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Journalist Bob Woodward speaks in Fargo

Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward speaks Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011, during The Chamber's second annual Voices of Vision luncheon in Fargo. Woodward is best known for his coverage of the Watergate scandal and has written numerous books since then. (Michael Vosburg / Forum Communications)

Talk about it

FARGO - Watergate happened almost 40 years ago, but the indignation is fresh in Bob Woodward's voice when he talks about the American president he helped bring down.

"It's appalling what went on in the Nixon White House," Woodward said Thursday, speaking before a crowd of more than 700 people at an event hosted by the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber.

Woodward, an author and Washington Post reporter whose stories about the Watergate scandal were instrumental in Richard Nixon's 1974 resignation, said to this day he will sometimes listen to taped recordings of Nixon in meetings with underlings.

And Woodward's impression of the 37th president is the same every time.

"It's the smallness of Nixon," he said. "No one (in the recordings) ever asked, 'What would be good for the country?'"

Secrets and motives

Woodward, who has written books about Nixon and presidents since, is often asked what he sees to be the biggest danger facing the country.

"My answer to that question is simple," he said.

"The answer is secret government. That's what will do us in," Woodward said in a talk that was sprinkled with some of the biggest names in politics over the last four decades.

While his measure of Nixon remains disdainful, his view of President Gerald Ford and Ford's pardon of Nixon has changed.

Initially suspicious there was something dirty about Ford's motives, Woodward saw it differently after Ford agreed to sit down and talk with him 25 years after the Watergate scandal.

Ford told him: "I didn't pardon Nixon for me, or for Nixon. I pardoned Nixon for the country," Woodward recalled, adding he now considers it a gutsy move that likely cost Ford the 1976 presidential election.

Taking risks

On the subject of what makes a good leader, Woodward told the story of how his publisher at the Washington Post, Katharine Graham, steered the paper during the Watergate years. He said early on few people believed what the Post was printing, and the paper took a large financial risk by pursuing the story.

"This is what leadership is really about," Woodward said. "You have to take risks.

"That doesn't mean you take wild gambles," he added. "You have a view of what you do - what is in your being - and you commit everything to do that job."

Woodward occasionally drew laughs with his stories, including one about a dinner where he was seated next to former Vice President Al Gore.

"Al Gore," Woodward said, pausing for effect, "is taxing.

"What you need to know about Gore, if you don't know it, before he went into politics he practiced journalism," Woodward said.

"It turns out he thinks he invented that also," Woodward added, a veiled reference to Gore's reputation for taking credit for the Internet.

But like his writing, much of Woodward's talk was about serious matters, including the present state of journalism.

Describing today's media as "depleted," Woodward said he worries daily that not enough is known about what is going on in government.

And that is dangerous, Woodward said, adding:

"Whoever said it, got it right: 'Democracies die in darkness.'"