Woodward Takes a Turn in the Hot Seat

The famed Watergate reporter sits down for an informal chat at Nathans' Q&A Café.

By: Carolyn Kriss

At Nathans Restaurant in Georgetown, Bob Woodward sat beneath David Hume Kennerly’s iconic photo of former American presidents.  George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon smiled and waved above Woodward’s combed silver mane. But as Woodward’s light-sensitive tinted glasses gradually lost their opacity, the cheerful Presidents looked more and more like a row of sitting ducks.

"I'm scared of you," joked Nathans owner, former journalist Carol Joynt, as she introduced her guest. That didn’t stop Joynt from inviting Woodward to one of her weekly Q&A Cafes, a formal three-course lunch featuring an informal interview with a Washington newsmaker.

Flatscreen TVs allowed an overflow crowd squeezed into the bar a closed-circuit broadcast of the interview—as well as, before that, video of Woodward polishing off potato chips and scratching his nose.

But there were other pre-interview events to amuse diners: the deliveries of a small green salad, a plate of cheese tortellini with tomato cream sauce, and a lined blue notecard upon which diners could write questions for Ms. Joynt to ask.

The interview, structured as a fireside chat between Joynt and Woodward, revealed a side rarely seen of the famed Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who, with Carl Bernstein, was the force behind Watergate and three decades of insider Washington reportage. His latest book, "State of Denial," remains on best-seller lists.

Attendees—including Woodward tablemates AOL's Jim Kimsey and lawyer Sanford Ain—learned what Woodward does for fun (re-reading the Senate Watergate Report and listening to Nixon tapes in the car), where Woodward would have dropped his next Watergate revelation (a University of Texas conference that was canceled due to an ice storm), and what Woodward’s next book won’t be about (Watergate).

And Woodward would neither confirm nor deny just how many Presidential interviews like that with the late Gerald Ford might be on file in his secret storage location. Did Jimmy Carter spill the beans on the Iran hostage crisis? Did George Bush Sr. discuss his role in Iran-Contra or criticize his new best friend Bill Clinton? We'll have to wait and see.

Moving from past to future, Woodward conjectured as to why America has not suffered a terrorist attack since 9/11 while Iraq endures roughly 180 attacks a day. “Somebody has told them to wait,” he said, and cautioned listeners to brace themselves for “multiple high-end catastrophic attacks.” At least diners had warm tortellini for comfort. 

But the news went from bad to worse. Civil war in Iraq? “All Hell has broken through already,” Woodward claimed. A President with a clear grasp of the issues? “Idealism has become a screen, so he cannot see,” Woodward relayed. Supporting our troops? “I don’t think anyone’s backing them up enough, including the President and Executive Branch.”  It was hard not to give in to despair, even with the arrival of chocolate cake.

Still, there were lighter moments.  Woodward recalled a time when Rumsfeld aides called him indignantly regarding comparisons between their boss and Vietnam War architect Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. “Can you imagine how McNamara feels?” Woodward retorted.

Woodward closed on a more humbling note. Despite his prize-winning articles and books, his portrayal by Robert Redford in All the President's Men, and his vast repository of interview information locked in secure storage at an undisclosed location, Woodward keeps the words of Katharine Graham, the late owner of the Washington Post, close to heart. “Beware of the demon pomposity,” she once wrote. 

Beware the demon pomposity, indeed. And Presidents, beware Bob Woodward as well.

 

To view the webcast of the full interview, click here.