WASHINGTON, D.C. — When Bob Woodward learned that Richard Nixon had been pardoned, the reporter whose investigation led to the president’s resignation believed the pardon was improper, “the final corruption of Watergate.”
A quarter of a century later, Woodward learned the truth: In pardoning his predecessor, Gerald Ford wasn’t making good on a shady deal that would give him the presidency, but saving the scandal-weary country from a protracted investigation, at personal cost.
“What Ford did was gutsy and not corrupt,” Woodward said Monday evening at an event sponsored by the Deseret News, “Integrity & Trust: Lessons from Watergate and Today.”
The realization also taught Woodward a lesson: the importance of not rushing to judgment.
“How humbling. How humiliating,” he said. “Because, quite frankly, I would have staked my life in 1974 that this (pardon) was corrupt, and you look at it 25 years later through the lens of history, and it’s the opposite. It’s courage."
Speaking to about 450 people in the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue, Woodward was joined by Elder D. Todd Christofferson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, brought together by the Deseret News for their connection to Watergate, and Michael Dimock, president of Pew Research Center. All three have a conviction to their principles exemplifying integrity and trust.
Elder Christofferson, as a clerk for the late John J. Sirica, was among the first to hear the recordings that revealed Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate break-in and cover-up.
Elder Christofferson remembered the day he first heard the recordings along with Sirica, the U.S. district judge who presided over the trials. It was, he recalled, a somber moment dark with disbelief, he said, "a blow to the gut."
“I remember the shock that both the judge and I felt in that moment,” Elder Christofferson said. “We were so discouraged, we went home early that day. We had no heart to do anything else. We knew what would happen several months later.”
The experience, Elder Christofferson said, made him question his own choice of career, given that several people caught up in the scandal were lawyers. But he was temporarily discouraged, not disillusioned, and ultimately, the experience inspired him to adhere more closely to the ethical standards he was taught as a child.
“I resolved to be more committed to the teachings of my youth," Elder Christofferson said.
The conversation, which took place less than two miles from the White House, was profound in its emphasis on integrity and its importance in civic life. Opening the discussion, which was moderated by Boyd Matheson, opinion editor of the Deseret News, Dimock said Pew Research Center has found a sustained decline in how Americans view their government and their elected representatives on the national level.
The decline, he said, was steepest in the years after Nixon resigned, but the number of people who say they trust government to do what is right always or most of the time has been low for a decade.
“It bottomed out in 2008 and never recovered,” Dimock said, adding that partisanship does not account for the low levels of trust.
Regardless of how they view the role of government, Americans are expressing fundamental doubts about the fairness of the electoral system, and they are cynical about the honor and motivations of elected officials, he said. Even more concerning, Dimock said, is that they not only distrust politicians, but increasingly don’t trust their fellow citizens to make wise decisions. Only 34 percent of Americans believe the country has a knowledgeable and wise electorate, he said.
The increasing level of mistrust is occurring amid a “massive escalation of partisan hostility,” and a fundamental reshaping of how information is delivered, Dimock added. As a result, the angriest voices are rising to the surface, people increasingly disagree about facts, and fewer people have confidence that Americans share common values.
For people in power, a sense of destiny can give way to a sense of entitlement and hubris, which is something that Katharine Graham, the late publisher of The Washington Post, warned Woodward and his colleague Carl Bernstein about in a personal letter. “My advice is, beware the demon pomposity,” Graham wrote.
Even Nixon, as he was departing the White House in 1974, revealed a “kind of self-understanding that we don’t necessarily associate with Nixon,” Woodward said. Giving an unscripted farewell address in the East Wing, a sweating and emotional Nixon said, “Always remember, others may hate you but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself.”
“Think of the wisdom at that moment,” Woodward said. “... It’s not only a political lesson, but also a wonderful lesson for all of us. Hating in the end doesn’t destroy your enemy; it’s the hating that destroys you.”
Woodward and Bernstein pounded out their Watergate articles on typewriters that spat out an original and five carbon copies; today people type into their phone and can instantly broadcast what they wrote around the world, with no fact-checking.
However, Woodward, who has written 19 books including 2018’s “Fear,” an accounting of Donald Trump’s White House, said he still plays by the rules of reporting that he followed in the 1970s, knocking on doors at night to ask hard questions, even in his 70s.
He told the story of calling one source for “Fear” at 11 p.m. When the person asked him to call the office the next day, Woodward asked if he could come over right then, saying, “I’m only four minutes away.” That’s how he got an interview that lasted until almost dawn.
Elder Christofferson agreed that danger emerges when people begin to believe the rules don’t apply to them, thinking, “I can rule from Mount Olympus and don’t have to bother with the details.”
“We’ve got to feel accountability always, at least to God if nowhere else, but certainly we have many levels of accountability," he said, prompting Woodward to quip, “A lot of people thought you were Deep Throat,” the infamous source who informed Woodward’s reporting through clandestine meetings in a parking garage.
Elder Christofferson laughed and said the press kept him humble, “by abandoning me when nothing was happening” even though they flocked around him one day when Sirica asked him to speak to reporters.
Given all that’s going on in Washington right now, from the Mueller investigation to the government shutdown, is there hope that things will get better?
Dimock said people should remember that “there’s a lot that feels extremely unique about the moment that we’re in, but there are some deeper, underlying patterns” driven in part by technological changes.
And Elder Christofferson noted that the institutions that people distrust are, at their root, comprised of people who can change institutions for the better with their own behavior.
“Watergate was an assault on the integrity of institutions that are crucial for society. But it didn’t have the ultimate effect of destroying them because good people, people of integrity, came to the fore and exercised their influence,” he said.
“People who had integrity defended the institutions and the processes and our society, and I feel like we’re obligated in our time to be the same kind of people, to be the kind of people that we’re asking the rest of the world to be."