Woodward’s Scoop, and Showing Our Age

January 28, 2013

We all show our age in our own way, and it often reflects our life story. A former high school basketball player in his forties might hobble around on sensitive knees. A college debater might grow more frustrated at losing quick access to the facts she used to instantly recall. For Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, the “tell” was using an old time journalist phrase -- showing not just his age, but his awareness of the high profile he’s carried around for forty years.

Woodward has a column in today’s Post about why President Obama chose Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense. It is an interesting piece about their similar views on the need to challenge old doctrines, based on a conversation the two men had at the beginning of Obama’s first term. What struck me most, though, was something Woodward wrote about the information he was passing on, that it was “according to an account that Hagel later gave, and is reported here for the first time…”

“Reported here for the first time” has a kind of antique feel to it, as if it the words were hammered out on an old manual typewriter by a reporter in a fedora with a cigar in his mouth. But, even more, it felt like it was written by someone who needs to remind the world that he can get secret information that others can’t.

Woodward, of course, is justly famous for the reporting he and Carl Bernstein did to help uncover the Watergate scandal. He has since written a series of books based on information from Washington insiders, often amazing readers with his access to top-level private conversations. The books have been valuable to the public’s understanding of the way government works.  But you also get the feeling Woodward is trying hard to live up to his status as the most famous reporter in the world. And his need to remind readers that his information about Hagel was a scoop deepens that impression.

I’ve never met Woodward, so I have no idea if all this means he feels pressure because of his early success -- maybe he’s just got weakness for old-fashioned phrasing and enjoys writing those kinds of books. But none of us can escape our pasts, in either an emotional or physical sense. Our personal histories, and how we are seen by those around us, are part of everything we do. For those whose lives played out in public, there must be a powerful drive to prove that your reputation is deserved and to maintain the fame you’ve earned.

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