The Powerbroker: How Bob Woodward Conquered Washington

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Bob Woodward at Trump Tower
Julia Ioffe
September 28, 2021

Washington is a tenaciously traditional town, and there are few customs more strictly observed here than the rollout of a book by the legendary journalist Bob Woodward. Everyone knows when it will arrive, like when the air smells of coming rain, and everyone knows exactly how it’s going to go. The juiciest morsels will be reported in the week before the book is released—often by Jamie Gangel of CNN or in the Washington Post, Woodward’s journalistic pied a terre. Other outlets, perhaps the New York Times or NPR, will follow up with “exclusive” reporting of Woodward’s exclusive reporting, bragging, ever so subtly, that they were able to “obtain” the book in advance of publication. This will, in turn, drive the conversation on cable news and on social media. And by time the book is actually available for purchase, it is already #1 on the New York Times best-seller list and Amazon. 

“It’s a fine-tuned machine at this point,” said one Washington journalist. “He has the most powerful agent”—Bob Barnett, who has represented many of the presidents, such as Barack Obama, that Woodward has chronicled—“and the most powerful publisher,” Simon & Schuster C.E.O. Jonathan Karp. “He uses the Washington Post, which has a huge audience. The way they package and dole out the scoops, the way he gets uninterrupted, uncritical airtime gives him a huge ride and huge pre-publication sales”—which are key to ensuring that a book debuts on the best-seller list. “It’s very effective,” added the journalist. “No one does a book rollout like Bob Woodward.”

After half a century in the business, after bringing down a president, writing two dozen books, and making tens of millions of dollars, Woodward is justifiably on a different plane of journalistic existence. He is an institution unto himself and closer to the public figures he covers than to his peers in the media. “He’s a legend because of Watergate,” acknowledged a White House reporter. “No matter how mediocre he gets, you can’t take that away from him.” Even after Watergate, many of the nuggets he’s unearthed have become iconic encapsulations of American politics. “Some of the most indelible moments we remember about modern presidents came from his reporting,” said New York Times White House reporter Peter Baker, who is currently working on a Trump book. “Nixon kneeling in prayer with Kissinger and talking to the paintings, Hillary Clinton communing with the ghost of Eleanor Roosevelt, Bush 43 saying he answered to ‘a higher father’ rather than his own, George Tenet declaring W.M.D. intelligence to be a ‘slam dunk’—that’s a huge contribution to history.”

And yet, for all the public accolades—and in quintessential Washington fashion— Woodward inspires a surprising amount of eye-rolling in this town, at least in private. “Conversations I’ve had with reporters about Woodward are things they would never say on television,” said one publishing industry insider. “Nobody wants to say the emperor has no clothes. What do they get out of it? Everybody plays the same game in Washington. And the Woodward book is the perfect example. He gets a couple new details, but nothing all that fresh and original. But every fall, everyone falls for it, and he makes millions of dollars. That’s why people don’t like to challenge Bob Woodward, ‘the great investigative journalist.’ Everybody’s just glad this week is over. A Woodward book cycle is something you just have to grit your teeth and endure.” 

“How many more of these cycles do we as a community have left in us?” one prominent political journalist moaned. “The form just feels tired.”

Why do so many Washington journalists privately criticize Woodward? “Some of it is pure professional jealousy,” another well-known D.C. journalist told me. “He is the most successful journalist in history!” But there are some familiar, oft-recurring gripes that would only bother fellow reporters. Woodward’s prose is famously wooden, and his insights—that the Trump administration was chaotic and malevolent, for instance—can be painfully obvious. Woodward churns out books at an impossible clip, and the writing often reflects his deadlines. “It’s a notes dump,” said the White House reporter. 

Woodward books are also formulaic, complained one Washington insider: “It’s three-to-3.2 scoops each, owed to one-to-1.2 big shots, and then the books just go away. They’re transcripts. That’s not what we mean by investigative journalism.” One person compared Woodward books to pornography: “It’s a quick fix. You know what it’s going to be, it doesn’t change anything, and then it’s over.”

Some, including Joan Didion, have noted that Woodward’s aversion to pronouncing any judgment on what he’s chronicling is proof that “cerebral activity” is “absent.” According to these critics, the lack of opinion is actually a cop-out, a lack of context, nuance, and proper interpretation. For Woodward’s defenders, like his old friend Sally Quinn, queen of Washington and widow of his former boss, Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, Woodward simply belongs to an older journalistic tradition. “He’s very non-ideological, in the same way that Ben was,” Quinn told me. “Ben would never set foot in the editorial page conference. And Bob is very much that. It’s just the facts, ma’am.” (Woodward said he was too busy with his book to talk to me for this story, adding, “I really like to stick to the work.”)

