Bob Woodward has been listening to politicians and others throw him lines of bull for 50 years.
As with any journalist, particularly one with Woodward’s extensive experience, he has an ear fine-tuned to sense when what he is being told is deceptive or dishonest.
Thus, he should be embarrassed to be delivering some of the same with his explanation as to why he withheld information for his upcoming book that, had it been reported six months ago, might have saved some lives.
Joe Biden and other Democrats are in high dudgeon over this past week’s revelation that President Trump acknowledged privately early on that the coronavirus was going to be wicked while publicly downplaying it.
Journalists, however, have been more troubled by Woodward’s decision to not report the contradiction sooner.
When confronted this past week with the criticism, Woodward’s defense was that since the president is notorious for fabricating, the journalist first had to confirm that Trump was telling him the truth when in early February he shared with Woodward that the coronavirus was worse than the flu and that it was an airborne disease, and thus much more difficult to control.
Woodward claimed it took him until May to obtain that confirmation. By then the coronavirus was already firmly entrenched in the country, and the death count was approaching 100,000. Pointing out Trump’s duplicity at that point served no real public purpose, Woodward said.
By May, that probably was true. But it wasn’t true in March, when Woodward knew what the president was telling the nation didn’t jibe with what he had volunteered to Woodward the month before.
In March, had this been exposed, it wouldn’t have helped the president’s detractors, who know not to believe much of anything that comes out of Trump’s mouth. But it might have helped his supporters, some of whom swallowed the lie that the COVID-19 pandemic was a Democratic hoax made to hurt the GOP incumbent’s election chances.
So why, most likely, did Woodward keep this bombshell to himself?
To maintain his access to the president, and to sell books, of course.
Had Woodward reported on the lie back in March, he might not have gotten all of his 18 interviews with the president. Had Woodward scooped himself, the buzz around his new book, “Rage,” would have been much less. Less buzz means less sales.
If Woodward were just a historian, this might be excusable. Historians work under a different mindset and timetable. They are recording events and interpreting them for the ages, not for the moment. They don’t feel an obligation to inform until their research is complete.
But Woodward wears two hats — historian and journalist. He has authored or co-authored more than 20 books about the presidents and other Washington insiders he has covered since cutting his teeth in the early 1970s on the Watergate scandal that proved the undoing of Richard Nixon. All the while, though, he has remained associated with The Washington Post, which has the slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Woodward failed to live up to that creed when he became conflicted between his ethical responsibility and his financial best interest.
If he didn’t feel comfortable doing the story himself, he could have fed it to his friends at the Post to chase down and confront Trump as to his motivations for not shooting straight with the American people about the virus.
Instead, Woodward — by his temporary complicity with Trump’s duplicity — has provided the president with some cover for his actions. If lying to the public about COVID-19 to keep it from panicking was so wrong, Trump tweeted, why didn’t Woodward rat him out months ago? It’s a fair question.
Another part of Woodward’s defense is also grating. He claims that he fulfilled his public responsibility by being sure the book would publish prior to the November election. With the passage of time, he argued, Trump’s early handling of the pandemic had become less of a public health issue and more of a political one. Thus, the people most needing to know what the president did or didn’t say in February and March are those who are trying to make up their mind about whether to vote for his re-election.
It’s a nice rationalization, but again it shades the truth. The main reason Woodward’s book is coming out now is the same reason that John Bolton’s came out three months ago and Michael Cohen’s last month.
Reading about Donald Trump is only a hot commodity as long as he’s in the White House. If he loses in November, the market for books about him tank.
Legend has it that when Woodward was digging into the Watergate scandal, his main source, Deep Throat, told him “To follow the money.” Those words were apparently never said, but it’s still good advice. It helps you understand how people in power are connected. And it helps you understand why people, including some celebrated journalists, sometimes betray their own principles.
• Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.