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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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.