It’s not easy to get Bob Woodward to laugh.
During a Wednesday night talk at New York’s 92nd Street Y with Jacob Weisberg, the longtime chairman of Slate who revealed on Twitter his departure from the role shortly before taking the stage opposite Woodward, the veteran journalist easily sidestepped attempts at humor like puddles on a sidewalk. When Weisberg, who’s starting his own podcast network with author Malcolm Gladwell (who was in the audience), opened up the discussion by reading a few tweets praising Woodward and asking wryly who they might have been written by, getting the audience to laugh, he simply answered: “Trump.” President Trump is the subject of his new book “Fear,” released only Wednesday and already about to hit 1 million copies sold.
He spoke (voice clear and measured and still with a slight Midwestern drawl) through most bouts of laughter from the audience, the median age of which could be no younger than 55, and refused several opportunities to reassure anyone that the tenure of President Trump was coming to an end. When Weisberg said he hoped Woodward would have a 10th U.S. president to write about “very soon,” eliciting laughs, whoops and applause from the audience, Woodward plainly repeated, “We don’t know, we don’t know.”
“People didn’t think Trump could be elected, it’s all improbable,” Woodward said. “When you read biographies or autobiographies of presidents, they all start talking about, at one point or another, a ‘destiny.’ There’s a self-validation when you’re elected president that gives you a sense of, ‘Oh, I know how to do this.’ In Trump’s case, everyone told him, ‘It’s not gonna happen.’ He wins, never even being on City Council, never done anything in government, so it puts his feet deeper in cement about: ‘I’m right. I’ve got it.’”
Woodward went on to explain that Trump is in even deeper isolation than most presidents before him by creating a “Trumpworld,” marked by his personal “war on truth.”
“Whenever someone [from his administration] comes in with something that’s true, it’s warfare if he doesn’t like it,” Woodward said. He noted a running tally by The Washington Post, where Woodward has worked for going on 50 years, that has “472” accounts of verifiable lies or untruths that Trump has come out with in his less than two years as president. But he said the documentation isn’t enough and that the “consequences of the untruths” need to be reported on more, because they are “grave,” as is much of what Trump is actually doing and accomplishing, as opposed to what he’s tweeting about.
It’s not so hard to see why Woodward, despite stellar sales numbers, isn’t yucking it up. He repeated his thought that the situation inside the White House is “more serious” than people realize, noting “the people who know the most consider [Trump] a threat to national security and financial security.”
But this isn’t to say that Woodward is without humor. He half-joked that it’s “easier to describe the creation of the universe” than to explain Trump’s mind-set. He laughed at Weisberg’s promise to not ask who he thought was the author behind the borderline infamous “anonymous op-ed” published by The New York Times, arguing a small cadre around Trump was working to protect the country from the president’s unbalanced moods and actions. “Oh, well I have the name right here,” Woodward said, going for his jacket pocket and laughing a bit, before explaining that he isn’t a big fan of the decision to run an anonymous byline, nor the op-ed’s lack of specificity. He laughed again when Weisberg said he wouldn’t probe about the confidential sources cited in “Fear.” The mere idea that he would ever do such a thing seemed to strike his funny bone.
Woodward quickly turned serious again in talking about being “sympathetic” toward those who put their careers and reputations on the line to speak with reporters and the “Washington denial machine” that’s been around for decades. One thing he kept bringing up was how much power presidents actually have, despite what some people may want to think, and he urged people to consider “where all this is going, who’s in charge, who has authority, how is presidential power being exercised, is there an oversight of this process, because there’s a contest for what’s true… and that’s not great for democracy.”
Ironically, for all of Woodward’s legitimate issues with Trump’s White House and Trump and Family’s tweets maligning Woodward and his work, the author mentioned one thing that he and the president agree on.
“I said to [Trump] ‘We’re at a pivot point in our history,’” Woodward recalled, “and he said, ‘Right.’”
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