Text of Bob Woodward's commencement address
Following is the complete text of Bob Woodward's commencement address given May, 20, 2007, at Bucknell University:
It's great to be here and what I would like to do because you've been sitting for a few minutes is, I think we ought to give a standing round of applause to the students and the parents who have financed your education.
President Mitchell and I were calculating this morning and, if I've got the numbers right, in the aggregate, your education for all 820 of you has cost $200 million.
So you have parents, friends, uncles, maybe even pawn shops that have financed what you've learned. Would you please all stand and give the students and the parents (applause). You may sit down now.
Best capital investment
Think about it – $200 million. The best capital investment that has ever been made. Your lives will go in a way with variety and with unexpected turns. And this is in all possible ways the departure point for you.
I'm going to be jumping around a lot today and I have 15 minutes to talk and there's a lot going on that I want to attempt to address.
I want to begin by talking about error and mistake. They're like teeth and hair. We all make mistakes and errors. One of the best stories about error has to do with the Catholic church. The monks were sitting around one day and they were talking to the cardinals and the cardinals were saying, "Maybe in Catholic doctrine there's a mistake, an error some place."
So they sent a team of monks down to look through 2,000 years of records to see if there was error any place. The monks were gone for weeks and finally the head cardinal went down. The team of monks were sitting around a table and they all had their heads down and they were crying, bawling.
The cardinal picked up the team leader and looked at him -- tears of genuine despair coming down his face – and said, "What's wrong? What have you found?
The monk looked at him and said, "The word was 'celebrate.'"
I'm from the Midwest and it took me about three minutes to get it.
In a sense, your four years have been like that; you've done some sifting, some copying, some distilling, some evaluating, and in that four years there is the possibility of learning the wrong lesson, of absorbing error. Maybe the word or idea was 'celebrate' and you did something else, something drastic, like celibacy.
I asked a graduate of Bucknell what's on the minds of these graduates, what are they grappling with and thinking. And he said, They're worried about the next steps, why the next step, why graduate school, why a year off, why this job. They're asking questions, you are asking questions: When should I take a chance? Can I pace myself? What really matters? You are in a sense like the monks, looking through the old document. Is there a mistake? What is true? What is authentic? What can I believe in? What can I truly count on? Who can I count on?
And if you're worried about these questions, you should be. Because you're wrestling with them now in one form or another, and you're going to be wrestling with them, believe it or not, for the rest of your life.
I've been able to write about the CIA, the Supreme Court, Pentagon, Congress, the White House.
I recently told a young woman that I tried to write about and understand seven presidents in my professional lifetime. She said, "Gee, what was Grover Cleveland like?"
It's sobering – I'm not even that old.
There are two things I want to try to communicate and that is, what's at the center of what might be important to all of you, and what is the common element?
As I have spent 37 years writing and scratching my head about Washington life and politics, I kind of divide all people into two categories.
Find work you love
The people who are really blessed, the people who are really happy, are those who find work they love. There are people I know who have been screaming and kicking and maneuvering – changing jobs, pushing and pushing and pushing until they find work they love.
Getting up in the morning and having work you love is what makes life different for people. And if you get into a position where you really don't love what you're doing, get off it. It's easy to be on someone else's track or something that sounds like a safety play.
And then there are those who get on their own track, and don't make a safety play.
Who you work with
The second potential center for you is decide carefully who you are going to work with. It makes all the difference in the world and it's often impossible to make that judgment.
I want to go back to January 1973, when I was 29 years old, working at The Washington Post, and give you an example of who I worked for, and how that made all the difference:
In January 1973, 34 years ago at age 29, Carl Bernstein and I had written the major Watergate story saying there was a criminal conspiracy in the Nixon White House, that the highest level people were involved. The Washington Post had backed us, and quite frankly most people, including our colleagues at the Washington Post did not believe what we had written.
