The Magazine

Bob Woodward's Washington

From the May 3, 2004 issue: The books come and go, but the plot is always the same--vanity, duplicity, flattery, and guile.

May 3, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 32 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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WASHINGTON WENT THROUGH one of its Woodward spasms last week. It unwound in the usual manner. First came the faint, premonitory rumors, gaining force as the publishing date approached, about what might be in Bob Woodward's latest book; then the suggestive news reports dribbled out over the premiere weekend, until one news organization or another boldly broke the publisher's embargo, followed by stories about the story that broke the embargo. At last on Sunday there was the television kickoff on 60 Minutes, in which Woodward himself tugged the shroud from his new production in front of a gaping Mike Wallace, and the hungry devouring of the first of the multi-part excerpts in the Washington Post. Inevitably, as the week wore on, there came the sad detumescence, settling in around Excerpt Three or maybe Four, when we realized that the good parts had all been published and only the scraps and crumbs were left. Soon enough the book itself would be here, in piles in the window at Borders, limp as a windsock and giving off the stale odor of old news.

It has the reassuring cadence of ritual, a Woodward spasm does, and like a ritual it will disclose unexpected revelations. During the last spasm, for example, launched by the publication of Woodward's Bush at War 16 months ago, I recall marveling at the verbatim quotes from President Bush. By tradition Woodward seldom quotes a source directly, with attribution, as conventional reporters do. Yet here was Bush--who at the time had just polished off one war and was suiting up for another--overcoming his famous disdain for reporters to sit for a two-hour interview with the greatest reporter of them all. Much of what he said was even more remarkable. He was asked to summarize the contribution made by his secretary of state, Colin Powell, to the war in Afghanistan. "Powell is a diplomat," Bush said mildly, "and you've got to have a diplomat. . . . He is a diplomatic person who has got war experience."

The praise was notable for how faint it was; dismissive, almost, and revealing in the inadvertent way that Woodward's books always are. Bush is a self-confident man--self-confident enough to denigrate, slyly and publicly, the veteran public servant who sits as his secretary of state. But he's not self-confident enough to say no when Bob Woodward asks if he's got two hours to chat. Cockiness has its limits, even with Bush. This is Woodward's town; the president just lives in it.

With the excerpts from Plan of Attack published last week, Woodward proved that he had outdone himself yet again--or rather, his sources had outdone themselves in his service. This time, the president sat for more than three hours of interviews, and Powell himself seems to have given Woodward access to everything but his clothes hamper and the videotapes stashed in his bedroom closet. Administration spokesmen boasted that Bush had ordered his aides and cabinet officers to cooperate with Woodward, and they brandish the resulting book as though it were a campaign placard.

"We're urging people to buy the book," said the White House communications director, Dan Bartlett. "What this book does is show a president who was asking the right questions and showing prudence as well as resolve during very difficult times. This book undermines a lot of the critics' charges."

Well, maybe it does, but the sight of a White House humping a Woodward book is an interesting development all by itself. I'm showing my age, but I remember when Republicans hated Bob Woodward. It all began with Watergate, of course, when Woodward and his partner Carl Bernstein dragged the bloodied body of Richard Nixon from the White House and martyred him on the front page of the Post. Hostilities intensified with a book about the Iran-contra scandal, Veil, in which Woodward claimed to have snagged a deathbed interview with William Casey, Ronald Reagan's director of central intelligence. Though few people could translate Casey's mumbles even when he was healthy, Woodward said he palavered with the old spook as he lay in a hospital room, wreathed in tubes and half-paralyzed from a stroke. By his account, Woodward asked Casey why he had orchestrated the scandal, and (said Woodward) Casey said: "I believed."

Republicans didn't. By the late 1980s, in that pitiless, binary ledger kept by Washington's professional conservatives, Woodward was the enemy.