Last month, legendary reporter Bob Woodward spoke at the Hinckley Institute’s Sam Rich Lecture Series. The hall was filled with journalists, political junkies and young students. Mr. Woodward has become something of a political patron saint for many in the media and for aspiring journalism students. His work breaking the Watergate scandal has become standard in college textbooks, been featured in Hollywood movies, and has evolved into both myth and legend in political reporting circles. I wondered what his message would be as he looked back to the lessons of Watergate while applying them in the era of President Trump.
KUER’s Doug Fabrizio skillfully conducted the interview with meaningful questions that led to powerfully insightful answers. I was mesmerized by a simple three-word answer from Mr. Woodward when asked how he resisted the natural urges to break the story in the early stages when he and partner Carl Bernstein were putting the sources and evidence together. Woodward said, “Restraint always works!” then repeated it for emphasis.
Woodward could have stopped there and he would have delivered a piece of wisdom that each audience member could study and reflect upon for a lifetime. With instant access to information and the ever-accelerating race and rush to judgment, we often fail to remember that restraint always works. The national media, political pundits and each of us as individual players on social media could benefit from a little more restraint.
Just because we can say or do something doesn’t mean we should. The ultimate display of power is in choosing not to use it.
Reacting to the emotional outbursts of others with an equal amount of anger is the opposite of restraint. It typically leads to a reckless game of verbal chicken, usually ending in damaged relationships, reduced opportunity for dialogue and little chance of compromise or productive outcomes. I am certain that the comment section for this column will include a significant number of statements attacking things I have said or done, positions my organization has taken or things I have written in the past, along with a healthy dose of verbal skewers associating me with people the commenters from the left and right will deem as evil.
I regularly share with political leaders, candidates and their staffs the old saying, “Speak in anger and you will deliver the best speech you will ever live to regret.” Restraint always works.
Similarly, writing that angry email, text or social media post feels good in the moment. But developing the discipline of sitting on it for 24 hours — or at least sleeping on it — usually prevents the regret that almost always follows a lack a restraint.
Imagine what would happen if we all tried to apply a little more restraint in our lives. Restraint of personal appetites would have prevented the daily deluge of sexual harassment and assault stories involving high-ranking political, media and business personalities. Restraint of the desire for power and authority would change the way business gets done and how nations coexist and achieve peace. Properly restraining the pursuit of wealth would prevent the countless scams and schemes that con people out of millions of dollars every year.
Just because a president can do something with the stroke of a pen and an executive order doesn’t mean he or she should. Just because Congress can jam through a piece of legislation strictly along party lines, because they are in the majority, doesn’t mean they should. Just because government agencies can write regulations, through the abdication of power by Congress, doesn’t mean they should. Just because national media can run a story without facts or sources doesn’t mean they should. Just because we can post an angry, snarky or vindictive comment on social media doesn’t mean we should.
The investigation into Watergate that Bob Woodward launched was experienced in an extraordinary way by a leader in Utah. Elder D. Todd Christofferson, now a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was a young law clerk at the time of Watergate. He and Judge John Sirica were the first to hear the infamous Watergate tapes. Elder Christofferson shared his insight from the experience on the 45th anniversary of the scandal during a lecture at Oxford University.
Elder Christofferson summed up the entirety of Watergate as a numbing of conscience that led to a lapse in integrity. He described the players as “political animals intent on victory, no doubt, but they didn’t begin this process as criminals." The lack of restraint in their quest for political power permitted the numbing of conscience to spiral into a complete collapse of personal integrity. A little restraint of power, ego and “might equals right” could have changed the course of history.
As much as I would love to share a number of other important principles and ideas Bob Woodward shared during his visit to Utah, I will resist and save them for a future column. I have to practice in my writing, and in my daily living, his three-word mantra — restraint always works.