Veteran journalist Bob Woodward has been skeptical of secret presidential politics for 40 years, and his criticism was in full display when he stepped onto the podium of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on Oct. 11.
He opened by focusing on the question “How much do we know about what goes on in the White House? Increasingly, the center of power in this country is in the White House,” he told the audience of about 450 people. “The president is not just relevant, but the overpowering presence in this country’s politics.” Woodward worries, he said, that most of what goes on in the Oval Office either never sees the light of day, or is “rescored,” or “spun.” That suspicion was confirmed, he said, when Al Gore acknowledged to him that the public knows only about 1 percent of what went on during the Clinton presidency.
Woodward sees his role as an investigative journalist in Washington as a quest to figure out what really happens during critical moments in a presidency.
He is widely known for his investigative journalism through which he, together with fellow Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, uncovered the Watergate scandal in 1972, playing a major role in events leading to the downfall of President Richard Nixon. Woodward is the author of 16 books; the most recent, The Price of Politics, was published earlier this year.
In addition to speaking in general terms about the Obama presidency just prior to the televised vice presidential debate that evening, he also offered some of his views following the debate, which he and about 75 people from the audience watched together at the temple.
One of the biggest problems with this election cycle, he said, is that no one is dealing with the big issues. He had plenty of blame to go around, pointing fingers at Republicans and Democrats alike, as well as Congress and the Senate in addition to the White House for what he termed a “failure to lead and to govern.”
He suggested that the biggest short-term threat to United States security is the economy. “The financial house is still not in order, and it should have been put in order,” he said. “For all parties not to have done this is malfeasance.” He added, “Clearly some entitlement programs are going to have to go,” and he was specific in naming Medicare and Social Security. “We spend $800 billion a year, and that is going to double in the next 10 years.”
Pointing to the White House, he said, “Obama has never faced up to this problem and said, ‘Let’s put together a commission to look at tax reform and another commission to look at entitlements.”
His criticism centered on the White House, since that is his area of focus.
Although he doesn’t worry about Obama’s allegiance to Israel (“Look, the president is not anti-Israel…. Israel is the United States’ key ally in the Middle East”) he does worry about Obama’s choices regarding interactions with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The president, said Woodward, “likes to have dinner with his daughters. Well, I suspect the girls would give him a break if he said, ‘Girls, I need to go to Israel,’ or ‘Girls, I need to speak with the Senate.’”
Woodward was critical of Obama’s ability to form and maintain relationships with key political figures — not just Netanyahu — calling his leadership style “dysfunctional,” and throttled him for his inability to “close the deal” with business leaders.
Woodward talked about a White House meeting the president had with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “Put the president with those four, and you have action; these are the people with the power,” said Woodward. But, he said, the meeting did not go well. “Boehner tried to work out a deal among them, excluding the president. Finally, Harry Reid said in the cabinet room [to the president], ‘Will you please leave the meeting so we can make a decision and reach a deal?’
“I’ve covered the presidency for 40 years, and I never heard something like this. It’s extraordinary,” said Woodward, adding that the incident underscored just how poorly Obama interacts with the leaders he should be able to work with most closely. “You almost want to send him to a Dale Carnegie course — you know, ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People.’”
Woodward suggested that Obama’s inability to work with others yields a “dysfunctional” presidency. He pointed out that Obama nearly made a faux pas when it became clear at the midterm election that Boehner would become the House speaker. “On the night of the vote, [Obama] realized he has to call Speaker Boehner and congratulate him. But no one in the room has his phone number. The president had not assigned somebody this task. They had to find a fishing buddy of someone else to call the leading Republican in the House. Time and again, there’s this breakdown.”
Woodward was also critical of Obama’s relationship with the business community, and tipped his hat to Leon Cooperman as he launched into this part of his remarks, saying, “Leon, this is close to you.” (Cooperman of Short Hills is the billionaire founder of the Omega Fund, a philanthropist, and a longtime donor to institutions in the MetroWest Jewish community. He is also a member of B’nai Jeshurun; the event was the 2012 program in the annual Cooperman Family Distinguished Speaker Series.)
He said, “Obama never closes the deal with the business community. Time and again there’s this alienation of business leaders. Look, a progressive leader and business leaders will not agree all the time, but there’s too much miscommunication.”
Woodward referred to a series of events involving the president’s meeting with business leaders, to whom Obama said, “Tell us what you want,” and those leaders sent him a 47-page document. “Obama’s senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett, called it a carpet bombing. But they said, ‘Look, you asked.’ She stiffs them in a way that makes them feel alienated,” said Woodward.
The biggest issue for Woodward is the notion of a “secret government.” He said, “All the other problems we can probably figure out. But secret government is what Nixon tried. It’s human nature to say, ‘Let’s conceal it and not be transparent.’ But it was a judge who once said, ‘Democracies die in darkness,’ and that is the lesson of history.”
But, he added, that lesson extends to those who job it is to shed light on these secrets. Condemning his peers, Woodward said, “I do not think our news media is up to the task of penetrating the mystery. The message managers in the government — no one can match them in my business.”
As for the future, he painted a gloomy picture. Whoever wins the upcoming election, he said, “will have to do hard things, so hard that whoever is elected will be wildly unpopular.”