September 14, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Bob Woodward does the unthinkable

The most conventional journalist comes to a moral conclusion.

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Bob Woodward is the most conventional of conventional reporters. He is very good at gaining access and gathering facts, but like most members of the Washington press corps, he nearly always avoids thinking through the ramifications of what he finds, even if the evidence, which he reliably piles high, demands that he think it through.

The legendary reporter was on “60 Minutes” Sunday to talk about his new book, Rage. It reveals for the first time that the president knew in February how deadly the new coronavirus was going to be—that it’s airborne and worse than the flu—but did everything in his power to prevent the public from understanding it fully. That would have been enough to warrant an interview with Scott Pelley. Then Woodward did something to my knowledge he’s never done, nor have too many in Washington.

He came to a moral conclusion.

Pelley: You’re known as the reporter who doesn’t put his thumb on the scale. And yet, at the end of this book, you do just that.

Woodward: It’s a conclusion based on evidence, overwhelming evidence, that he could not rise to the occasion with the virus and tell the truth. And one of the things that President Trump told me, ‘In the presidency, there’s always dynamite behind the door.’ The real dynamite is President Trump. He is the dynamite.

Remember that coming to a conclusion is taboo among orthodox journalists like Woodward. (And the older the reporter, generally the more orthodox they are.) Coming to a conclusion violates the news tradition of neutrality and letting readers decide. The reporter’s job is reporting facts. Moral conclusions are for editorial writers. That Woodward of all people is breaking this rule should be seen as a reckoning of sorts for a press corps complicit in the creation of a “post-truth” authoritarian presidency.

The press corps seems to have an almost religious belief that democracy will endure no matter how many lies poison it—that the status quo is sustainable, and will outlive Trump.

When Donald Trump speaks, every third word is a lie. Reporters keep giving him the benefit of the doubt, though. They report what he says unfiltered or weakly qualified. After more than 20,000 falsehoods (as of July), you’d think empirically minded people like members of the press corps would by now have come to the conclusion that Trump is a liar. Don’t believe him. Verify everything. They haven’t. They seem to have an almost religious belief that democracy will endure no matter how many lies poison it—that the status quo is strong and sustainable, and will outlive Trump. The press corps isn’t alone. Many Americans, even now, tend to take democracy for granted.

For granted? That flies in the face of conventional wisdom, doesn’t it? We’re told that Donald Trump’s election and that of authoritarians in Hungary, Brazil, Turkey and the Philippines are proof that people have lost faith amid a conspiracy of international crises—climate change and globalization being chief among them. Instead of reforming institutions or reviving political participation, they are turning to would-be strongmen to save them. People have too little faith in democracy, not too much.

The whole truth in this country is there are plenty of voters (most of them white, most of them affluent) who do not believe the president is dangerous to the republic. They believe it will carry on, so much so they can grind as many axes as they please. Sure, he says things no president should say, but he doesn’t believe half of them. He doesn’t believe, as he said in Nevada over the weekend, that after winning a second term, he’s going to “negotiate” a third, maybe even a fourth. He doesn’t believe these things, these voters believe, because he knows a president can’t do that, even if he wanted to. This is an “unthinking faith,” according to David Runciman, allowing people to believe democracy can withstand anything. “Far from making democracy invincible, this sort of blithe confidence makes it vulnerable,” the Cambridge scholar told The Economist in 2018. “It gives us license to indulge our grievances regardless of the consequences.”

You see where I’m going. There are plenty of voters in this country who don’t mind the president’s effort to ban Muslims, deport “illegals,” police Black people and otherwise punch down on the margins of society if they can get another tax break. They don’t mind his corruption, dereliction of duty and erosion of the rule of law. They think his critics are partisans only, or complaining for the sake of complaining. Importantly, they don’t or won’t believe their support is fueling democracy’s decline. These mostly white and mostly affluent Americans believe they are serious, respectable, reasonable and patriotic citizens. They know the president is lying but won’t act. They know he’s lying but don’t care. Either is the result of too much faith in democracy, not too little. Like the press corps, they suspend their disbelief and refuse to come to a moral conclusion.

Let’s hope Woodward’s taboo-shattering goes some way toward changing that.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.

10 Comments

  1. dan tynan on July 30, 2021 at 11:18 pm

    Took him long enough.

