How do you feel about being described as “the best reporter of all time”?
I don’t believe or agree with that description. I have been fortunate to work at the Washington Post, where the editors give me time for these
You’ve also been called a stenographer of the rich and powerful.
I guess they can’t read. If you read the books, you find the information comes from all kinds of sources, at all levels: low, medium and high.
Do you now prefer writing books?
Books take so much energy and focus that they are almost like children. You love them all, but you know their defects and their weaknesses.
What has been your best story, aside from Watergate?
I’ve been very lucky to write about all the presidents since Richard Nixon, the Supreme Court, the CIA, the Federal Reserve, the Pentagon. They are all fascinating quests. You start out with so little knowledge and you have to build the confidence and trust of so many people.
How do you persuade all these high-level people in government to talk to you?
It’s not a trick. I believe in the importance of neutral inquiry. Also, you have to take people as seriously as they take themselves. A common ingredient of people in government is that they believe in what they are doing. If you are informed and make it clear that you want to know where they are coming from, you’ll end up with the co-operation of nearly everyone.
What is your take on President Obama’s handling of the war in Afghanistan?
The president intellectually understands that he was dealt a bad hand: it’s a difficult war, it’s been on for so long, and as he says, the American people are sick of it. Last year he added 30,000 more troops and limited the mission, but it’s still a major commitment.
What will be Obama’s legacy in Afghanistan?
He never uses the word “victory”. I think that’s very revealing. When I interviewed him over the summer, he said: “I don’t think in terms of losing or winning the war, I think in terms of how you have the strategy that puts the country in the strong position at the end.”
So it’s not about winning?
The missing X-factor in all of this is the will to win. That psychological momentum is very important in a war. But he knows it is such a dreary set of circumstances.
Do you think Afghanistan could be Obama’s Vietnam?
Obama said very clearly: “If what I propose is not working, I’m not going to be like these presidents and stick to it based on my ego, my politics, or my political security.” That is his declaration: he is not going to be President Johnson, who got tangled in Vietnam.
You’ve spent a lot of time with George W Bush. What’s your view of him?
I found Bush very direct and willing to engage. No questions were off-limits. At one point he said, “You’re trying to get into my head, aren’t you?” Then he said, “That’s OK.” He wanted to explain what he did and why.
Is that your tactic – to understand their motives?
The question about all presidents is: what’s the driver? What’s making them do what they do? In the case of Bush, at one point when I was
interviewing him he said, out of the blue, “I believe we have a duty to free people.” I think in the Iraq war he saw an opportunity to liberate 25 million people.
Where did it all go wrong?
He didn’t have a process or a way of looking at the downsides. Colin Powell warned him that if you break it, you own it. We own Iraq – we still own part of it now.
Did you feel duped by Bush on Iraq?
Duped is a really strong word. In my books, I reported what happened, and they stand the test of time. I did personally think that there were weapons of mass destruction [WMDs] in Iraq. The CIA got it wrong, and I fault myself for not being more aggressive in pursuing some information I had from three sources. People were saying that evidence of WMDs in Iraq was skimpy. I should have done more.
Is there anything you’d like to forget?
A great deal. But my real worry always is what we don’t know. I get up in the morning with the question: what are the bastards hiding?
Is your number still listed in the Washington, DC phone book?
Yes. You never know who wants to reach out to a reporter.
What was it like to be played by Robert Redford in the film All the President’s Men?
You have no idea how many women I have disappointed.
Are we all doomed?
No. Just the opposite. We will endure.