Woodward: Stupid Like a Fox

He isn’t nearly the idiot savant he pretends to be.

Bob Woodward is always the last person you want to ask about the lessons to be drawn from his books. Woodward is an astonishingly good reporter, and when he’s got something hot, he knows it. But when it comes time to arrange all the facts and anecdotes into a coherent whole, he tends to flub it. Every book Woodward publishes should be stamped, “assembly required.”

Sometimes Woodward flubs it because he’s misread the data. That was the case with The Agenda, his book about the making of Bill Clinton’s first budget. Although the book wasn’t constructed as an argument, its thrust was that in putting the concerns of bond traders ahead of special-interest pleas for a “stimulus package,” Clinton sold out. But the truth is that Clinton’s first budget became the keystone to what may have been Clinton’s greatest accomplishment—elimination of the monstrous budget deficits created by Ronald Reagan. (Clinton’s accomplishment was evident at the time, and it’s even more evident now.) Woodward’s thesis was dead wrong, but it was presented so unobtrusively that it detracted only slightly from what was otherwise a really good book—still one of the best ever written about Clinton. When Woodward has a great story to tell, there’s no reason to care that he doesn’t grasp its meaning.

Increasingly, though, Chatterbox gets the feeling that Woodward often flubs the analysis in his books not because he doesn’t get it, but because he’s deliberately playing dumb. This is especially true of Woodward’s two books about George W. Bush, which differ from his previous books about presidents in that they incorporate lengthy interviews—be careful what you wish for!—with the president himself. In both Bush at War and Plan of Attack, the narrative grinds to a halt whenever Woodward quotes Bush mouthing platitudes about the business of governing this great nation. One can’t really blame Bush for this. All presidents describe their Oval Office experiences in a particular dialect characterized by tedious and self-serving generality. That explains why readers can never finish their memoirs. They do buy them, though. And Bush is the president. What’s more, Bush has taken such a liking to Woodward that he now orders reluctant underlings to grant interviews, too. So, if Bush gives Woodward a lot of useless interview material that would be tossed out if it came from anyone else, no matter. It goes in, along with a lot of power-porn boilerplate about the awesome burdens shouldered by the commander in chief. Gotta keep that man happy.

As Woodward’s burden of access grows heavier, the chasm widens between the book Woodward writes and the book Woodward pretends to write. By now, it’s reached the point where assembly is required to understand not only the book, but even the marketing of the book. A case in point is Woodward’s apparent reluctance to draw attention, in the publicity blitz for Plan of Attack, to his remarkable finding that it was Vice President Dick Cheney—not Bush—who made the final decision to wage war in Iraq.

Chatterbox discussed this Woodward scoop at greater length in an earlier column. (See “Woodward’s Riddle.”) To summarize: Cheney got impatient with Bush’s failure to make a final decision on whether to go to war. So, he summoned the Saudi ambassador, Prince Bandar, to the White House, where he and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld assured Bandar that all systems were go. Bandar, predictably, said that before the Saudis granted their sotto voce blessing, he’d need to hear it from President Bush. The next day, Bandar was ushered into the Oval Office, where Bush said (this is a rough paraphrase), “Uh, whatever they said.” Bush then slapped his forehead, remembering he’d forgotten to tell his secretary of state, Colin Powell, that we were going to war, which, evidently, we were. How rude! So, he called Powell in and told him.

Even discounting Chatterbox’s comic exaggeration, this is a pretty fabulous story, right? But Woodward has been hawking this as a story not about Cheney’s usurpation, but about the Saudi ambassador getting word before the secretary of state did. It’s like telling a joke by reciting only the punch line.

The big scoop in Plan of Attack, we keep hearing, is that Bush told National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice we were going to war in early January 2003. In his kickoff interview with 60 Minutes, Woodward said,

That decision was first conveyed to Condi Rice in early January 2003 when he said, “We’re gonna have to go. It’s war.” He was frustrated with the weapons inspections. He had promised the United Nations and the world and the country that either the UN would disarm Saddam or he, George Bush, would do it and do it alone if necessary.

That doesn’t quite square with Page 254 of Plan of Attack:

“Time is not on our side here,” Bush said. “Probably going to have to, we’re going to have to go to war.”In Rice’s mind, this was the president’s decision on war. He had reached the point of no return.

It may seem picky to point out that Bush said “probably,” but seven pages later, on Page 261, Woodward has Bush asking Rumsfeld how much longer he can put off making a final decision. That would suggest Bush, despite what he’d said to Rice, hadn’t yet made a final decision. To be sure, by that time the deployment of U.S. forces to the region would have made retreat extremely awkward, especially in the face of continued (and, retrospectively, inexplicable) defiance by Saddam. Nevertheless, the president had not yet given the thumbs-up. So, Cheney (pp. 262-267) gave it for him.

Is Chatterbox’s interpretation of this story too rococo? A story by Mike Allen in the April 21 Washington Post suggests not. Whenever Rumsfeld gives an interview, the Pentagon posts a transcript on its Web site. But the Woodward transcript posted on the Pentagon’s Web site, Allen reported, deleted a key passage from the interview: Rumsfeld’s discussion of the Bandar meeting. From the transcript of the deleted section published by the Post, it’s quite clear that Rumsfeld had a cow when Woodward brought up Cheney and Rumsfeld’s get-together with the Saudi ambassador:

Q: I think March 14th the Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar came up here to talk to you because he was worried. I think he had seen the President, that we weren’t going to go. You recall that? A: I met with him on occasion. Q: And I think the President said don’t start—not you. A: Have you met with the Vice President? You’re not going to meet with the Vice President are you? Q: Well I hope so. A: I doubt it. … We’re going to have to clean some of this up in the transcript when you publish it. We’ll give you a—I mean you just said Bandar and I didn’t agree with that so we’re going to have to—I don’t want to say who it is but you are going to have to go through that and find a way to clean up my language too.

Chatterbox thinks we can safely assume that Rumsfeld got it. From the tone of the questions, it seems pretty clear that Woodward got it, too. He just doesn’t want to tell you he got it.