Bob Woodward learned about 'secrets' as a Wheaton teen

As a teenager in Wheaton, Bob Woodward worked part-time as a janitor in his father's law office near the DuPage County Courthouse.

It didn't take him long to notice the papers on the lawyers' desks were a lot more interesting than the cleaning he was supposed to be doing. Then, he recalled, “you start looking in drawers and eventually get into the old files and check on the cases of people you know in town or in school.

“The lesson is, everyone has a secret.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist has spent his career uncovering those secrets at the highest levels of government.

His 16th book, “Obama's Wars (Simon & Schuster, $30), includes accounts of two dozen secret, closed-door strategy sessions that chronicle the struggle within the White House over the Afghanistan war.

Woodward was granted extensive access, including a one-on-one meeting for more than an hour with the president in the Oval Office.

The 67-year-old journalist, in a phone interview with the Daily Herald to promote the book, talked about the first time he met the president, his take on former Chief of Staff (and now Chicago mayoral candidate) Rahm Emanuel and why he chooses to write so many books about war and not, say, health care.

“I think war is the defining decision for a president, Woodward said. “Our country gets its reputation in large part from the wars we engage in... Fast forward history 25 to 50 years from now and how we come out from the Afghanistan war, the war on terror, the secret war in Pakistan, will tell us in large part the status of the country.

Meeting Obama in 2005: The then-junior Senator said to Woodward, “‘You're from Wheaton, Illinois.' I said, ‘Yes, and I bet you didn't carry Wheaton, Illinois in your Senate campaign in 2004.'

Obama said he carried DuPage County by 63 percent. “I said, “Oh, come on, when I was there in the ‘50s, it was the most Republican area in the country.' Then Woodward remembered Obama ran against Alan Keyes.

Emanuel's sharp elbows: Woodward says an exchange from his book is enlightening. Just a few days into the new administration, the new chief of staff and Vice President Joe Biden were still talking with General David Petraeus after Obama left for another engagement. Petraeus said he was moving forward with 30,000 new troops for Afghanistan. “Hold on, Emanuel said. “The president hasn't made any decisions and I want that to be absolutely clear. General, I appreciate you're doing your job, but I didn't hear the President of the United States give that order.

Said Woodward: “In a sense, it's all right there (Emanuel) protecting Obama's interests, being very direct but also being a little soft (by saying) ‘I appreciate you're doing your job.'

And what does that say about what kind of mayor of Chicago Emanuel would be? Woodward declined to speculate.

“It's interesting, he said. “We'll see.

Why people still talk to him: Despite portrayals some of his subjects couldn't be happy about, high-level officials still open their doors to Woodward. Why? “Because I have the time to work on it, he said. “It's neutral inquiry. I'm not for Obama or against him. I'm not for Bush or against him. I'm trying to find out what really happened.

Woodward said even after more than four decades as a journalist, “you wake up with a lump in your stomach worrying about what you didn't find out, what you didn't ask.

He doesn't have a favorite book not even “All the President's Men, the story of the Watergate investigation that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

“It's like having 16 children, Woodward said. “You love them all, and you realize their defects.

He also, he revealed, has one more book few people know about. He wrote it when he was in college. And it's a novel.

And it remains, he said. “unpublished and unpromising.