Katharine Graham, the owner and publisher of The Washington Post, invited me for lunch in her dining room. So I went up and I met with her. As I said, she backed what we did. I walked into the room and she had this look on her face of, "What have you boys been doing with my newspaper?"
People have wondered how can you get a look like that on your face. If you'd been there, you would have realized what it was.
Then we sat down and she started questioning me about Watergate and Nixon and his people and what it was about. I was blown away with what she knew. She was so conversant with the material. But she had a management style which I later would describe as mind-on, hands-off. Intellectually, totally engaged in what we were doing, but her hands were not on, telling us how to do it, never.
She went on and on, and talked about Henry Kissinger who she knew and who was the President's national security adviser. She even mentioned that she had read something about Watergate in the Chicago Tribune. I remember thinking, the Chicago Tribune? What is she reading the Chicago Tribune for, no one in Chicago does.
The killer question
But she did. And she threw this net around and she had questions and at the end, like the best CEO she had the killer question, and the killer question was, When are we going to find out the whole truth about Watergate? When will the full story come out?
At that moment we were not believed. The Washington Post's stock had gone public. We later learned one of the Nixon administration tactics was to get people to challenge the very valuable FCC television licenses that the Post had.
So the stock was in the toilet, the journalistic credibility was at least on the rim of the toilet and she said, "Okay, when's the whole story going to come out?"
I said Carl and I felt it was criminal conspiracy as we had written in the paper, that people had not told the truth, they were frightened, they compartmentalized information so the answer was "Never. We were never going to learn the full story."
Across the lunch table, I'll never forget this. She had this pained, stricken look on her face and she said precisely the following: "Never? Don't tell me never."
I left the lunch a motivated employee.
But the "Never? Don't tell me never" was not a threat. It was a statement of purpose. What she was saying was: "Use your resources, the resources of this newspaper."
The stakes could not be higher. We have an obligation beyond ourselves to find out what happened here, and what it means.
That is a moment where I realized that I was working with somebody and for someone who knew precisely what the job was. That the job is to get to the bottom of things.
It is said here at Bucknell in this beautiful setting that you are somewhat isolated. I think there is even occasionally a reference to the "Bucknell Bubble."
Three months after 9-11, I was interviewing President George Bush, and he told me in this interview and described himself as "I am one guy in a bubble." Think about it: you and President Bush, both in a bubble.
Set aside the arguments about the advantages and drawbacks of a president being in a bubble. And I'm not sure it's where to be. But you in a bubble for the four years, whatever you've been here, is fine, and I would argue, desirable. You've been educated. You have had fantastic exposure to all kinds of things.
Task ahead is not simple
The task ahead is not simple. Now all you have to do is figure out is how to live and how to work.
There is a story about writers more from your parents' generation – Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller. Joseph Heller who wrote Catch-22, one of the great war novels of all times, maybe some of you have read it.
Vonnegut and Heller are at a party on Shelter Island off New York at some billionaire's house. Vonnegut says to Heller, "Hey, Joe. Look at this guy. He's a billionaire. He probably makes more in a week than you've made in your life."
Heller turns to him and says, "But I've got something he is never going to have."
Vonnegut says, "What?"
Heller says, "I know when I've got enough."
If I may say, that is one of the challenges in this era of excess. Learn and struggle and grapple with a point in your lives where you can realize that you have enough.
Different world after 9-11
To turn outside the bubble for a moment, which I want to. It's a different world after 9-11 and the terrorist attacks five-and-a-half years ago. But the reality is, we in this country have not changed our lives, in my view, enough to meet the challenge and the responsibilities of that new era.
The most important thing going on in the world right now is the Iraq war. It will define your future.
When the war, the invasion began in March 2003, The Washington Post gave me one year, an immense luxury in my business, to go find out, write articles for The Washington Post and a book, and try to find out why we went to war – what happened.
I worked my way up through the information chain: low-level people, White House, CIA, Pentagon, State Department, up through Cabinet secretaries, and kind of condensed what I had found down to a 21-page memo. Chronology, some questions, the key turning points and decision points for President Bush.
