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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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."