But these are relatively small grievances, given journalists’ other private misgivings about Woodward. “Most reporters are jealous of other reporters and all they do is complain about each other, but there’s a particular animus toward Woodward,” said the publishing industry insider. “He gets away with things that most journalists can never get away with. Journalists rightfully resent that.” 

Take the latest Woodward book, with its standard clipped title, Peril. It opens with a scene that made sensational headlines: General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, secretly calling his Chinese counterpart during the final, terrifying months of the Trump administration to reassure him that Donald Trump, desperate to retain power, wouldn’t launch a surprise military strike on China. It was a dramatic scene—the top American military officer potentially stepping outside the chain of command to soothe a foreign adversary—and it felt like it was lifted straight from a Hollywood white-knuckle action flick. It turned out, however, that it was something closer to Dr. Strangelove

As other reporters who were covering the same events discovered, the scene unfolded quite differently than Woodward described it. The calls to the Chinese general Li Zuocheng were not, in fact, secret. Fifteen people were on both calls, and a read-out of each was shared with the intelligence community as well as others inside the U.S. government. The issue was not that Milley feared that then-president Trump would attack China in a wag-the-dog gambit, but that the Chinese were consuming bad intelligence about American politics between the election and the inauguration. Mark Esper, then the Defense Secretary, asked his subordinates to reach out and reassure their Chinese counterparts, and so Milley did. One White House reporter, who was covering these events in real time, told me the Milley call was a strange choice for an opening scene “because it was a nothing-burger. These calls happen all the time.” I heard this appraisal of the call from several journalists who had also reported on it, as well as from Pentagon officials. And in Congressional testimony this week, Milley pushed back forcefully against Woodward’s characterization of the calls, saying he had consulted the Secretary of Defense and the White House.

Milley, of course, had his own motivations for speaking to Woodward. He had been appalled and embarrassed by his participation in Trump’s infamous photo-op in front of St. John’s Church, after Lafayette Park had been violently cleared of peaceful protestors. So he did something unusual for the Trump administration: he apologized. Behind the scenes, he began aggressively doing his penance by talking to practically every reporter who would listen—which is why you’ve been reading so many anecdotes about General Milley heroically standing up to Trump. Reputations, after all, don’t launder themselves. “He’s been a very generous and ass-covering source ever since Lafayette Square,” the prominent political journalist said of Milley. The White House reporter told me, “Having Milley is not a ‘get’ anymore. Milley is the town bicycle now.” (A representative for Milley said, “General Milley has a long history of talking to the press and feels that it is his responsibility to tell the American people what American service members are doing and why.”)

So if Milley has spoken to everyone with a notepad in Washington, and if his call to General Li was not all that extraordinary, why did so many outlets make such a big deal out of it? In part, it’s because Woodward made it into a big deal. Even his defenders acknowledge that he can be a bit of a hype artist, purposely stretching the truth until it takes the dramatic shape he desires. “He gets a lot of stuff wrong and embellishes,” the White House reporter told me. “He always gets something that we don’t know, but it’s often sensationalized or twisted,” said another reporter who covered in real time what later came out in a Woodward book. “It doesn’t always hold up.” 

Another knowledgeable source recounted how Woodward interviewed Donald Rumsfeld, their boss at the time, when he was Secretary of Defense. Rumsfeld, who was portrayed as a dashing and heroic figure in Woodward’s first two books on the Bush administration, suddenly became the villain in the third, State of Denial. In that book, Woodward writes that he confronted Rumsfeld, asking him point-blank if he bore responsibility for the thousands of lives lost in Iraq. “In the book, Woodward asks him this question and Rumsfeld is speechless, he can’t think of anything to say,” the source told me. “It’s this movie moment at the end of the book.” 

In reality, the source said, after Woodward asked the question, “they spoke for another fifteen-twenty minutes in very jovial terms.” The source told me Woodward was “fawning praise” over Rumsfeld and even going so far as suggesting that the W.M.D. debacle would never have happened if Rumsfeld had presided over the C.I.A. in 2002-2003. 

Cliff Sims, a former Trump staffer who wrote a scathing memoir of his time in the administration, wrote that one scene reported by Woodward that was “a total fabrication.” There are plenty more stories like these. Just ask anyone who’s been interviewed by Woodward. In this town, that’s a lot of people.

And, it turns out, it’s not just people in D.C. who have this complaint. Every time a Woodward book comes out, Washingtonians recirculate an old piece from Slate by Tanner Colby about Woodward’s biography of, of all people, the late comedian John Belushi. (The two grew up in the same Illinois town.) Colby, writing a new biography two decades later, ended up re-interviewing many of the same people that Woodward had, many of whom grumbled that what they told Woodward had been made unrecognizable in the book. It was so warped, Belushi’s manager quipped, that it made you think Nixon might be innocent. 

The volume and consistency of such stories would have tarnished the reputation of most any other journalist. But nothing sticks to Woodward. “Complaining about it makes you look pedantic,” one journalist told me. “And it doesn’t really matter because tons of people are buying the book, and it’s going to be number one.”

Woodward’s defenders praise him as a practitioner of the sacred art of journalism in a way that it is no longer practiced today. Not only does he stick to facts over opinion, as Quinn noted, but he’s intentionally devoid of emotion—and therefore objective. “He’s so good about not being partisan,” said his friend, the journalist Clara Bingham. “He’s such an old-fashioned journalist that way. He’s so straight that I think people trust him.” 

But his ostensible objectivity has exactly the kind of limits that I and many others have written about in recent years. He is seen as traditionally objective in part because he is the kind of person who has traditionally practiced journalism: an older, white man. This was on full display when he interviewed Times reporters Megan Twohey and Jody Kantor about their book, She Said, documenting their Pulitzer-winning investigation into Harvey Weinstein. Woodward, who is infamous for not challenging his powerful sources, began interrogating Kantor and Twohey about whether Weinstein’s accusers could really be believed and whether Weinstein’s assaults could have been interpreted as “weird foreplay.” Woodward was booed at the event, despite his presumed intention, according to Quinn, “that he could make everybody see the wisdom of certain things.” She explained, “Bob is of a certain generation and he was asking questions that he thought were legitimate, and they would have been 10 years ago.” 

The assumption that powers the legend of Woodward is that he is the last of the old school giants, practicing the purest methods of journalism, which are inherently better and more rigorous than the silliness that young people pawn off as journalism today. And though Woodward, now 78 years old, still turns up at people’s doorsteps when he can’t get them to answer the phone, his methods can be significantly less rigorous than what modern standards allow. He often uses a single source for a piece of information, when the standard in newspaper journalism is two. He extensively uses deep background reporting, which his colleagues at the Post aren’t allowed to do. “Bob Woodward hasn’t reported an on-the-record quote since, what, the George W. Bush administration?” one of his former colleagues quipped. “That’s not how a newspaper works. Bob Woodward’s sources never have to answer questions because they’re never on the record saying anything. His books are sourced in ways that we would never be allowed to source things.”

His sourcing is problematic in other ways, as the Milley example demonstrates. Woodward allows his sources to essentially write their versions of events, largely unchallenged, if it means they’ll tell the story to him. “For the status of his books, he’s perfectly happy to be used by people at the highest level,” said the Washington insider. “People who get into trouble at very high levels, they know they’ll have a second chance when Woodward calls.” Added the Washington journalist, “He hands over the microphone to his sources and it’s very transparent who’s feeding him stuff. And the people who cooperate get free soft treatment. There’s always an element of that in reporting, but with Woodward, it’s taken to an extreme.” This accusation has long plagued Woodward. In 1976, the Washington Monthly published a parody of how Woodward and Bernstein would have covered the fall of the Third Reich—deferentially and told from the points of view of their sources. It is also the kind of benefit of the doubt that Woodward did not extend to Twohey and Kantor’s sources. 

Woodward also holds on to scoops, saving for his books information that it is the country’s business to know. For instance, Trump told Woodward in March 2020, back when we were frantically washing our groceries, that he knew that the novel coronavirus was transmitted through the air, but that he hid that information from the American public in order to soften the political impact of the emerging pandemic. It wasn’t exactly surprising that Trump would withhold information that could have saved tens of thousands of lives for his own benefit, but it was shocking to see a journalist do it. The revelation, when Woodward finally published it that September, six months after the fact, created an uproar. Woodward could have published this scoop any time he wanted to in the Washington Post, which no doubt would have given him the front page to share it. But he didn’t. He held the story for the publication of his book, Rage, possibly to make sure he had that one big scoop that, per the patented formula, would enrage readers and drive sales.

It’s hardly a surprise that the Washington media refers to Woodward in terms usually associated with this town’s elected representatives. He has, after all, become a master of this town’s power games. As the Washington insider pointed out to me, “He’s a member in good standing of the establishment that leaks to him.” Said the publishing industry insider, “He rewards friends, punishes enemies, intimidates people, he’s very shrewd—and he’s a gazillionaire because of it.”

He also keenly understands the power of the personal brand that he has spent half a century burnishing. Trump was an aberration in that he wanted to talk to any and all journalists, but most politicians have a far more complicated relationship with the press. Not so with Woodward. People want to appear in his books, and not just because they know that they will get to tell their story their way. Being interviewed by Woodward is a sign of success, of having become important enough for Woodward to notice you. He has, in effect, successfully flipped the power balance between the interviewer and the interviewee, between the journalist and the source. “When you sit down with Woodward, the tables feel weighted in his direction,” one government official told me.

One White House reporter, for instance, told me how a Trump administration staffer was “giddy” on hearing that Woodwarded wanted two hours with him. “He has this power to impress, it’s like he’s more powerful than the source,” the White House reporter said. “How can anyone compete with that?” Another journalist described being herded into the press pen in the lobby of Trump Tower when, in January 2017, Woodward waltzed through the lobby and into the elevator, which took him to his interview with president-elect Trump. The whole time, this journalist told me, the reporters were shouting questions at Woodward. “He was acting like a principal, rather than a journalist, like someone who is covered, rather than someone who covers,” the journalist said. “He’s playing a different game, he’s not one of us.” 

Woodward amplifies the sense of importance his interest bestows by inviting sources to his Georgetown townhouse. In a recent interview, Ben Rhodes, Obama’s speechwriter and foreign policy advisor, recalled how off-balance he felt when he found himself slurping soup in Woodward’s home. (He also mentioned how Obama advisor Dan Pfeiffer chewed him out for falling for this obvious—and dangerous—ploy.) “It’s a really smart way to get people to open up to you,” said one of Woodward’s friends. “They’re complimented to be invited, he makes them comfortable. Everyone seems to love blabbing at his dining room table!” 

This tactic is the stuff of legend among Washington journalists, who feel totally outgunned by something as simple as a dinner invitation. Bringing sources to your home for an interview is not illegal or unethical, but everyone seems to agree that it does feel wrong, even if they can’t quite explain why. “Maybe I should try it, invite sources to come sit in my tiny garden and drink cheap wine,” mused the White House reporter. “But he probably has a public part of the house, like the White House, and he doesn’t invite them into the private residence.” The veteran political journalist I spoke to was particularly unsettled by Woodward’s dinner tactic. “You’re not supposed to invite anyone to your place!” the journalist said. “It just feels like a move to communicate, I’m Bob Woodward and I’m the senior partner in this transaction.

And that may be the most revealing piece of criticism Woodward’s competitors have landed. Despite his careful cultivation of the image of an aw-shucks, hardworking and humble, attention-shy Midwesterner, Woodward is a deft businessperson. Unlike his reporting partner Carl Bernstein, the better writer and more charismatic of the pair, Woodward turned one career coup into a massively lucrative franchise, one that has only grown in the half century since he made his name during Watergate. (The addition of his new, much younger co-author, Robert Costa, suggests that this business model is being set up for a future without Woodward, but with his imprimatur.) As much as his acolytes praise him for an old-fashioned approach to journalism, Woodward figured out decades earlier than any millennial journalist that maintaining one’s brand is just as important as the reporting, if not more so. 

As a result, none of what you have read so far would surprise him. It’s just how this town works, and no one understands it better than Bob Woodward. “That’s so Washington,” said the well-known D.C. journalist. “Grumble to Julia Ioffe on background, but let him show up at a party and it’ll be the same people kissing his ass. The pathway to success for most of them is to kiss ass. And each one of them would’ve said, ‘yes’ had he had invited them to write a book with him.” Quinn told me Woodward bats away the public criticism, like bad reviews, as something he doesn’t agree with or as something written by someone he doesn’t respect. “He feels it comes with the territory,” she told me, and therefore doesn’t merit much introspection. As for the private sniping, she said, “I think he’s just oblivious to it. He’s laughing all the way to the bank.”