As the U.S. Constitution was being drafted in 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote that, given a choice between “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government,” he would “not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
A free press, it has often been observed since, is the guardian of democracy, with the potential to monitor those in power and let the people they are meant to represent know what they are up to.
That’s what Bob Woodward has famously been doing for more than four decades. The most celebrated investigative journalist of his generation, Woodward has chronicled the inner workings of eight presidential administrations, and helped bring down one in the process.
Woodward, who will speak at the University of Southern Maine in Portland on Thursday evening, says that despite the recent decline of the newspaper industry and the investigative newsgathering capacity it represents, he’s confident the press will continue its watchdog role, if for no other reason than that it must.
“Newspapers are infrastructure like roads and electrical power lines and so on — it’s vital to the functioning of everything,” Woodward said from his home in Washington, D.C. “Or we don’t have it — if we miss stories because the resources are so much less — then we will be crippled.
“Government is largely hidden, and I’ve always said the thing to worry about the most is a secret government, which is what will do us in,” he said. “Democracies die in darkness.”
In Portland, Woodward will assess the administrations of presidents from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, and offer insight into leadership’s role in this year’s presidential campaign. His appearance is part of USM’s annual lecture series on leadership and creativity.
Woodward, 69, started his career in 1970 with a two-week trial at the Washington Post. His editor declined to hire him because of his inexperience, and Woodward took his first job with the Montgomery Sentinel in D.C.’s Maryland suburbs.
In September 1971, the Post hired him for its metro desk. Nine months later, he and another young reporter, Carl Bernstein, were assigned to report on a burglary at the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate Hotel.
The two were largely responsible for establishing the involvement of Nixon’s aides and the effort of the president himself, the FBI and the CIA in covering up the links.
He and Bernstein followed up with two best-selling books on the scandal, “All The President’s Men” and “The Final Days.” The Post won a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting, and another in 2002 for a series of reports on the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, for which Woodward was the lead writer.
Woodward, who still works for the Post, has written 15 books, 12 of which have topped national nonfiction bestseller lists. He has investigated everything from comedian John Belushi’s fatal drug overdose to the decision making surrounding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
His latest book, “The Price of Power,” provides an inside look at the struggles between Obama and congressional Republicans over the past four years.
Woodward has often been described, along with Seymour Hersh, as the greatest journalist of his generation. “The fraternity of investigate reporters, who make a point of not talking on the record about each other, consider Mr. Woodward as a man with access in high places, with all the insight and blinkers that entails,” The New York Times wrote in a 2001 profile of the reporting rivals.
So how does Woodward manage the tension that comes with his special access to those in power, who often seek to put their own spin on the interactions and sometimes demand anonymity in return for the information they provide?
“You manage by checking and getting notes and memos and documents and talking to everyone and then going back again,” said Woodward, who has admitted to not being skeptical enough about the Bush administration’s case for the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, a thesis his reporting supported before the war.
“You’re not going to get people in intelligence agencies and the White House to talk to you on the record about many things,” he said in defense of the use of anonymous sources, which he has described as “the lifeline to the truth.”
Asked if the rise of the Internet, public databases and websites like Wikileaks, which can instantly disseminate leaked corporate and government documents, make the watchdog role of the media easier or more difficult, he said the fundamentals of good reporting remain unchanged.
“The Internet is a valuable tool, but there are too many people who think it’s a magic lantern,” he said. “I’ve taught journalism classes in college and there’s this assumption that if it happened today, the answers to what happened in the Nixon White House would be on the Internet somewhere, which it wouldn’t, of course. So there may be an overreliance on the Internet.”
He doesn’t even like the term “leaks,” which implies that reporters wait “sitting around in … pajamas at home or having a cup of coffee at the office until somebody calls.”
Reporters, he said, must be active and seek information from people.
“Whenever The New York Times has a story, that’s a leak,” he said, joking at his rival paper’s expense. “When the Washington Post has a good story, that’s aggressive, determined reporting!”
He acknowledged that the decline of newspapers — the Post has been shedding staffers and sections for years — undermines reporters’ ability to dig deep.
“We all have to be very aggressive and talk to people and get documents and go back to people again, and that takes money and resources,” he said. “Newspapers are much less than they have ever been because we have less money.”
The primary reason? “Google has taken it all,” he said, referring to the search engine’s ability to make large amounts of money connecting people to content that newspaper companies create, sometimes at great expense.
On Sunday, Woodward was in Waterville to receive Colby College’s annual Eijah Parish Lovejoy award for courageous journalism.
His talk Thursday at USM’s Abromson Center is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. It is titled “Presidential Decisions and the Role of Leadership in the 2012 Elections.” Woodward said there will be plenty of time for free-ranging questions and answers.
The event is part of the WEX Leadership and Creativity Event Series, sponsored by the company that was previously called Wright Express. All proceeds will support general scholarships at USM.
Tickets cost $20, $10 for students. Seating is first come, first served.
Staff Writer Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at: