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Nine lessons learned from Bob Woodward

Megan Holmes

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Journalist Bob Woodward sits at the head table during the White House Correspondents' Dinner in Washington, Saturday, April 29, 2017. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

A full house greeted Bob Woodward to the stage in St. Pete’s Mahaffey Theater late last month. The legendary reporter, who broke the story of the Watergate scandal at the Washington Post in 1973, is known as the inside man of Washington. Woodward is not just a reporter, but a national icon – even a hero – to those seeking truth in the age of veiled governmental operations. “Democracy Dies in Darkness” reads the subheading of the Washington Post. In other words, Bob wants us all to #staywoke (I said to myself, one of a handful of millennials in a auditorium filled with those who remember 1973 with crystal clarity).

With a talent for weaving stories of the past with current events of the Trump presidency, Woodward captivated his audience (millennials included) at the Mahaffey with his experience, candor and unexpected humor. Masterfully stitching together stories from nine presidential administrations under his more than 45-year tenure in journalism with issues of the present, Woodward made an argument for transparency and an end to gridlock.

Woodward left us with nine main lessons on the presidency:

  1. Don’t lose sight of the expansive authority of the president. Despite the checks and balances built into our political system, the president holds extensive, often unchecked powers (think executive orders). The president has the power to set the agenda on a world stage and their actions not only affect Americans – but every nation our influence touches. The president has the power to spark or assuage conflict: i.e. Jimmy Carter’s role in the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, and George W. Bush’s ability to start war without Congress’ approval.
  2. Self-validation is entrenched in the position of president. Many presidents suffer from the “disease of isolation” built into the presidency. Inherent in the role of the president is an inability of his advisors to truly question his role and decision making. Woodward posits that this can have dangerous consequences. 
  3. Presidents need restraint – usually a belief system. Regardless of party affiliation, one thing all presidents need is a system of deeply held beliefs. Reagan, for example – had the three legged stool – 3 main beliefs for governing – lower taxes, increase defense spending, and reduce the size of government. Woodward implied that this belief system is something Trump lacks.
  4. Presidents should be moving the country toward the next stage of “good” for the real majority. This point comes down to the nature of the Presidency and how we define it. The president’s job is to do what is best for the majority. Yes, the real majority –  not interest groups, not just his supporters. Woodward holds that the next “good” of the United States is to break the gridlock of our partisan system.
  5. The president must develop a grand strategy. Moving through the world without a master plan can be dangerous and riddled with unintended consequences. The president must think strategically and develop a grand strategy to get where they want to go for the next stage of good.
  6. Presidents live in the unfinished business of their predecessor. All of them. For Trump, the unfinished business in which he lives is the unstable picture of the world – specifically the Middle East and North Korea. Trump must navigate this unfinished business and correct course to leave his own legacy. 
  7. The media landscape matters – and it is emotionally unhinged. The world in which Trump is operating has become increasingly polarized, dehumanizing, and “emotionally unhinged” on both sides. Woodward believes in large part this is a problem of cable news networks, where opinion gets more weight than fact, and tone rules.
  8. The media must correct this by showing up. Rather than relying on Twitter, phone interviews, emails, or other impersonal mediums, reporters must go into the world, interview, re-interview – and figure out what’s really going on in our government.
  9. Russia investigation vs. Watergate: Russia is not Watergate…yet. Watergate was solid – it had clarity and proof, witnesses. It had tapes. It was high level corruption and espionage. That kind of clarity has not come from the Russia- Trump investigation. But then again, Watergate took two years and two months to come to fruition…
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