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What Woodward owed the public

By KATHLEEN PARKER

Though they might not admit it, journalists who began their careers in the wake of Watergate often ask themselves: What would Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein do?

Today, that question is more focused: What would I do if I were Bob Woodward?

Thanks to taped recordings of interviews Woodward conducted with the president in preparation for his latest book, “Rage,” the world has learned that President Donald Trump was well aware of the virus’s lethality and its method of transmission as early as February.

It is also clear that the legendary reporter sat on that story until the week before his book was published.

Trump’s remarks, now exhaustively replayed, confirm that he knew — as, presumably, did others in his administration — that the novel coronavirus was an airborne infectious disease and that it was far more lethal than the regular flu.

Nevertheless, over several weeks and months, as the virus progressed across the United States, the president continued to downplay concerns about the virus in public, saying it was no worse than the regular flu, and failing to create a plan to contain the virus.

“Downplay” is an essential word in the context of the Woodward interviews. In one recording from March,Trump admitted to downplaying the virus — and wanted to continue downplaying it — because he didn’t want people to panic.

Today, this is the crux of a dilemma for both Trump and Woodward. Are they guilty in different ways of contributing to about 190,000 American deaths through a conspiracy of silence? Trump may well have wished to avoid a national panic in the early stages of the pandemic, but his silence signals an underlying distrust of his fellow countrymen. Our history is filled with examples of Americans rallying to a cause, no matter how frightening. One can’t help wondering how many lives might have been spared with a strong dose of truth and the nobility of purpose of which we’re capable as a nation.

One also wonders whether Woodward, by withholding news of the president’s withholding, may have added to COVID-19’s punch. At the very least, public knowledge of what the president knew but would not say might have forced Trump and others to act on reality rather than some imaginary scenario in which COVID-19 would just disappear one day, as Trump once said with a wand-like wave of his hand.

It would be unfair to suggest, as some have, that the two men are equally at fault. One is the president and took an oath to faithfully execute his duties. But, in an interview about his reporting process with The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan, Woodward’s explanation for waiting because he knew his book would be published before the election falls short of satisfying. Woodward also told Sullivan that in February he wasn’t yet sure Trump was telling the truth — always a valid concern.

It is good to remember that this is not just any reporter. This is Bob Woodward — the man who met “Deep Throat” in parking garages and knocked on people’s doors in the middle of the night for clues to the Watergate burglary. Remember the operative question: What did the president know, and when did he know it? Normally, what a president says he knows is news; with Trump, that linkage has never been reliable.

Woodward pointed out to Sullivan that he’s no longer a daily reporter but an author. This means that he has ultimate authority over his research. Although no longer technically employed by The Post, he maintains an honorary associate editor title. Which is to say, no one wants to criticize an icon who brought fame to the paper for which we proudly toil. Trump, never lacking in self-confidence, really believed that talking to Woodward, often without staff present, would make the book more positive. Many of the conversations reportedly took place at night by phone when Trump thought of something he thought Woodward might like to hear.

What would you or I have done, if we were Woodward?

I do know that I would have sought the counsel of my newspaper editors, which Woodward no longer has. Sometimes, being the captain of one’s own ship is a windward proposition. It seems clear now that revealing the president’s calculated deceptions sooner might have forced Trump to act earlier and led more Americans to take greater precautions.

Given that, I think I know what many editors would have advised him: Publish lest others perish.

Kathleen Parker’s email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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