Living With Bob Woodward

It doesn’t get much better than this, unfortunately.

The Choice

By Bob Woodward

(Simon & Schuster; 384 pages; $26)

(1285 words; posted Tuesday, July 2; to be composted Tuesday, July 9)

This is the ninth book by Bob Woodward, and whenever I read a new one, I always have the same two reactions. The first reaction is that it is not really a book. It doesn’t have a theme or an argument or even a coherent story line. Books are supposed to have spines. They’re supposed to have context. Woodward doesn’t know from context, though in recent books he has made feeble efforts to stipulate some. His narrative is more like a series of scenes from a pulpy novel, only they aren’t fiction–at least most of the time.

Which leads to a second reaction: The reporting, if one defines reporting in its smallest-bore sense, is sometimes breathtaking. Every time I begin to feel a bit guilty about my part in the Woodward hype machine (Newsweek almost always excerpts his books, often on the cover) I reflect on my paltry powers to find out what happened at an unimportant Oval Office meeting, much less a solarium seance. The theory that Judge Sirica, not Woodward and Bernstein, brought down Richard Nixon isn’t right. Woodward is sui generis when it comes to getting people to tell him stuff that is only supposed to come out under truth serum.

This time I have a third reaction. For years, I’ve believed in the Perfectibility of Bob. Given his Calvinist work habits, I held out hope that his devotion to self-improvement would eventually take him to a new level (make that a first level) of real political analysis. In the same way that he knows to unearth the outtakes of the Clinton film bio, The Man From Hope, to mine it for details about the Clintons’ relationship, I thought surely he would start to read American history seriously, so as to be able to mine it for historical perspective. If he had, he would have learned, for instance, that Jean Houston, Hillary’s friend who gave Woodward his holy-shit headlines, was in a rich tradition of spiritualists dating back through at least six first ladies to Mary Todd Lincoln. Certainly her efforts to get Abe to talk with Benjamin Franklin and George Washington would have been considered “anecdote-rich.” But now I’ve given up on searching for sweep and subtext and I’ve decided to accept Woodward on his own mechanical terms. By that standard, he does fine. About half the time, Woodward is a mindless Sir Edmund Hillary: He climbs for the detail because it is there, gettable by him, even if it tells us nothing. But the other 50 percent of the scooplets are fresh, or at least flavorful. If they don’t always reveal the character of the subject of the anecdotes, they are invariably telling about the character of the source, and about the eternal question of why people say things they shouldn’t. Click here for one possible answer.

Woodward’s book may not be online, but it’s on the frontier of publishing. No need to worry about acid-free pages for this one. The book, published a mere month after it was completed (a remarkably short lead time for a hardcover), was not written to last much beyond the length of the ballyhoo book tour. By next year, no one will want to read a book about the 1996 campaign that ends in May. It’s the blockbuster syndrome taken to its natural conclusion.

Who talked for The Choice? The Clintons didn’t. One imagines their dilemma. They knew that not talking meant that they would take more of a beating. But their cooperation would have given the green light to every Craig Livingstone in the administration to drop a dime on them. Having already been Woodwardized once for The Agenda, they passed. The only good news for the Clintons is that Woodward chose not to write about Whitewater, at least not yet.

Al Gore talked some. Among the juiciest parts of the book are the accounts, partly from him, of the acrimonious budget meetings in the White House. “You have a chickenshit operation here, Mr. President,” Woodward quotes Newt Gingrich as saying. “You’ve been calling me an extremist,” he roared at Gore.

“At least we didn’t accuse you of drowning those little children in South Carolina,” Gore shot back, in reference to Gingrich’s comments blaming liberals for the Susan Smith case. Later, Clinton and House Majority Leader Richard Armey point fingers–literally–at each other, and the Republicans go nuts over what they consider to be an unflattering picture the White House released to Time. All in all, everyone in the budget talks looks petty and political, except for Dole.

Dole gave 12 hours of formal interviews and lots more time informally, in part because, as his press secretary Nelson Warfield told me last week, he likes Woodward personally. Dole loved Nixon. Nixon hated Woodward. Dole trusts Woodward. Go figure. Anyway, it paid off for him. He comes across up close as the same solid guy Richard Ben Cramer found in his classic, What It Takes, the best campaign book of the decade. The Dole camp loves The Choice, though to my mind, the book makes him look as indecisive as Clinton and too uncommunicative to be a good president

F or instance, it turns out that Elizabeth Dole had to make an office appointment with her husband to discuss whether he should run or not, and that she wasn’t informed that Dole was resigning from the Senate until after he had told author Mark Helprin, a supporter he barely knew. “In her 18 years with him, she had never once heard Dole say, ‘Here’s what we’re doing.’ He never would come right out and say it,” Woodward writes. “Dole had an inability to reach out fully or lay out completely what was on his mind. He held things so close. He didn’t systematically vet things with her or even regularly delegate to her.”

The other candidates cooperated, but Woodward and his editor at Simon & Schuster, Alice Mayhew, who had originally planned a book about the primaries, mostly left the Phil Gramm and Lamar Alexander stories on the cutting-room floor. Woodward does recount the decision-making process of those Republicans who decided not to run. In every case, family members, who in an earlier age would have been enthusiastic, urged them to stay out.

Woodward’s is the best look we’re likely to get at Colin Powell’s psyche. The retired general talks to almost no journalist other than Woodward, who helped make him a hero in The Commanders. Besides his wife, it turns out the key figure in Powell’s decision not to run was his laconic aide-de-camp, Bill Smullen: He laid out all the reasons Powell gave later for why running would have been the wrong move personally.

Powell obviously is Dole’s first choice for vice president, but Woodward uses reporting to make a good case that if it’s not Powell, it may well be James Baker or Richard Cheney or former Illinois congressman Donald Rumsfeld, instead of one of the oft-mentioned Midwestern governors. Such details might not mean anything in the long run, but they’re delicious in a campaign season. The conventional wisdom among the wise guys of the press has been that there are now so many reporters around–and so many leakers–that campaign scoops are a thing of the past. The new grail is the “conceptual scoop”–the fresh frame that some smart analyst can put on events, not the events themselves. But now comes along Bob Woodward to prove that a little shoe leather still works. He fails to make us understand what the 1996 campaign means for the country. But he does pull back the curtain more, just when we thought it had disintegrated. Who can resist a peek?