Constitution.”
Prior to the 7 p.m. lecture, Woodward spent about an hour with a select group of MCC students for a Q&A.
“I thought it turned out very good, I thought he was very open and very comfortable talking with our students,” MCC President Johnette McKown said.
“We started (this lecture series) for the students, and I feel like this kind of example of giving the students an opportunity to meet him on a personal level makes a greater impact.”
MCC budgeted about $43,000 for the event, including $35,000 for Woodward’s speaking fee, according to MCC Foundation Executive Director Harry Harelik.
The speaking fee was paid from the foundation’s $500,000 Distinguished Speaker Endowment, which was created in 2009 through a gift from an anonymous donor.
Past speakers have commanded around $25,000 to $30,000 on average, Harelik said.
Previous Distinguished Lecture guests have included investigative reporter Lisa Ling; pioneering neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson; Nobel Prize-winning scientist James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA; and famed scientist and humorist Bill Nye “The Science Guy,” among others.