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The Deferential Spirit

The Choice

by Bob Woodward
Simon and Schuster, 462 pp., $26.00

The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House

by Bob Woodward
Pocket Books, 431 pp., $6.50 (paper)

The Commanders

by Bob Woodward
Pocket Books, 395 pp., $5.99 (paper)

Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987

by Bob Woodward

The Brethren

by Bob Woodward, by Scott Armstrong
Pocket Books, 558 pp., $6.99 (paper)

On the morning of Sunday, June 23, the day the prepublication embargo on Bob Woodward’s The Choice was lifted, The Washington Post, the newspaper for which Mr. Woodward has so famously been, since 1971, first a reporter and now an editor, published on the front page of its A section two stories detailing what its editors believed most newsworthy in The Choice. In columns one through four, directly under the banner and carrying the legend The Choice—Inside the Clinton and Dole Campaigns, there appeared passages from the book itself, edited into a narrative describing the meetings Hillary Clinton had from 1994 to 1996 with Jean Houston, who was characterized in the Post as “a believer in spirits, mythic and other connections to history and other worlds” and as “the most dramatic” of Mrs. Clinton’s “10 to 11 confidants,” a group that includes her mother.

This account of Mrs. Clinton’s not entirely remarkable and in any case private conversations with Jean Houston appeared under the apparently accurate if unarresting headline “At a Difficult Time, First Lady Reaches Out, Looks Within,” occupied one-hundred-and-fifty-four column inches, was followed by a six-column-inch box explaining the rules under which Mr. Woodward conducted his interviews, and included among similar revelations the news that, according to an unidentified source (Mr. Woodward tells us that some of his interviews were on the record, others “conducted under journalistic ground rules of ‘background’ or ‘deep background,’ meaning the information could be used but the sources of the information would not be identified”), Mrs. Clinton had at an unspecified point in 1995 disclosed to Jean Houston (“Dialogue and quotations come from at least one participant, from memos or from contemporaneous notes or diaries of a participant in the discussion”) that “she was sure that good habits were the key to survival.”

The remaining front-page columns above the fold in that Sunday morning’s Post were given over to a news story based on Mr. Woodward’s The Choice, written by Dan Balz, running seventy-nine column inches, and headlined “Dole Seeks ‘a 10’ Among List of 15: Running Mate Must Not Anger Right, Book Says.” Mr. Woodward, according to this story, “quotes Dole as saying he wants a running mate who will be ‘a 10’ in the eyes of the public, with the candidate telling the head of his search team, Robert F. Ellsworth, ‘Don’t give me someone who would send up [anger] the conservatives.”’ Those Post readers sufficiently surprised by this disclosure to continue reading learned that “at the top of the list of 15 names, assembled in the late spring by Ellsworth and Dole’s campaign manager, Scott Reed, was Colin L. Powell.” When I read this in the Post I assumed that I would find some discussion of how or whether the vice-presidential search team had managed to construe their number-one choice of Colin L. Powell as consistent with the mandate “Don’t give me someone who would send up the conservatives,” but there was no such discussion to be found, neither in the Post nor in The Choice itself.

Mr. Woodward’s rather eerie aversion to engaging the ramifications of what people say to him has been generally understood as an admirable quality, at best a mandarin modesty, at worst a kind of executive big-picture focus, the entirely justifiable oversight of someone with a more important game to play. Yet what we see in The Choice is something more than a matter of an occasional inconsistency left unexplored in the rush of the breaking story, a stray ball or two left unfielded in the heat of the opportunity, as Mr. Woodward describes his role, “to sit with many of the candidates and key players and ask about the questions of the day as the campaign unfolded.” What seems most remarkable in this new Woodward book is exactly what seemed remarkable in the previous Woodward books, each of which was presented as the insiders’ inside story and each of which went on to become a number-one bestseller: these are books in which measurable cerebral activity is virtually absent.

The author himself disclaims “the perspective of history.” His preferred approach has been one in which “issues could be examined before the possible outcome or meaning was at all clear or the possible consequences were weighed.” The refusal to consider meaning or outcome or consequence has, as a way of writing a book, a certain Zen purity, but tends toward a process in which no research method is so commonplace as to go unexplained (“The record will show how I was able to gain information from records or interviews…. I could then talk with other sources and return to most of them again and again as necessary”), no product of that research so predictable as to go unrecorded.

The world rendered is an Erewhon in which not only inductive reasoning but ordinary reliance on context clues appear to have vanished. Any reader who wonders what Vice-President Gore thinks about Whitewater can turn to page 418 of The Choice and find that he believes the matter “small and unfair,” but has sometimes been concerned that “the Republicans and the scandal machinery in Washington” could keep it front and center. Any reader unwilling to hazard a guess about what Dick Morris’s polling data told him about Medicare can turn to page 235 of The Choice and find that “voters liked Medicare, trusted it and felt it was the one federal program that worked.”

