Reading Bob Woodward

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 5, 2005

It may well have been reported before, but it was certainly news to me that Bob Woodward once got so drunk he couldn't walk.

This was in 1970, in Virginia, at an officers' club party thrown by Navy colleagues to celebrate his upcoming discharge. "Martinis were about 90 cents, if that, and I believe I had maybe even six or seven," Woodward writes in his new book, "The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate's Deep Throat." Dropped off at a Pentagon parking lot afterward, he began crawling toward his Volkswagen Beetle and was intercepted by sympathetic military police. Someone drove him home.

A good thing, too -- or the true history of Watergate might never have been told. But that's not why the anecdote is compelling.

It's because it hints at an inner Woodward we've never known.

"The Secret Man" is the closest thing to self-examination that Woodward -- who writes that he never drank that much again, and who went on to become the most celebrated journalist of his time -- has ever published. It isn't a full-fledged memoir. Instead, it is a narrative of his relationship with W. Mark Felt, the high-ranking FBI official who was recently revealed as Woodward's legendary Watergate source. But for anyone who has ever wondered what makes Woodward tick, it offers at least a road map for further analysis.

The author of "The Secret Man" has been my colleague for 20 years. (In addition to writing books, Woodward remains a Washington Post assistant managing editor.) But we don't really know each other, and I'm as curious as anyone else about the roots of his drive and the ingredients of his success.

How should one read Bob Woodward? What does his new quasi-memoir tell us about this complex, not particularly forthcoming man? An interview or profile in Woodward's own newspaper raises obvious questions about objectivity. But my editors decided that a look at this larger-than-life reporter through the lens of his own book was worth a try, because Woodward and his work are so closely woven into the fabric of Washington today.

In 1970, when he downed those martinis, he was an angst-ridden young man engaged in what he calls a "scramble for a future." Two years later, having decided on a journalism career, he and fellow Post reporter Carl Bernstein were in hot pursuit of the "third-rate burglary" at the Democratic Party's national headquarters that would lead to President Nixon's resignation.

Since then, Woodward's aggressive reporting, knack for getting the powerful to talk and relentless effort -- even detractors acknowledge how hard he works -- have produced a flood of high-impact books and newspaper articles describing the pursuit and exercise of power. "The intimate and important struggles of government, the conflict and lethal bureaucratic maneuver warfare," as he puts it in "The Secret Man," have "become the Washington story as much as scandal."

In the years since Woodward's career began, reporting itself has increasingly become a form of power, a vehicle for large ambitions. The chief fascination of reading "The Secret Man" is to consider how the author's own life is bound up with the subject he has made his own.

Setting the Hook

Woodward's father, a judge in Illinois, wanted him to go to law school when he got out of the Navy. The son wasn't sure. While an undergraduate at Yale, he'd written a novel, though it "was neither promising nor publishable." Should he consider other options?

He took care to cultivate a college classmate who was to clerk for then-Chief Justice Warren Burger. He signed on for a course in international relations and promptly interviewed a former secretary of state. He was drawn to "the mystique of the White House," where his Navy duties sometimes took him as a courier, and he was delighted to hang around there when he could.

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