Paul Pillar

In Praise of Neutral Inquiry and Open-Mindedness

A conversation with journalistic icon Bob Woodward, moderated by Marvin Kalb, at the Nixon Center Monday that focused on presidents and wars was as insightful as one would expect from someone with Woodward's incredible access. There were insights on the main topic that were both encouraging (such as Barack Obama not feeling any need or desire to be a war president, even though he inherited two wars) and discouraging (such as a lack of mutual understanding between Obama and the military). Also interesting was discussion of how Woodward plies his own trade, and of the key question, “How does he get all those people to talk to him?” The answer, only partly articulated in the session, was that he long ago achieved a status in which everyone expects that he is getting everyone else to talk to him, and that means nobody wants to be the only one to give up the opportunity to add his particular perspective to a story that will be told anyway and will receive lots of attention. This does not explain how Woodward achieved that status in the first place, but it explains how now that he has it, he is able to do what he does.

I agree with Kalb's description of Woodward as a national asset. Say what you want about his particular methodology of reconstructing dialogue and deconstructing thoughts without explicit sourcing, but on balance his books have added significantly to public understanding and knowledge about important episodes in the making of national policy. Much of the value comes from Woodward approaching his work in a spirit of what he labeled as neutral inquiry.

He also has approached it with a willingness to listen to perspectives and reasoning he may not have heard before, and to change his own mind (and through his writing, to change the minds of others). The last topic of the discussion was Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon. Woodward's request of President Ford to explain his action led the president to grant extended interviews on the subject to Woodward, who laid out Ford's reasoning in the book Shadow. Members of the Kennedy family, initially as negative on the pardon as were many Americans, were persuaded upon reading the book that Ford had done the right thing, and later honored Ford for a politically courageous act.

The political courage involved was to take a step designed to get the nation beyond Watergate and back to addressing the economic and other pressing problems of the 1970s, even though opposition to, and suspicion about, the pardon probably helped to cost Gerald Ford the 1976 presidential election. What a refreshing concept, which seems in such short supply today: doing what is best for the country, rather than what is best for one's political fortunes or reelection chances.