NEW YORK — The featured speakers at the annual benefit gala for PEN America shared stories about truth and the determination to learn it.
Hundreds gathered Tuesday night at the American Museum of Natural History as the literary and human rights organization presented awards to Anita Hill and Bob Woodward among others. With John Oliver serving as host, joking that the country under President Donald Trump was “not at its best right now,” the evening celebrated men and women at odds with their government, whether in the U.S or abroad.
Not all of the honorees were able to attend. PEN for decades has given a Freedom to Write Award to dissidents, often imprisoned, from other countries. This year’s recipients, the Saudi activists Nouf Abdulaziz, Loujain al-Hathloul and Eman al-Nafjan, are currently facing trial for their advocacy of women’s rights. PEN America President Jennifer Egan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, did cite a hopeful trend: 39 out of the 44 previous winners of the Freedom to Write Award have since been freed.
Woodward, 76, has been known for decades as one of the Washington Post reporters who helped break the Watergate scandal that forced President Richard Nixon out of office. Winner of PEN’S Literary Service Award, he was introduced by historian Robert Caro, another writer famous for his exhaustive investigative work. Caro marveled at the persistence of Woodward and fellow Post journalist Carl Bernstein, recalling how they probed a list of 100 potential sources by showing up at each of their homes and knocking on their doors. The true reporter, Caro said, was “someone who never stops trying to get as close to the truth as possible.”
Woodward likened his years writing about Nixon to the current time, worrying that Trump had “legitimized hate and fear.” He also added his own story about shoe leather as the path to truth. He spoke of a 4-star general who didn’t want to speak to him for a book he was working on about the administration of President George W. Bush. The general didn’t respond to phone messages, invitations or to the efforts of intermediaries. So Woodward remembered the advice of his old friend Bernstein, who was in the audience at the PEN gala and later joined him at the podium: Turn up in person. He reasoned that Tuesday night, around 8:17, was a good time to find a general at home. When Woodward knocked, the general greeted him, “Are you still doing this s—!”
Woodward stood there, “poker-faced,” hoping that his “silence would suck out the truth.”
“He looked at me and he finally got a disappointed look on his face — I think not at me, but at himself,” Woodward said. “And he waived me in and sat for two hours and answered most of my questions.”
Why did he relent? “Somebody showed up.”
The actress and #MeToo activist Lupita Nyong’o presented Hill the PEN America Courage Award and praised her for her willingness to testify in 1991, long before the #MeToo movement, that then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. The 62-year-old Hill, head of a Hollywood commission on ending sexual harassment, joined herself to those before her. Noting that she was descended from slaves, she traced her family history from her maternal grandmother, who was illiterate, to her mother, who mostly read the Bible and Reader’s Digest, to her own background as a graduate of Yale Law School. Her time before the Senate Judiciary Committee (chaired by Democrat Joe Biden, now a top presidential contender), made her realize that for all of her achievements she remained a black woman before a panel of white men, that her right to speak freely about “the truth” of her experience “was in fact, limited.”
“It’s taken generations to get the privilege that I have to write and to speak out, with the truth, and to speak to truth to power,” she said. “It’s taken that long and I will never, never give it up.”
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