Investigative reporter and author Bob Woodward was awarded the Walter Cronkite Freedom of Information Award by the Connecticut Foundation for Open Government Thursday night at a dinner celebrating the 35th anniversary of Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act.
Woodward, who became famous nearly 40 years ago after he and fellow Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein helped to expose a conspiracy surrounding a burglary at the Watergate Hotel leading to the eventual resignation of then-President Richard Nixon, spoke of the importance of transparency within government.
Woodward said that open government is an essential element for a functioning democracy.
“Whoever said that democracies die in darkness got it right,” he said.
While noting that most people worry about issues like health care, Woodward, now in his sixties joked about his immediate concerns after waking up each morning.
“I get up in the morning and my first thought is ‘am I going to make it to the bathroom?’” he said, “but my second thought is ‘what are they hiding?’ Because they’re always hiding something.”
Woodward praised Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act which was adopted in October of 1975, soon after the Watergate scandal, but said that to ensure government remains as transparent as possible, publishers willing to take risks are needed.
He spoke fondly of Katharine Graham, the Washington Post’s publisher during that era and how, despite huge risks to the paper’s financial backing and reputation, stood behind the work he and Bernstein were doing.
At a time when many people refused to believe that such a conspiracy existed within the federal government, including many people at the Post, he said Graham insisted they get to the bottom of the issue.
He described Graham’s management style as “mind on, hands off.” She stayed incredibly informed on the issue but gave her reporters room to work, he said. And when Woodward told her that, given the scope of the conspiracy, they may never know the whole truth of the matter, Graham said that was unacceptable.
“’Don’t tell me never,’” he said Graham told him.
“I left that lunch a motivated employee,” he said. “’Never. Don’t tell me never’ was not a threat. It was a statement of purpose. What she said to me was ‘look, use all the resources you have, all the resources we have at this paper. We have to get to the bottom of what went on.’”
Woodward said her words capture what journalists should do; get to the bottom of things. He also said he would like to see a plaque at the paper’s main office dedicated to Graham with that quote, as a statement of purpose.
Aside from the need for open government, Woodward’s talk covered many topics ranging from the aftermath of the Watergate scandal to his experiences with the Obama administration and the president’s personal views on the wars he now oversees.
He described Obama as a man torn between being a leader in a time of war and intellectually despising war.
He recounted a telling exchange between Obama and Vice President Joe Biden about the difficult decisions that have to be made about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The discussion took place just before Obama’s decision to send 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan. Biden tells the president that unless he sets limits on the military’s mission in the country, the war risks becoming another Vietnam.
“’Look if you don’t limit that mission, you may find we have to get out’ and as he put it to him, ‘you’re going to have to make some god damn hard decisions, man’ not Mr. President but man,” Woodward said Biden told the President. “ And Obama says back: ‘What I propose is that I’m not going to be like those other presidents and stick to it because of my ego and my politics.’”
The Walter Cronkite Freedom of Information Award is presented every five years. In a prepared statement Daniel Klau, a Hartford attorney and president of the Connecticut Foundation for Open Government described why Woodward was chosen as this year’s recipient:
“Bob Woodward perfectly personifies the spirit and mission of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act. The preeminent journalist’s dedication to the fullest exposure of the information the citizenry needs to make its critical decisions is legendary,” he said.
The Connecticut Foundation for Open Government is a non-profit organization founded in 1991 dedicated to promoting open government and the public’s right to know, according to its website.