    • Gail Suber on July 30, 2021 at 11:18 pm

      He said that he didn’t know if the facts Trump gave him were true. As a journalist who was writing a book, he had to verify the facts. Trump should have done the right thing and told us in February about the dangers of the virus. Many thousands of lives would have been saved if he had done this. Instead, he continued to lie and has continued to have super spreader rallies where people don’t wear masks or practice social distancing, and he knows that his supporters could get the virus. He only cares about himself. I realize that you probably know these things but I needed to express them. I hope you and everyone else are voting this year, because our lives depend on it. Take care, Dan! 💜😍

      • dan tynan on July 30, 2021 at 11:18 pm

        I was actually referring to the fact Woodward already wrote a book about Trump that was published in 2018; that was his opportunity to state the obvious. He had another opportunity to reveal Trump’s duplicity in April or May, after his book went to press. He didn’t.

        And yes, our lives may literally depend on what happens over the next 50 days. Vote early and often.

        • Gail Suber on July 30, 2021 at 11:18 pm

          Thanks for the clarification, Dan. He couldn’t have discussed COVID-19 in his last book, because it didn’t exist then. I don’t remember anything about his 2018 book about Trump, but it sounds like you’re saying that he didn’t say that Trump was a liar. Don’t do what Trump said to do, which is to vote twice (if I remember correctly, voting often happened in Chicago many years ago). .

      • Susan Janecek on July 30, 2021 at 11:18 pm

        I get so tired of people saying ‘Trump should have’ done this or said that. It’s not in his nature and never has been. Might as well say my cat should bark at burglars. Trump’s handling of COVID, as with everything else, the sadism is the point. Hurting people and even being responsible for their deaths feels good to him. He believes that’s what real power is.

  2. Dave Mikulec on July 30, 2021 at 11:18 pm

    When Woodward speaks out you know “shit’s gotten real”.

    “Many Americans, even now, tend to take democracy for granted. ”

    Truth. Most folks (around here anyway) seem to care more about things like high school and collegiate athletics and sports stats than working to do their civic duties and stay informed. And all those I know who were incessant cheerleaders for Trump and McConnell on social media in 2016 are no longer interested in discussions about politics.

    • Harry Wiggs on July 30, 2021 at 11:18 pm

      That is assuming any of these folks actually understand the concept of, “civic duty.”

      Demonstrably, they do not.

  3. Jim Prevatt on July 30, 2021 at 11:18 pm

    Like you I believe tr$mp never says anything that’s not a lie. So that got me thinking. Wonder if what he said to Woodward with respect to knowing about the corona virus in February is also a lie. Maybe he actually knew about it in 2019. (Jus sayin.) Why wouldn’t he lie to Woodward as well. And who is the person who said something like democracy is the best form of government if you can keep it? Seems we’re on the brink of losing it.

  4. Gail Suber on July 30, 2021 at 11:18 pm

    This is an excellent column. I saw Bob Woodard on 60 minutes last night and what he said was extraordinary. I made a comment on a WaPo article about Trump’s visit to Nevada and a few men replied to comments I made and they were obvious members of Trump’s cult (as Michael Cohen called it). They ranged from claiming that the virus is a hoax, that not many people have died from COVID-19, that Trump is the best president we’ve ever had (, I had replied to a comment that said he is the worst president we’ve ever had and that he was a POS), that democrats want socialism and Marxism to take over America, and numerous other comments by them. I replied to these men with facts and science-based information and eventually stopped replying to them because it was useless. However, the man who said it was a hoax didn’t refute the information I gave him. Thank you for your hard work. I appreciate and enjoy your columns! 😍

  5. Thornton Prayer on July 30, 2021 at 11:18 pm

    When considering the affluent white American demographic blithely ignoring the corrosion of democracy, I can’t help but be reminded of the Martin Niemoller poem (“First they came for the Socialists…..”). It’s painful to witness the lack of concern by people like this and their inability (or refusal) not to recognize that they too will ultimately pay the ultimate price that others are already facing.

    Right now, African Americans, other people of color, and undocumented people are the heat shield both protecting our democracy while illuminating its fleeting nature. And frankly, I’m tired of black people and those from other marginalized groups doing the heavy lifting for our democratic ideals that many white people take for granted. When will wealthy white Americans and for that matter many other people truly recognize what’s at stake? (this is a rhetorical question, not one I expect a real answer for).

    I am confident that we as a nation will pull through this mess, but it’s much harder and will take much longer than necessary because of the massive complacency around us. We’ll see what happens in the long run, especially when the confidently complacent themselves get smashed by the jack booted authoritarianism that Trump, Barr, Miller, et. al. are lusting for.

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