|From the January-February, 1996 issue (Vol. 3 No. 2)|
Robert Upshur Woodward rose from obscure reporter working for the Washington Post to become one of the most famous journalists of recent times for his role, with that of Carl Bernstein, in "breaking" the Watergate story. Together, "Woodstein" broke one of the biggest news stories of all time: a chain of abuse by the Executive office of the Presidency that led to calls for impeachment, and the eventual resignation, of President Richard Nixon.
Immortalized by Robert Redford in the movie based on the book All the President's Men, the real Woodward is quite an enigma. Adrian Havill, in his recent book Deep Truth, presents the most comprehensive biography to date of both Woodward and Bernstein. He also details some of the fabrications that passed for nonfiction in the book from which the film was based. Most importantly, he gives us a great wealth of background on who Woodward really is, where he comes from, and what his connections are.
The staunchly conservative Bob Woodward grew up in Wheaton, Illinois. A good student at Yale, he was ultimately one of fifteen seniors "tapped" for one of that university's secret societies, Book and Snake, a cut below the more infamous Skull and Bones, but the top of the second-tier fraternities. Woodward had his first journalistic experience working for the Banner, a Yale publication. In his 1965 yearbook he was referred to as a "Banner mogul." Havill writes,
Certainly, with the CIA encouraged to recruit on the Yale campus, particularly among history majors and secret societies, it is more than reasonable to assume Bob may have been one of those approached by the agency, or by a military intelligence unit, especially after four years of naval ROTC training. Although it would answer a lot of questions that have been raised about Bob Woodward, at this point one can only speculate as to whether he was offered the chance to become a "double-wallet guy," as CIA agents who have two identities are dubbed. It would certainly be understandable if he decided not to adhere to the straight and accepted the submerged patriotic glamour and extra funds that such a relationship would provide. It would also explain the comments of Pulitzer Prize-winning author J. Anthony Lukas, when he wrote in 1989 that Bob Woodward was "temperamentally secretive, loathe to volunteer information about himself," or the Washingtonian's remarks in 1987: "He is secretive about everything." As Esquire magazine put it, summing up in its 1992 article on Bob, "What is he hiding?"
Three days after graduating from Yale, Woodward was sent by the U.S. Navy to Norfolk, Virginia, where he was commissioned as an ensign by none other than U.S. Senator George Smathers from Florida. Bob's assignment was to a very special ship, called a "floating Pentagon," the U.S.S. Wright. The ship was a National Emergency Command Ship-a place where a President and cabinet could preside from in the event of a nuclear war. It had elaborate and sophisticated communications and data processing capabilities. It had a smaller replica of the war room at the Pentagon. It ran under what was called SIOP-Single Integrated Operation Plan. For example, in the event of nuclear war, the Wright was third in line to take full command if the two ahead of it, the Strategic Air Command in Omaha (SAC) and NORAD, were rendered incommunicado. Woodward-straightfacedly-told authors Colodny and Gettlin (Silent Coup) that he guessed he was picked for the ship because he had been a radio ham as a kid.
Aboard the Wright, Woodward had top secret "crypto" clearance-the same clearance researcher Harold Weisberg found had been assigned to Lee Harvey Oswald when he was himself in the Marines. Such clearance in Woodward's case gave him full access to nearly all classified materials and codes on the ship. Woodward also ran the ship's newspaper. Woodward has insisted that possessing a high security clearance is not necessarily indicative of intelligence work.
The Wright carried men from each of the military services, as well as CIA personnel. One of Havill's government sources reported that the CIA would likely have had additional informants on a ship of such sensitivity, adding that "the rivalry between the services was intense."
After a two and a half year stint on the Wright, Woodward was assigned to go to Vietnam. Woodward wrote the Pentagon asking to serve on a destroyer. The wish was granted. One naval captain told Havill that it seemed reasonable Woodward would have a little pull from his previous duty to avoid getting assigned to Vietnam. Another former naval officer disputed that, saying "Nobody got out of going to Vietnam in 1968."
But Woodward did. He was stationed aboard the U.S.S. Fox, based in Southern California. The personnel on board the Fox included an intelligence team, many of whom had studied Russian and Asian languages at the famous armed services language school in Monterey, California.
By 1968, Woodward ran the ship's radio team. In 1969, Woodward was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal for his communications work. From there, Woodward moved on to a Pentagon assignment, a job that included briefing top officers in the government. Admiral Thomas Moorer and former secretary of defense Melvin Laird are both on record noting that Woodward briefed Al Haig at the White House during this period. What is suspicious is Woodward's semi-admittance to Hougan that he had done some briefing, and his complete denial to Colodny and Gettlin that he had ever briefed anyone at the White House. Havill notes:
Considering the evidence, Bob Woodward's denial more strongly suggests intelligence than it does his uninvolvement in White House briefings.
