Woodward Positions Himself on the First Couple

Every book by Bob Woodward has to have a bombshell. In The Final Days, it was Richard Nixon begging Henry Kissinger to pray with him. In Veil, it was William Casey unburdening himself on his deathbed. In The Choice, it was Hillary Clinton having a séance, or something, with Eleanor Roosevelt. According to a well-worn publicity formula, the bombshell is loosed in the Washington Post and its sister publication, Newsweek, on the eve of publication, landing the book on the best-seller list. Indeed, the Post usually looses it twice–once in its multi-part excerpts, and once in a news story summarizing the entire book that appears with the first excerpt. But with the publication of Woodward’s Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate set for June 15, and the publicity onslaught by the Washington Post Co. already underway, (click here for Part 1 in the Post and here for Part 2) readers are surely asking: Where’s the bombshell?

The summaries of the book that have run in the Post and in Newsweek (which doesn’t appear to be running an excerpt this time around) aren’t much help. The Post’s summary story by White House reporter John F. Harris, which ran in Sunday’s paper on Page A21, led with Woodward’s “scoop” that days after Clinton’s TV confession last August that he’d known Monica Lewinsky a little better than he’d let on, Clinton told a political adviser that his wife “is not going to forgive me.” Yawn. The Post also treated as “news” such mundane facts as Clinton’s telling a friend, on the eve of his impeachment trial, “I’ll survive, but it will never be the same.” No kidding! Newsweek’s summary story, by Washington bureau chief Ann McDaniel, was also a bore. “Those f—ers,” McDaniel’s lead quoted Woodward quoting Clinton telling an aide, “one of their goals is to get me to lose it, to blow, to lose my cool, to lose my mind.” What is Saturday Night Live supposed to do with that?

Chatterbox hasn’t read Shadow, so he can’t say for certain what if any particular revelation is likely to define this book in the public imagination. But he is struck by the uncharacteristic way the press, and Woodward himself, are soft-pedaling what, based on Chatterbox’s reading of the first two excerpts, is probably a strong contender: Namely, Woodward’s suggestion that Bill and Hillary are in psychotherapy!

Here is the passage in question, which ends the second Post excerpt. Its implications went unmentioned in the summary stories in both the Post and Newsweek, and it appears not to have yet caught the attention of the newswires:

By fall 1998, as the House moved toward impeaching her husband, Hillary was still uncertain about her own course. A close friend told her about a high-profile, public couple. They had been married 40 years, the friend told Hillary. The man had lots of affairs and the woman finally caught him. “She was devastated,” the friend said, “but she thought hard about it. They had a great friendship, and she decided he is worth fighting for, and it would be unwise to turn him out or to give him to someone else. Her decision was that it was better to fight for him and to fight for the relationship.”

“Man,” Hillary said, “that’s exactly what I’m thinking now.”A therapist can stop the bleeding, Hillary’s friend said. That was the key to making progress and saving the marriage. Hillary said she and Bill knew that counseling was the right thing to do.“We are doing the right thing.” [Italics Chatterbox’s.]

What is Woodward suggesting? He is clearly suggesting that the Clintons are in couples therapy. Chatterbox, who is a great believer in (and consumer of) psychotherapy, would never criticize–indeed, would heartily praise–the first couple’s decision to seek help from a psychotherapist, which they obviously need. At the same time, however, Chatterbox thinks that the first instance in which a president is found to receive psychotherapy, especially if it’s while holding office, merits some public attention, if only to mark the passing of a taboo. (Remember the grief Candidate Dukakis suffered in 1988 when false rumors circulated about his seeing a shrink?)

Why are Woodward and the mighty Washington Post Co. Publicity Machine downplaying this bombshell? Chatterbox sees two possibilities: 1) Respect for the Clintons’ privacy. OK, that’s pretty implausible, especially considering that Woodward once began a book (The Agenda) with a conversation the Clintons supposedly had in bed. 2) Uncertainty that the Clintons really are in psychotherapy. Maybe Bill and Hillary are getting counseled by a minister, which can amount to the same thing as psychotherapy but doesn’t raise the same eyebrows. Or maybe Woodward’s source was lied to by Hillary. Or maybe Woodward’s source is unreliable. But if any of these possibilities is true, shouldn’t Woodward be giving his readers a bit more guidance? Perhaps, in the book, he does. For now, though, it’s hard to escape the impression that Woodward wants readers to think the president and his wife are seeing a psychotherapist–or rather, wants to take credit for breaking that story if it pans out–but also wants to duck responsibility for suggesting this if it turns out not to be true.