Books in Review

Bush at War By Bob Woodward. Simon & Schuster, 376 pages, $28.00

It was 3 p.m. when the phone rang. "Ring, ring, ring." It was the same sound it usually made, but this time with a difference. The nation was at war. And Bob Woodward had a new book out about it. So when the editor asked the reviewer to review the new Bob Woodward book about the war, the reviewer thought to himself: "I'm thinking to myself, 'No one is here but me to hear these thoughts and no one ever will. Still, they are brave thoughts, heroic thoughts. Too bad that no one will ever know of them. Well, no one but God. Well, God and perhaps a 'journalist' who, by common accord, has been granted a special, professional dispensation from all known rules of sourcing and attribution.'"

I can see why the big shots go along with this Woodwardesque "you are there" business. Who wouldn't? Let's say you are Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice or even George W. Bush. You receive a call from a man with the power -- granted by popular acclamation -- to let you give your own version of your own personal and professional history, unfettered by a single critical intervention, and call it "the truth." Of course you are always whining about "leaks," and your attorney general and secretary of defense have even claimed that those who commit them should be put in jail. Never mind that. There are leaks and there are leaks. These are the good kind.

With Woodward on the other end of the line, you can be assured that your version of history will appear on the front page of The Washington Post -- first in the form of the article about the book, then in an excerpt from it -- and later in a positive review before finally making the pundits' columns. Here's one from Washington Post columnist and International Herald Tribune Editor David Ignatius that appeared in the Tribune: "Bush's record as a wartime leader thus far bears comparison to these giants of American history. Bush has shown an ability to tolerate dissent among strong war cabinet officials and a dexterity in leaning toward hawkish or dovish advisers at the right moment. He has displayed patience and steady nerves. And most important, he has maintained a relentless determination to achieve final victory."

It's a pretty sweet deal for Woodward, too. Who wouldn't like to be paid millions to put his name on the official story of the nation's leaders and then get the world to stop for about 15 minutes when he was finally ready to share it?

The question is why the rest of us keep falling for it. But, then, the answer is that there is no advantage to ignoring Woodward. He is going to publish what you "thought" whether you tell him yourself or not. The fact that Hillary Clinton found herself talking to Eleanor Roosevelt may not matter in terms of national policy, but it might serve as a whiff of buckshot to anyone who dares to give a "no comment." On the other hand, William Casey found he could hide an entire secret foreign policy from Woodward -- an illegal one in which we sold arms to terrorists (in Iran), pocketed the profits and gave arms to other terrorists (in Nicaragua) -- so long as he gave Woodward the inside skinny on stuff that didn't really matter.

In this case, Woodward and his co-authors -- Powell, Rice, Bush, Dick Cheney, George Tenet, Karl Rove and Richard Armitage -- wish us to know the following:

  • Bush did not run away and hide on September 11 while Rove put out a phony story about "credible" evidence of a planned attack against Air Force One. That was just an honest screw-up. They swear.
  • You thought Cheney was in charge. Forget it. Bush is in charge. Really. Cheney just does what he's told.
  • Bush likes Vladimir Putin because the Russian leader's mother gave her son a cross when he was born. So even though Putin was a (presumably) murderous Commie KGB agent whose troops are brutalizing Chechnian civilians in an endless war with no respect for the niceties of the human rights of noncombatants, he's OK.
  • Powell thinks he's smarter'n everybody else in this administration, and he is. Bush knows Powell knows this, Bush does not like it and Bush will probably replace Powell with Rice the first chance he gets. How do we know? Because when Woodward asked the president his opinion of his secretary of state, Bush responded with the ringing endorsement: "Powell is a diplomat, and you've got to have a diplomat. He is a diplomatic person who has got war experience.'' (This is perhaps the only real news I gleaned from the book, by the way.)

The rest of the book is filled with heavy-handed prose featuring people who feel they ought to be saying something important about the war. Because Woodward deploys his patented "unorthodox sourcing and journalistic writing techniques," in the words of Washington Post Ombudsman Michael Getler, it is nearly impossible sometimes to figure out just whose voice Woodward is supposed to be speaking in. One paragraph, following a paraphrasing of Rice, reads in its entirety, "The reality was that the country was open and vulnerable." There is no such thing as context in Woodward's world, almost no history and absolutely no possibility that anyone would dare to try to mislead America's most famous reporter.

I am prepared to believe most of what's here; not that it actually happened, but that someone in a position of authority is willing to say it did.

A Robert Caro-style reconstruction that sought to determine if these folks were actually telling the truth would take years just to research, much less to weigh the claims and counterclaims. (Woodward does no weighing.) But the notion that Woodward has never been successfully challenged -- one I keep reading in the press surrounding this book -- is false. In his joint biography, Deep Truth: The Lives of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Adrian Havill presents compelling evidence that Deep Throat could not have had the view of Woodward's apartment described in All the President's Men. He also creates as-yet-unsolved problems for Woodward's dramatic bedside scene with a dying Casey, questions Woodward has routinely dismissed as jealousy from inferior journalists.

The larger problem with Woodward is not so much whether he can be trusted in the narrow sense (I'm sure he has notes to back up what he reports). Rather, Woodward's problems lie in the epistemological realm. We read Woodward to understand what goes on in the inner circles of power, and we come away thinking we know. We do not. On the day I am writing this review, The Washington Post contains three disturbing stories about the war on the homepage of its Web site. The headlines read as follows: "Many Jailed in Terror War Held in Limbo Indefinitely," "Plan to Enlist Citizens as Spies Dead" and "Saudi Funds' Link to Hijackers Probed."

All of these stories reflect badly on the Bush administration, and one would never guess that any of them might be taking place by reading Bob Woodward's book. Indeed, John Ashcroft, who cannot, in polite conversation, be molded into the heroic action figure that so many of the Bushies enjoy here, barely makes the index. The Bush administration's assault on civil liberties is left undiscussed, along with its shameless efforts to exploit the 9-11 attacks to further its agenda and expand its political dominance. Nor is there much investigation of the most fundamental question: Just who was asleep at the switch?

Upon finishing Bush at War, I picked up a recent edition of The Amazing Spiderman, in which author J. Michael Straczynski, together with artists John Romita Jr. and Scott Hanna, attempted to bring the tragedy of 9-11 alive through the characters of Peter Parker and company. I can't say I "believed" that comic. But I did find in it a voice filled with integrity and empathy that is entirely absent from the oh-so-serious comic-book version of Bush and company to which Bob Woodward has willingly lent his name.

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