Finding the national interest: Bob Woodward visits UWM at Waukesha to discuss the American presidency

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WAUKESHA — There was a full house at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee at Waukesha Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Thursday night, and for a good reason. Pulitzer Prize winner and associate editor of The Washington Post Bob Woodward came to the institution for a presentation, titled “The Past, Present and Future of the American Presidency.” Woodward, best known for his 1973 coverage of the Watergate scandal alongside Carl Bernstein, opened the presentation by introducing a broad theme: The national interest.

“What matters? What really matters to you? And what matters to the politicians and the leaders we have in this country? How and when do they come together?” Woodward asked.

He brought the audience back to Sept. 8, 1974, one month after President Richard Nixon resigned. President Gerald Ford went on television to announce — as Woodward explains it “to the surprise of almost everyone” — that he was granting Nixon a full pardon. It was a Sunday morning and Woodward was asleep. He got the call from none other than Bernstein, who had said “The S.O.B. pardoned the S.O.B.”

“He always then, and still has, the ability to say what occurred in the fewest words with the most drama,” Woodward remarked about his partner.

After many laughs from the audience, Woodward recalled that at the time, he believed the pardoning to be the final corruption of Watergate. Ford got the presidency. Nixon wouldn’t be held accountable for his crimes.

A quarter century later, Woodward decided he would write a book on the legacy of the Watergate scandal and its impact on the presidencies of Ford through Clinton. To the journalist’s surprise, Ford was more than willing to discuss what he did and why he did it.

Woodward conducted seven interviews with Ford in the former president’s Rancho Mirage, California. home. It was during the last interview that he got an answer.

“I spent my whole life worrying about what’s politically beneficial to Jerry Ford. All of the sudden, I have to think what does the country need. What’s in the national interest? I see it and I realize I’m going to have to pardon Nixon,” the former president had said, according to Woodward.

The pardon got Nixon off the front pages of newspapers. It shifted the conversation away from the scandal. Woodward said that Ford knew he would get “slaughtered politically,” but it was the move he had to make in order to get the country back on track.

In 2001, Ford won the Profile in Courage Award that was created in memory of President John F. Kennedy. Pardoning Nixon is ultimately what many people consider to be the last nail in Ford’s political coffin, but it was an action that in many ways righted the ship. Woodward said that looking back, he’s able to recognize that the pardon was not an act of corruption as he initially thought. It truly was an act of courage.

“You have 25 years to look at it and examine it and talk not just to Ford, but to his lawyers, his aides,” he said. “Corruption turns out to be the opposite.”

From there, Woodward went on to reflect on many other moments throughout his decades-long career.

There were laughs. There were murmurs amongst the audience. There were knowing nods. But those in the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre seemed to particularly enjoy a few tidbits that really encapsulate Woodward’s passion for journalism. One of which was a comment about how, for many years, Woodward kept the Nixon tapes on cassettes in his car and would often listen to those instead of music.

But beyond the Watergate scandal, Woodward had much to say about one other president – Donald Trump.

“Trump has been a jolt to the political system, and continues to be,” the journalist had said during a press conference earlier Thursday afternoon.

The last year of his presidency, Trump agreed to be interviewed any time Woodward wanted to call him. In return, Trump could call Woodward anytime.

“My wife Elsa and I would sit at home and the phone would ring and we would think, is it one of our daughters? Is it a friend? Is it a robo-call? Or is it Donald Trump? It would frequently be Donald Trump,” he said.

Woodward covered the Trump presidency in a book trilogy — “Fear,” “Rage,” and “Peril.” In those books he documents everything from the former president’s decision-making methods to the COVID-19 pandemic to the transition of power to the Biden administration.

“It’s such a portrait of somebody who did not understand the responsibility of the presidency to the citizens of this country,” Woodward said.

Looking ahead, Woodward believes that next year’s presidential election will be pivotal. No matter who the nominees are, one can only hope that the elected president can rediscover what it means to look out for the country’s best interest, he said.

“Do we have a political system, a political culture, that leads us there?” Woodward asked. “Or does our system, our political culture right now in 2023, really obstruct and sabotage and break us on that issue of finding that national interest?”

The night ended with a thunderous standing ovation.