I sent a copy of that 21-page memo to President Bush. My colleagues at the Washington Post said, "You sent George W. Bush a 21-page memo? You're crazy. There's no evidence in all of Bush's years at Yale and Harvard Business School that he ever read anything that long."
But he did read it. Condi Rice, the national security adviser, called me in and said, "You're going to write this book about the decision to go to war in Iraq whether you talk to the President or not." I said, "Of course I am." She said, "He will see you tomorrow."
For two days, a total of three-and-a-half hours, I interviewed him. It was really an excavation of the process he went through over 16 months deciding to go to war.
Researchers at The Washington Post have checked and as best we can tell, it is the longest interview a sitting president ever gave, going back to George Washington.
In three-and-a-half hours, how many questions do you think I asked him? Somebody shout an answer.
Somebody said, "One!" That would be if it was Bill Clinton. Clinton could give a three-and-a-half hour answer. Maybe you wouldn't even have to ask one question.
I asked George Bush 500 questions. He gives short, direct answers. I could summarize this but I want to go to one point that's really important. The question pulsing in the background in an interview like this is Why? Why did we go to war? What happened?
At one point, out of the blue, he just said, "I believe we have a duty to free people, to liberate people."
An incredible thing to say. It's not in the Constitution, and it's not in any law. I challenged him. I said, "Aren't lots of people going to think that's dangerously paternalistic?"
He jumps in his chair when he says this, and then he said, "No, no, you don't get it. People who are free depreciate it. You are an elitist."
Imagine being called an elitist by President George W. Bush. But he did.
A zeal to liberate
Then he went on to say, "Those of us who led our countries to war have a zeal … " – his word – " … to liberate people."
Duty – zeal – two of the biggest words in the English language for a President of the United States.
As we go into 2008, if you can get the candidates' definition of what they think duty and zeal are, you will go quite far in understanding who they are.
At root for Bush is an idealism, the idea of freeing people, and bringing democracy. It accounts for his persistence in this war whether you like or don't like the war.
The last book I did was State of Denial. It examined what happened since the invasion. The simple fact demonstrated in the book is that the President and the administration for three-and-a-half years did not tell the truth about what was going on in the war. That the secret reports show escalation in violence to the point where last spring the level really was almost unheard of.
There were a hundred attacks on U.S. forces or Iraqi authorities every day. That's four an hour. Think about that, in a country one-15th the size of ours.
In the book I attempt to show exactly and I think it does show, how this war went on, it went downhill month after month, year after year. And we were not told the truth.
Evaluations of Bush's people
These are the evaluations of Bush's own people. Steve Hadley, the national security adviser for the first term, gives them a D-minus in private.
How many of you here ever got a D-minus in college? Parents? Okay there are only about five of us. I think there's a lot of denial out there.
For those of you who never got such a grade, it's a really low grade.
That's not some Democrat or some columnist, that is Steve Hadley.
The thing we have to worry about is secret government. Of all the problems in the world, secret government is what will do us in. Whoever said it got it right when they said that democracies die in darkness. And that's exactly what will happen.
Don't retreat into a bubble
Don't let the Iraq war teach you that the United States can't engage the world. Don't let it teach you desperation or cause you to retreat into a bubble.
Most importantly, don't let it teach you that our country cannot deal with conflict and cannot deal with evil like Saddam Hussein.
Because I think we can and we will.
A former colleague of mine in journalism, David Halberstam, who was killed tragically last month, gave lots of commencement speeches. I was looking at one. My thought is we're at a point of peril.
But David Halberstam in his commencement addresses would say, and I'm going to quote him a little bit.
'You'll be fine'
"You'll be fine. There is a determination, a resilience, and a spirit in this country that will not be snuffed out."
So we'll fix it but there is much for you now to fix outside the bubble.
Thank you very much.
Posted May 20, 2007
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