Monday, October 02, 2006

The "Woodward is terrific" talking point is now inoperative

The Bush administration has apparently come up with a set of rules designed to help Americans determine how they should feel about journalist and author Bob Woodward:

1. If Woodward writes a book which paints the president as a wise, steely-eyed, resolute, and well-informed Decider, and if he depicts the top presidential aides as seamless cogs in a wise, steely-eyed, and resolute war team, then he is to be lauded as a credit to his craft, as a paragon of objectivity, and his books are to be praised by the Republican party as must-reads for all good citizens.

Hence the decision by the Republican National Committee in 2002 to promote Woodward’s Bush at War on the official RNC website. Hence the gushing praise from Condoleezza Rice two years later, upon the publication of Woodward’s Plan of Attack, when she told CNN that Woodward “is terrific, he’s a great journalist." Hence the happy talk from White House counselor Dan Bartlett, who in 2004 seemed ready to join the publicity team at Simon & Schuster: “We’re urging people to buy the book.”

2. But if the same Bob Woodward writes a book that depicts Bush as a clueless commander-in-chief who seems incapable of telling the full truth about the Iraq war in part because he seems incapable of processing factual reality; and if the same Bob Woodward shows the supposedly vaunted war team to be increasingly dysfunctional as the occupation of Iraq drags on…well, that means he is not a “great journalist” at all. Quite the contrary, in fact.

The aforementioned Dan Bartlett, who praised Woodward for doing a “good job” in 2004, has now suddenly decided that – brainstorm - the guy is really bad at his job. The new Woodward book, State of Denial, is in the stores today, and it doesn’t exactly burnish the Decider’s image; for instance, while chronicling Iraq administrator Jay Garner’s disenchantment with his bosses, Woodward writes (clearly from Garner’s perspective) that “in these moments where Bush had someone from the field there in the chair beside him, he did not press, he did not try to open the door himself and ask what the visitor had seen and thought. The whole atmosphere too often resembled a royal court with Cheney and Rice in attendance, some upbeat stories, exaggerated good stories and a good time had by all.”

The White House spent most of the past weekend trying to knock the book down, and to depict its author as just another biased scribe with an unfair agenda. Bartlett told ABC yesterday that, even though White House officials had cooperated with Woodward as usual, “from the outset, he had already formulated conclusions before the interviews began.”

It’s easy to see what happened: Woodward, who in recent years has been assailed by Bush critics as the administration’s court stenographer, was returning to his favorite subject – Bush at war – at a time when long years of conflict in Iraq had clearly taken their toll on the president and his team. The violence was getting worse, and the private assessments at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill did not square with the sunnier public assessments about the war. (During the same week that the Joint Chiefs of Staff circulated a secret memo warning about the potential for increasing violence in Iraq through 2007, the administration, via Donald Rumsfeld’s office, told the public that the violence was likely to “wane.” Woodward also strongly suggests, in his book, that Rumsfeld remains entrenched at the Pentagon because Bush is reluctant to confront him.)

The track record of failed promises and the growing mountain of documentation (already mined by many other authors) were impossible for Woodward to ignore. So he asked questions about these things, and the White House didn’t like that; as Bartlett sees it, Woodward had already “formulated conclusions.”

On the Sunday shows yesterday, Bartlett also left open the possibility that Woodward may have simply concocted some explosive material – such as his description of a meeting, two months before 9/11, between national security adviser Rice and CIA chief George Tenet. In the book, Tenet hurried to the White House with a top aide in tow, hoping to share his urgent concerns about an imminent terrorist attack on American soil, but Rice reportedly blew him off. Bartlett told CBS yesterday that Rice doesn’t remember such an encounter. When host Bob Schieffer asked Bartlett if he thought Woodward would make up such a scene, Bartlett said, “I just don’t know. It leaves us somewhat puzzled.”

But it’s not puzzling at all. Clearly, Tenet was Woodward’s source, and that’s the point: When government insiders start fighting in print with other insiders, that’s a sign of serious trouble.
When the wheels come off in Washington, when major policies go awry and message discipline breaks down, insiders often flee the wreckage while trying to salvage their own reputations. They typically do this by dishing to reporters. That’s clearly what has happened in State of Denial. But what I also detect, after reading several book excerpts, is that some of the insiders dished to Woodward because they were deeply frustrated by an administration that seems determined not to confront its shortcomings on the war. As Woodward said on CBS last night, “There is a concern that we need to face realism (and not be) the voice that says ‘Oh no, everything’s fine.’ Well, it’s not.”

It was noteworthy yesterday that the administration’s rebuke of Woodward was basically polite. It didn’t brand Woodward with the liberal label, or link him to Michael Moore, or imply via insinuation that he was somehow helping the terrorists. That would have never worked. Three times the White House has welcomed Woodward into the fold, thereby vetting his credentials.

And he is also a brand name in America. Scores of books critical of the Bush administration have been published this year; very few will influence the ’06 political climate, on the eve of important congressional elections. Woodward’s might be the exception. He and his book will be publicized all week on everything from Charlie Rose to Larry King, and the White House will be stuck in response mode.

Woodward in a sense may be late to the game – documents showing the fact gap between Iraq reality and White House rhetoric have been available, and abundantly reported, for much of the past four years – but Woodward potentially confers extra credibility, if only because he was so solicitous of the administration’s viewpoint in his earlier works.

Some Bush defenders insist that the Woodward episode will simply blow over; in the words of conservative radio host and blogger Hugh Hewitt, "the public will grow bored quickly, and Woodward will clip another set of royalty coupons and the (2006) campaign will be right back where it has been since the July arrests surrounding the London bombing plot: A choice between serious and surrender on the issues surrounding security and the war."

Perhaps. But Woodward's damning critique can also be viewed in an historical context. Back in 1968, Lyndon Johnson knew he was in political trouble over Vietnam when Walter Cronkite reported critically on the war; LBJ reportedly said that when he lost Cronkite, he knew he had lost the center of the electorate. It would now appear that President Bush has lost Bob Woodward.