Legendary Watergate reporter Bob Woodward revealed to a packed crowd Saturday night at Kent State University that new information about President Richard Nixon’s perspective on the May 4, 1970, shootings will modify the historical record.
Publicly, and in his memoirs, Nixon expressed shock about the event in which four people were shot and killed by Ohio National Guardsmen on the Kent State campus, Woodward said. The former president tells a story about going to the Lincoln Memorial before sunrise one morning to talk with anti-war students.
But Woodward said the president’s opinion was far different in private.
“What did Nixon really think — this master of concealment?” said Woodward.
In a conversation with his chief of staff H.R. Haldeman in September 1971, Nixon suggested shooting prisoners at New York's Attica Prison riot in a reference to the Kent State tragedy. “You know what stops them? Kill a few,” Nixon says on a tape of the conversation.
“We now know what really was on Nixon’s mind as he reflected back on Kent State after 17 months,” Woodward said. “Kent State and the protest movement was an incubator for Richard Nixon and his illegal wars.”
Those wars were much closer than those in Cambodia and Vietnam, Woodward said. In June 1970, the Huston Plan sparked a series of illicit domestic activities Woodward described as wars against the American people. Following the Huston Plan, which was a report on proposed security operations, Nixon moved to a war on the news media, creation of the “Plumbers” unit to track down leaks, attempts to thwart justice with the Watergate coverup and, after his presidency, an effort to mold and repair his image in a war against history.
“Forty-nine years after Kent State, we have these great divisions in our society again,” Woodward told the estimated 5,000 audience members at the M.A.C. Center. “We have at this moment in history … we have a president who has really launched the legitimacy of hate.”
Woodward concluded his speech with a warning that the United States is in precarious political times. President Donald Trump, he said, enjoys the political theater but is uninterested in the nuts and bolts of being president.
“We can learn from Nixon and his response to Kent State,” Woodward said. “There is no ending to this story other than we'd better wake up to the fact that the era of the Vietnam War and the hostility and poison of the Nixon era has been reincarnated in our government today.”
Earlier Saturday, in comments at the Kent State May 4 Visitors Center in Taylor Hall, Woodward also drew parallels between the political climate at the time of the shooting and today.
At a news conference, Woodward said the issues have changed, but the divisions remain.
"The divisions of the 1970s were pivoted around the Vietnam War," Woodward said. "Now the divisions are much more political and have to do with 'Do you support Trump or do you not support Trump?' "
Woodward, who along with fellow Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein uncovered the Watergate scandal, cited similarities between Nixon and Trump.
"I found from [reporting] on nine presidents that there's something about being elected president that puts you in that club, but also isolates you," he said.
Nixon enjoyed being alone, but Trump enjoys the spotlight. Of the two, however, "Trump is probably the most isolated."
Woodward spoke at the visitors center while about a dozen people outside paid their respects in a drizzling rain to the slain students. It was his first visit to the campus, according to Eric Mansfield, executive director of university media relations.
Woodward's work on Watergate led to the first of his two Pulitzer Prizes. He continues to write on the current political scene and said he was surprised that Attorney General William Barr accepted the position in the Trump administration.
"He really entered the Trump world of untruth," Woodward said.
The May 4 shootings remain "horrific" 49 years after the event, Woodward said.
"It was a moment that shook the conscience of everyone, including Richard Nixon," he said. "Let's hope it never happens again and that it remains a singular incident."
Alan Ashworth can be reached at 330-996-3859 or firstname.lastname@example.org.