Published 8:33 AM EDT Sep 7, 2018
President Donald Trump and any other doubters of Bob Woodward’s reporting for his new book, “Fear,” should know that the veteran journalist will go to great lengths to uncover the truth and demand fairness.
I discovered these traits in researching and writing "Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate," my 2007 book. Plumbing the archives of author David Halberstam and director Alan Pakula, I found that they go all the way back to Woodward's troubled childhood in Wheaton, Illinois.
Some might call Woodward nosy. His quest for the truth derives from an insatiable curiosity, illustrated by how he discovered that his parents’ marriage was falling apart. At 12, as he told Halberstam, he learned of the impending divorce by snooping through the mail. He discovered his father’s intent to remarry while rifling through his father’s pockets.
Though he is famous for conducting revealing interviews, in my experience Woodward is a difficult interview himself. He's not one to spill out personal details. From the get-go, he tightly controls the line of questioning and comes across as above criticism, even defensive, and not interested in self-reflection about what motivates him.
The 'evidentiary purity of a tape recording'
Pakula, who directed the movie "All the President’s Men" that was based on the book by Woodward and Carl Bernstein, provided clues that help explain Woodward. He did in-depth interviews with both men before filming in 1974. He wanted to get at who each of them really was and the early forces that shaped them.
After Woodward’s father remarried, the new blended family included three Woodward kids and three from his stepmother. One Christmas, Woodward, sensing unfairness, counted how many presents his stepmother bought for his siblings compared to what she got her children. “He made a list of both sets of presents — priced them in the stores,” wrote Pakula. “She had spent much more money on her own kids. He told his father it was unfair….That kind of list making, investigations, thoroughness, obsession with unfairness has a lot to do with how he functions as an investigative reporter.”
Pakula’s copious notes revealed Woodward’s voracious desire to get beyond the surface to expose the truth.
“I was raised in a small town in the Midwest, and one of the things I learned very early was that everybody in the town had a secret,” Woodward said. “My mother had a secret. Or series of secrets. I had secrets. My friends had secrets. And most of the time nobody ever found out about those secret things.”
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Woodward's inquisitiveness was honed when his father hired him at $11.75 a week to clean his law office in Wheaton. A treasure trove of documents about his hometown lay in the office, and Woodward couldn’t help himself. He had to paw through them.
Alone at night, Woodward scoured divorce cases, IRS files, trial transcripts and fraud cases. In one tantalizing case, Woodward discovered that a high school official was hitting on a student. She wore a wire for the district attorney, and Woodward read the transcript.
“It was the first time you see the evidentiary purity of a tape recording,” he said.
For "Fear," as Woodward told Trump in a classic 11-minute phone call in August, he has hundreds of hours of tape-recorded, transcribed interviews. If they are ever made public, they will confirm that Woodward doesn’t make stuff up. (His critics still don’t believe his most-disputed story of a deathbed interview with CIA director William Casey, during which Casey admitted knowing about the diversion of Iran arms sales money to the Nicaraguan Contras.)
Don't believe the denials and uproar
Paul Begala, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton, rued talking to Woodward when his book, "The Agenda," came out. He did just what top Trump officials are doing now; he denied it. Today, Begala, a CNN analyst, tells a different story in a tweet: "24 years ago, Woodward quoted me in his Clinton book saying all kinds of profane and rude things. Why? Maybe because he’s a Republican. Or maybe because: I. Said. Them."
One reason for Woodward’s success: he doesn’t give up. When I interviewed him in 2016, he noted that even today, he still shows up on people’s doorsteps unannounced just as he and Bernstein did 40 years ago as cub reporters. He said he had done it fairly recently with a general who dodged all interview attempts through phone, intermediaries and emails. So, Woodward told me, he went to the man's house on a Tuesday night, around 7 p.m., when he figured most people are at home.
The general opened the door. Once he got over the shock of seeing the now-gray haired Woodward standing at his doorstep, he paused and said, “Are you still doing this s--t?” And invited Woodward in.
Alicia Shepard, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, is a longtime media analyst and a former ombudsman for NPR. Follow her on Twitter: @Ombudsman