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.

Then, suddenly, it appeared that Woodward was becoming more--um, objective. The Commanders, Woodward's behind-the-scenes account of the Gulf War, showed a masterly George H.W. Bush manipulating the geopolitical map like Kasparov at a chessboard, faithfully attended by Powell, Dick Cheney, and America's Metternich, James Baker III. In The Man Who Would be President, Woodward teamed up with David Broder to sketch a portrait of Dan Quayle as a Hoosier Pericles. Really, Dan Quayle. The Choice and The Agenda, Woodward's backstage peeks at Bill Clinton's White House, did as much as any piece of Gingrichian agitprop to solidify that administration's reputation as a clownshow of fops and incompetents.

Hey, thought Republicans: Maybe we've been a little hard on old Bob. And of course they had. No one has ever successfully challenged Woodward's overall journalistic credibility. Of the hundreds of thousands of discrete facts his books are built from, few have required correction. He advances no ideological agenda; he seems indifferent to political ideas of any kind, beyond the soft liberalism he has absorbed from his social class. His goal is plainly what he has said it is all along: He wants to record how Washington really works as faithfully and accurately as possible. He does, too--though not in the way he thinks. His books are the truth about Washington. You just have to read between the lines.

What's in the lines themselves can be highly frustrating. Woodward came of age, professionally, during the false spring of New Journalism, when gifted reporters and writers like Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese used storytelling techniques--dialogue, scene-setting, psychological detail--to turn their "saturation reporting" into compelling narratives. In the right hands (very few in number) the result can be exhilarating. Woodward is at once New Journalism's most successful practitioner, commercially, and its most dubious, stylistically. Reading the books, with their clunky prose and indiscriminate wash of detail, or watching him moonlight as a TV talking head with Larry King or Tim Russert, repeating banalities plucked whole from that day's conventional wisdom, you can't help but conclude that he is a kind of idiot savant--a dim bulb with a single, very large gift.

The books, perhaps necessarily, are slapdash concoctions. In the transcript of an interview released last week by the Pentagon, Woodward is quoted telling Donald Rumsfeld, "I want to construct a narrative, because that's the only way you can communicate to a large body of people what happened." Grand, even operatic, narrative is his ambition, but he doesn't write well enough to pull it off. He can't set a scene to dramatic effect or assemble detail to round out a character. He is incapable of psychological penetration. As with most boomer journalists, his historical knowledge shows no sign of extending beyond the oeuvre of Doris Kearns Goodwin, Michael Beschloss, and the rest of the faculty at Charlie Rose Tech.

He relies instead on a lower order of storytelling. Pressed through the filter of Woodward's melodramatic sensibility, the affairs of state--ideological disputes, international consultations, briefing sessions, bureaucratic snafus--take on the tone and temper of a furious battle among high school cliques. His storylines turn on emotional encounters. In Plan of Attack we learn that Colin and Dick used to be friends, but now Colin thinks Dick has been saying bad things to the president, and Dick gets so mad at Colin that the two of them stop speaking. And sometimes they fight: "They both knew how to score debating points as they pulled apart the last fraying threads of what had connected them for so many years." But then Rich Armitage, a sidekick in Colin's group, gets mad at Condi, and he tells her so, right to her face, and Condi gets so mad at Rich for what he said to her that she goes straight to Colin to complain. Colin defends Rich because they're best friends. And what about the president? How does he feel about Colin? Does he like Colin better than Dick? It makes you want to transfer to a cooler school.

The narratives are so coarse in a Woodward book, and the prose so clumsy, that often you can't be sure what's going on, precisely--you can't tell what detail derives from Woodward's actual reporting and what is merely surmise, or a contrivance inserted to goose along the melodrama. In Bush at War, we get to sit inside Powell's cranium as the secretary ponders the president. There are many passages like this:

"Bush might order, Go get the guns! Get my horses!--all the Texas, Alamo macho that made Powell uncomfortable."

Whoa, hoss. Them's fightin' words, ain't they? But which words are Powell's and which are Woodward's? Is the sentiment Powell's and the wording Woodward's? Does Powell think the president is sometimes hasty--which wouldn't be terribly alarming--or does he think the president succumbs to "Alamo macho," which would be alarming indeed? The two tendencies are not the same, after all, and the difference is important.

And where--to take an example from the new book--do asides like this come from: "The president had never once asked Powell, Would you [invade Iraq]?" Woodward writes. "Perhaps the president feared the answer. Perhaps Powell feared giving it."

Perhaps the president really did tell Woodward in their interview that he was afraid of Powell's answer. Perhaps Powell told Woodward he was afraid to offer it. Then again, perhaps this is just Woodward being literary. Perhaps, in other words, this is baloney. The point is, we have no way of knowing. Which is a problem in a factual account.

IT WOULD INDEED be a wonderful thing, and Woodward himself would be a national treasure, if he could record the events that interest him with greater precision, and with an eye to their larger psychological or historical or political placement. But he can't. Instead his gift--solitary, as I say, but very large--is for getting people to tell him stuff. This is the reporter's essential talent, and no one has ever had it in such quantity or cultivated it so diligently.

Living in Washington, you hear stories about how he does it--about the long preliminary interviews he conducts with his sources-to-be, prefaced always by exhaustive research, during which he oozes Uriah Heepish empathy, and then the follow-ups, the second and third interviews, studded with long silences, downcast eyes, shrugs of disappointment, as his sources grow increasingly uncomfortable till they blurt out whatever it is he wants to know. On top of it all, Woodward is tireless and industrious and exquisitely careful with numbers and dates, and his threshold for boredom is unimaginably high. The government memo was never written that Bob Woodward could not read and reread with relish--so long as it was none of his business.

