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Bob Woodward: from Watergate to Trump-era ‘Fear’

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By Paul HANDLEY

Bob Woodward began his career by bringing down a president, Richard Nixon.

Forty-four years later, the premier chronicler of life in the White House could be foreshadowing the demise of another, Donald Trump.

In “Fear: Trump in the White House,” which hit stores on Tuesday, Woodward paints a devastating picture of a US president in crisis — an angry, paranoid leader whose staff battles to rein in his worst impulses.

It is his most blistering work since he and colleague Carl Bernstein drove Nixon to resign with their Watergate reporting for The Washington Post — the foundation for their landmark book “All the President’s Men.”

“Fear”, Woodward’s 19th book, immediately rocketed to number one on Amazon’s best-seller list, driven by excerpts reported last week depicting the White House in a perpetual “nervous breakdown.”

It quotes Trump’s own chief of staff, John Kelly, calling his boss “unhinged” and the White House “Crazytown.”

Trump’s former lawyer, John Dowd, depicts the president as a congenital liar.

While it is hardly the first book to paint Trump’s 20-month-old administration in an unflattering light, “Fear” comes with something different: the Woodward stamp of quality, honed since the 1970s.

– Unparalleled access –
Woodward, 75, studied at Yale University and did a five-year tour in the US Navy, before turning to journalism. When he first applied at The Washington Post, he was rejected due to a lack of experience.

After a stint at a local paper in the Washington suburbs, he got his shot at the Post in 1971.

He had barely a year of reporting under his belt when he and Bernstein stumbled into the story of a lifetime — the 1972 break-in at Democratic Party offices in Washington’s Watergate compound.

Their classic gumshoe investigation of the scandal prompted several formal investigations. In 1974, Nixon resigned.

“All The President’s Men” was a smash hit that was turned into an Oscar-winning film. The man chosen to play Woodward? Robert Redford.

Since then, whenever Woodward calls, Washington’s politerati answer without hesitation.

He has put out a book about every two years, including authoritative, real-time tomes on Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.

Woodward has also offered deep insights into the Supreme Court, the Central Intelligence Agency, and former Federal Reserve czar Alan Greenspan — all while remaining at the Post, now as an associate editor.

The steady stream of books has allowed him to keep the channels of communication open with the fading titans of Washington, while also opening the doors of newcomers.

His brand as a reliable reporter about the corridors of power is virtually unmatched, and his dogged ability to back up whatever insider tales he hears has earned him grudging respect in the US capital.

“We always felt it was important for the president and others to participate in interviews with him,” Scott McClellan, a spokesman for president George W. Bush in the 200s, told AFP.

“We wanted to make sure he had access to the president and others in order to have a more full and accurate account of what happened and the thinking behind the decisions.”

– ‘Not my job to judge ‘-
In all of his books, Woodward lays out meticulous details of meetings, discussions and policy issues in a wooden, no-drama-added style, and avoids stepping back and putting what he reports into any perspective.

“These are books in which measurable cerebral activity is virtually absent,” author Joan Didion criticized in a 1996 essay on six of his works.

But his defenders say the just-the-facts approach is the bedrock of his credibility.

“In an age of ‘alternative facts’ and corrosive tweets about ‘fake news,’ Woodward is truth’s gold standard,” veteran journalist Jill Abramson wrote in The Washington Post about “Fear.”

“It’s not my job to provide judgment,” Woodward told the website Vox earlier this year, saying his job “is to tell exactly what people have done, what it might mean, what drives them, and who they are.”

– ‘I’ve done the work’ –
His signature approach is evident in “Fear,” which is more damning than his other White House tell-alls.

It opens with Trump’s economic advisor Gary Cohn stealing a document from the president’s desk to keep him from signing it, to prevent damage to US security.

Woodward details meetings in which Trump appears not to understand crucial issues. Mortified aides plot to block his most dangerous orders and mollify his temper tantrums.

Woodward devastatingly quotes Defense Secretary Jim Mattis as saying Trump has the understanding of “a fifth- or sixth-grader” — an 11-year-old child.

Trump predictably blasted the book as “a work of fiction” and labelled Woodward an “idiot.”

Numerous Trump aides, including Mattis and Kelly, denied quotes attributed to them and said they did not provide information to Woodward.

But the author says many sources warn him ahead of time that they will deny everything.

“I’m not” lying, Woodward said Monday on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”

“What is the contest in America other than the political contest? It’s a contest for the truth,” he said.

“I’ve done the work. This is the best reporting you can do, or that I can do.”

Agence France-Presse