Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the history-making journalists who uncovered the Watergate scandal in The Washington Post, engaged GW students in a question and answer session Thursday.
The two famous reporters were peppered with students’ questions in Lanny Davis’ class, “Scandal, Damage Control and American Politics” in an overflowing Hillel auditorium.
Students asked questions on topics that ranged from Watergate to the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and from the power of the presidency to the potency of the media.
Bernstein said the circumstances differ between the current presidential controversy and the 1972 scandal he and Woodward uncovered that led to the resignation of President Nixon.
“We are in uncharted territory, infinitely different than Watergate,” Bernstein said. “(The Clinton scandal) will be looked at, a generation from now, as a moment of real madness.”
The Watergate investigation centered around Nixon’s abuse of power, the two journalists noted, but the current inquiry by independent counsel Kenneth Starr has become a scrutiny of the president’s private life.
“I wish the atmosphere in which the (Clinton controversy) is reported was not so heated,” Woodward said.
Woodward and Bernstein were the first on a distinguished list of guest speakers to visit Davis’s class. Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, among others, are scheduled to attend the class this semester.
The class is limited to about 20 students, but Davis has allowed the sessions with famous guests to be opened to larger audiences.
Prior to the open forum, Davis told his students to ask candid questions of the twosome.
“I want you to be in their face,” Davis said.
Several students questioned the reporters about their admitted lapses in journalistic judgment while reporting Watergate.
“We played some tricks that reporters shouldn’t play,” Woodward said. But he defended their actions, saying they had openly admitted to and explained the incidents in their book, All the President’s Men.
“We were young reporters,” he said. “We made some mistakes and learned from them.”
Both reporters said the media atmosphere has changed since the time of Watergate.
“When we reported Watergate, you had newspapers, three networks and magazines and that was about it,” Bernstein said. “Today, there are just so many media outlets. We couldn’t do the story in today’s atmosphere. We were alone on (Watergate) for awhile and could wait days, sometimes weeks to check a story.
“If reporters today followed what we did in Watergate, there’d be a tremendous amount of better reporting.”