Yet reportorial genius is only part of the story of Woodward's success. He has spawned countless imitators, but also countless willing victims. Washingtonians who travel in the circles that interest him are implacable careerists, by turns toadying, cautious, and pushy, and they admire nothing so much as success. And who in Washington is more successful than Bob Woodward? Not only is he the best at what he does, he has also become exceedingly rich and famous for doing it--a man whose celestial ranking rests just below that of the president himself. His combination of charm, professional skill, celebrity, and wealth renders his subjects uniquely weak in the knees.

In his memoir All Too Human, George Stephanopoulos, a former aide to Bill Clinton and himself a poster boy for Washington careerism, recalls the strange mix of feelings that overtook him in 1993, when he first heard that Woodward was writing a book on the Clinton administration's economic policy.

"His books invariably created embarrassing headlines for their subject," Stephanopoulos wrote, "but [such a big but!] his sources were assumed to be the most important, connected, and knowledgeable people in Washington. . . . Woodward's first call to me had sparked two simultaneous thoughts: Oh no! and I have arrived."

Stephanopoulos sang like a canary, of course. "Woodward's calculated charm was custom tailored to my intellectual vanity, professional pride, and personal loyalty to the president." Well, maybe not the loyalty part. The Agenda did indeed "create embarrassing headlines" for Clinton, some of which he would not overcome for years, and it led directly to the firing of Mack McLarty, Stephanopoulos's boss. George himself managed to come out all right.

Not all of Woodward's sources do, of course. There are many biases in the books, none of them political. One bias is toward people who agree to talk to the author. Another is toward people who agree to talk to him in a particular way. Because the story lines that Woodward constructs pivot to a large extent on emotion, on feelings and intimate interaction, sources who disgorge their inner lives will always come out ahead. The undisputed hero of the last several Woodward books has been Colin Powell, whose inner life, as recorded there, is exquisite. He worries and frets, he feels blue ("I was disappointed, even hurt..." we read in Plan of Attack), he feels elation, he summons resolve against long odds. President Bush too--Alamo macho though he may sometimes seem--is happy to talk the talk. "I felt stressed," he tells Woodward in Plan of Attack. "My jaw muscle got so tight. . . . There was a lot of tension during that last holiday season." You can only imagine the silent Yesssssssss! that raced through the reporter's brain when his president began to talk like that.

As for those prigs who remain uncomfortable with the confessional mode of speech, and who don't want a reporter poking around their private selves--such characters will inevitably suffer in the telling of a Woodward tale. It's not clear from last week's excerpts whether Dick Cheney agreed to be interviewed, but even if he did, it is unlikely that he disclosed the inner Dick in the manner of Powell's inner Colin. (Cheney thought Condi had been awfully standoffish at the briefing last night . . . ) The transcripts of the Rumsfeld-Woodward interviews released by the Pentagon show Woodward gently prodding the defense secretary to do a little soul-searching. "What was the most important moment in this [war] for you personally?" Woodward asks at the end of one interview. "Oh, I don't know," Rumsfeld responds, with evident impatience. "We're over time. . . . Let's talk process." Stoics like Cheney and Rumsfeld, caught in the light that Woodward shines on his subjects, appear opaque, taciturn, unfeeling--hence unsympathetic, and vaguely sinister.

Other sources come off badly for reasons of which they are not, perhaps, fully aware. Many personal qualities go into the making of a Washington careerist. Self-knowledge is not one of them. That lack opens another vulnerability that Woodward is happy to exploit. One of last week's Post excerpts began with an account of a small dinner party Cheney gave last April to celebrate the fall of Baghdad. He invited a few colleagues and friends--among them his aide Scooter Libby, Paul Wolfowitz, and Ken Adelman, a former Reagan administration official who had been peppering the op-ed pages with articles supporting the Iraq invasion.

Adelman and his wife, Woodward tells us (as Adelman surely told him), cut short a visit to Paris to attend. "When Adelman walked into the vice president's residence that Sunday night, he was so happy he broke into tears. He hugged Cheney for the first time in the 30 years he had known him." Adelman, in other words, is Woodward's kind of source. When the partygoers threatened to lapse into reverie about the first Gulf war, Adelman interrupted. Woodward quotes his remarks verbatim:

"Hold it! Hold it!" Adelman interjected. "Let's talk about this Gulf war. It's so wonderful to celebrate. . . . It's so easy for me to write an article saying, 'Do this.' It's much tougher for Paul to advocate it. Paul and Scooter, you give advice inside and the president listens. Dick, your advice is the most important, the Cadillac. . . . I have been blown away by how determined [the president] is.So I just want to make a toast, without getting too cheesy. To the president of the United States."

The passage is fugue-like in its complexity, yet it displays, as plainly as possible, how it is that Woodward's books expose the truth about Washington. It lies not in the details but in the way the details are acquired, through the capital's daisy-chain of duplicity, flattery, and guile. Though the quotes that Woodward offers us appear to be direct, they are in fact direct quotes from a source, Adelman, who is quoting himself through a haze of memory and self-congratulation months after the words were uttered, at a party which his host, no doubt, had hoped would remain private. And while it is painful to watch a man parade his own sycophancy, it is dazzling to see it displayed in so many layers: Adelman sucking up to Woodward by describing himself sucking up to Cheney--as a way of impressing his fellow Washingtonians, who may someday, as a consequence, suck up to him.

Imagine the thrill, therefore, that Adelman must have felt that morning last week, when he picked up the paper with trembling hands to see his own little story displayed with such prominence, under so august a byline. Like Stephanopoulos before him, and like numberless others before him, he must have heard the words resound like a trumpet blast: "I have arrived!"

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.