Has Angry Oliver Gone Soft?

Oliver, Bob, and Jacob,

Let me dive in between two of our most able interlocutors—Jacob and Bob—about the remaining mysteries of the march to war. As I’ve said repeatedly, history’s early drafts of this era are formed by many diverse contributions. We journalists are all part of a team, as I see it—competitive, surely, among ourselves, but more pointedly, we are aligned against the evolving cults of message-discipline and secrecy. In other words, we’re all in this together.

Bob, clearly, has sat in what journalists generally consider “access heaven” in his unmatched colloquies with Bush. You have witnessed Bush jumping out of his chair to make a point, and many other moments from your interviews provide some signature scenes of this period. But, I wonder, Bob, if you think, looking back, that access to Bush has not been as valuable—hour for hour—as it has been with other presidents whom  you’ve interviewed. I think it’s fair to say that Bush and his team don’t believe that truthful public disclosure and dialogue are among their central obligations. Other presidents have railed against the troublemakers in the press, but they felt, often reluctantly, that letting the American people know their mind—the good-enough reasons that drive action—was part of their job description. Frankly, I think the best book of your quartet is State of Denial—the one for which, I gather, you were not given access to Bush. But that’s a rare occurrence. (The last president you wrote about who wouldn’t grant an audience was Nixon, and, of course, you and Carl notched a few historic bell-ringers back then.)

By the way, Oliver, I thought it was a fascinating twist that you placed many of the quotes from Bob’s interviews into Bush’s mouth during press conferences. In past presidencies, many of the chief executive’s most pertinent utterances have come during press conferences. Maybe it will be that way again in the future—a more effective, sunlit (or spot-lit) version of public dialogue, to my mind.

But in terms of the reasons for war, the decision to invade, the selling of the war—and specifically (to mangle that signature phrase) what leaders knew and when they knew it—I think that despite Bob’s ardent efforts, there will be many more disclosures and clarifications in the years to come. Just in my last book, The Way of the World, I came across fresh, detailed accounts of battles from January 2002, when senior officials of the Defense Department and CIA were instructed by the White House to begin a one-year, logistical planning process for the invasion. At that point, it was not a matter of if. It was, in essence, a 12-month ticking clock for the execution of an approved policy. What’s more, in the spring of 2002, the White House told senior intelligence officials that WMD would be the lead justification for the invasion. The response from intelligence officials, especially those with expertise on Iraq, was that using WMDs as justification for war was a perilous gambit—advice that the White House ignored.

Mind you, this is just one example, a glimpse of the continent that remains in shadows, despite the tireless efforts of journalists with official access (like Bob) or without it (like me and many others). At day’s end, many of the self-correcting features of our system of governance—congressional oversight, a strong judiciary, a robust press—failed in this era. Even a special effort like the Silberman-Robb Commission, slated to dig into the megascandal of pre-war intelligence and the selling of a war of choice, was halted at the gates of the White House. That’s like investigating a murder without ever going to the scene of the crime or questioning those with motive or intent. It is, to my mind, an American tragedy that this administration will leave the stage with a host of basic questions left unanswered—questions that you, Jacob, ever thorough, outline nicely.

But, Oliver, what left me feeling a touch of ennui at the movie’s conclusion is how this played out cinematically—not in spite of your use of available sources but, maybe (ironically), because of it. Bush comes off largely as a victim of circumstances, a man overwhelmed and overmatched. How could there not be WMD? Why is this war turning into a debacle? Who’s responsible?

I don’t buy it. Never have. Here, on balance, you and I agree, Bob. It’s a matter of Bush exercising free will. It’s his war. He’s responsible. What qualities in W’s architecture drove events? It was his preternatural faith in the power of confidence. He felt that believing in something with absolute certainty (even if it’s willed rather than earned) is the key to victory, the spine of leadership. And once victory is won, no one will ask inconvenient questions about how it was achieved. The Bush view, then, is win first and win big—and if there’s a mess, we’ll clean it up later. And, someday, the winners will write history. It’s the gambler’s philosophy, a model that rests on pure nerve, a familiar two-step in the nation’s history and culture, and one you see so often of late in public and private spheres in America. Eventually, complex reality will make itself felt.

It is, of course, easy to judge, swiftly and harshly. For a writer or filmmaker, that is often the path to diminished outcomes. Listen, Oliver, I was quite moved by your entry, by how the effort to feel compassion for Bush has widened your sensibilities, spurring an appreciation—as, clearly, you hope the movie will—that “there is great strength in humility.” I hear you. But I’m sure some readers, and viewers of W., are asking themselves, “Is this progress, or has angry Oliver gone soft?”