Woodward's secrecy about his past, his choice of associates, and what is known of his activities caused Havill to write:
The question, then, begs itself once more. Was Bob Woodward ever a free-lance or retained Central Intelligence Agency liaison officer, informant or operative . . . ? This author got various forms of affirmative opinions from intelligence experts. It would explain his assignment to the Wright and his misleading statements to interviewers. It would make understandable his being able to get out of going to Vietnam in 1968, his extension for an additional year at the Pentagon, his being chosen to brief at the White House and his denials as well. It would also help explain his subsequent high-level friendships with leaders of the U.S. military and the CIA.
It would also explain the role Woodward and Bernstein wittingly or unwittingly played in keeping the CIA's nose clean while making sure the world saw the President's nose was dirty.
Whatever his background, whatever his connections, one cannot trust what Woodward says as fact. Take, for instance, his account in Veil of his last interview with dying CIA Director William Casey. Havill tracked down Casey's family, friends, hospital security staff and CIA guardians and found that the visit Woodward described was impossible. First of all, Casey was under 24 hour guard by several layers of security: CIA members, hospital security, and Casey's family. And Woodward had already been stopped once while trying to see Casey. According to one of Havill's sources, Woodward was not merely asked to leave, as Woodward reported in his book, but was forcibly shoved into the elevator. And Woodward's story kept shifting. Woodward told a Knight-Ridder reporter that he had gotten in by flashing his press pass. To Larry King, Woodward claimed he just "walked in." But even assuming he somehow managed to get by all of that security, Woodward would still have been the only person to claim that Casey had uttered intelligible words in those last hours. The only other person to make such a claim was Robert Gates, who himself became CIA Director. The family, doctor and medical staff said Casey could not make words at this point, only noises. At least Gates questioned whether he might have been imagining he heard words. Woodward has never retracted his "conversation." In addition, Woodward once said that Casey sat bolt upright, which would seem highly implausible given his rapidly deteriorating state. Onetime CIA Director Stansfield Turner, a friend of Woodward's since 1966, said Woodward told him he'd walked by Casey's room and Casey had waved to him. Casey's bed was positioned in such a way in the room as to make that impossible too.
Likewise, Woodward does not seem to demand authenticity from subordinates. Under his watch as Assistant Managing Editor of the Metro desk, the Post suffered a humiliation of the highest proportions at the hands of one of his hires, Janet Cooke. It was this incident that knocked the Post from its perch as "America's leading newspaper," as it had been called in the wake of its Watergate reporting.
Janet Cooke was a gifted writer with a knack for capturing the essence of the streets of D.C. She went to the Post for a job, and Woodward hired her. More illustrator than reporter, she painted vivid images, if not entirely accurate ones. The latter trait soon brought her trouble.
Cooke's crowning glory-and worst disaster-was a story called "Jimmy's World," about an eight year old heroin addict. The story brought both praise and outrage: praise for the vivid writing, outrage that a reporter could just stand by and watch a kid taking drugs. The controversial story managed to earn a Pulitzer, but only after some arm twisting by the committee head, who overruled the committee's first choice for the prizewinner to pick "Jimmy's World." Some of the committee members hadn't even read the story, but not wanting to appear divisive, they stood together, for better or for worse. Made bold by the award, Janet Cooke's fabrications grew even larger and more personal. She started making up a history for herself that she didn't possess, including training in languages she couldn't speak. Several at the Post, including Woodward, were worried that her story of Jimmy may not be true. They pressured Cooke to produce "Jimmy." Losing the battle to protect her source, it rapidly became clear that she had no source. There was no Jimmy. And for the first time ever, a Pulitzer was returned. The Post was thoroughly embarrassed by a woman under Woodward's direct supervision at the paper.
But Woodward's most stunning deceptions come from the work that launched his career, his tracking of the Watergate story as retold in the supposedly nonfiction work All the President's Men. Adrian Havill found curious discrepancies between accountings of incidents as reported in the book, and the rest of the available facts (see sidebar at right).
Given his role in the Watergate cover-up, and the misrepresentations in his own work, it remains to us a huge mystery why this man is treated with the reverence he is. Considering his behavior, his background, his credibility, and his connections, we now feel compelled to join Adrian Havill in asking who is Bob Woodward? Whom does he serve? Is his career sustained for the purposes of those with a "secret agenda"?
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