This tabula rasa typing requires rather persistent attention on the part of the reader, since its very presence on the page tends to an impression that significant and heretofore undisclosed information must have just been revealed, by a reporter who left no stone unturned to obtain it. The weekly lunch shared by the President and Vice-President Gore, we learn in The Choice, “sometimes did not start until 3 P.M. because of other business.” The President, “who had a notorious appetite, tried to eat lighter food.” The reader attuned to the conventions of narrative might be led by the presentation of these quotidian details into thinking that a dramatic moment is about to occur, but the crux of the four-page prologue having to do with the weekly lunches turns out to be this: the President, according to Mr. Woodward, “thought a lot of the criticism he received was unfair.” The Vice-President, he reveals, “had some advice. Clinton always had found excess reserve within himself. He would just have to find more, Gore said.”

What Mr. Woodward chooses to leave unrecorded, or what he apparently does not think to elicit, is in many ways more instructive than what he commits to paper. “The accounts I have compiled may, at times, be more comprehensive than what a future historian, who has to rely on a single memo, letter, or recollection of what happened, might be able to piece together,” he noted in the introduction to The Agenda, an account of certain events in the first years of the Clinton administration in which he endeavored, to cryogenic effect, “to give every key participant in these events an opportunity to offer his or her recollections and views.” The “future historian” who might be interested in piecing together the details of how the Clinton administration arrived at its program for health-care reform, however, will find, despite a promising page of index references, that none of the key participants interviewed for The Agenda apparently thought to discuss what might have seemed the central curiosity in that process, which was by what political miscalculation a plan initially meant to remove third-party profit from the health-care equation (or to “take on the insurance industry,” as Putting People First, the manifesto of the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign, had phrased it) would become one distrusted by large numbers of Americans precisely because it seemed to enlarge and further entrench the role of the insurance industry.

This disinclination of Mr. Woodward’s to exert cognitive energy on what he is told reaches critical mass in The Choice, where not much said to the author by a candidate or potential candidate appears to have been deemed too casual for documentation (“Most of them permitted me to tape-record the interviews; otherwise I took detailed notes”), too insignificant for inclusion. President Clinton declined to be interviewed directly for this book, but Senator Dole “was interviewed for more than 12 hours and the typed transcripts run over 200 pages.” Accounts of these interviews, typically including date, time, venue, weather, and apparel details (for one Saturday interview in his office the candidate was “dressed casually in a handsome green wool shirt”), can be found, according to the index of The Choice (“Dole, Robert J. ‘Bob’, interviews by author with”), on pages 87-89, 183, 214-215, 338, 345-348, 378, 414, and 423.

Study of these pages suggests the deferential spirit of the enterprise. In the course of the Saturday interview for which Senator Dole selected the “handsome green wool shirt,” a ninety-minute session which took place on February 4, 1995, in Dole’s office in the Hart Senate Office Building (“My tape recorder sat on the arm of his chair, and his press secretary, Clarkson Hine, took copious notes”), Mr. Woodward asked if Dole, in 1988, thought he was the best candidate. He reports Dole’s answer: “Thought I was.” This gave Mr. Woodward the opportunity to ask what he had previously (and rather mystifyingly, since little else in The Choice tends to this point) defined for the reader as “an important question for my book”: “You weren’t elected,” he reminded Senator Dole, “so you have to come out of that period feeling the system doesn’t elect the best?”

Senator Dole, not unexpectedly, answered agreeably: “I think it’s true. I think Elizabeth raises that a lot, whether it’s president, or Senate or whatever, that a lot of the best—somebody people would describe [as] the best—don’t make it. That’s the way the system works. You also come out of that, even though you lose, if you still have enough confidence in yourself, that you didn’t lose because you weren’t the best candidate. You lost for other reasons. You can always rationalize these things.”

On Saturday, July 1, 1995, again in Dole’s Hart office (Senator Dole in “casual khaki pants, a blue dress shirt with cufflinks, and purple Nike tennis shoes”), Mr. Woodward elicited, in the course of a two-and-a-half-hour interview, these reflections from the candidate:

On his schedule: “We’re trying to pace ourselves. It’s like today I’m not traveling, which is hard to believe. Tomorrow we go to Iowa, get back at 1 A.M. We’re off all day Monday. Then we go to New Hampshire.”

On his speechwriters: “You can’t just read something that somebody’s written and say ‘Oh, boy, this is dynamite.’ You’ve got to have a feel for it and you’ve got to think, Jimminy, this might work. And this is the message. And I think we’re still testing it, and I think you can’t say that if I said this on day one, it’s going to be written in stone forever.”

On the message, in response to Mr. Woodward’s suggestion that “there’s something people are waiting for somebody to say that no one has said yet”: “Right. I think you’re right.”

On his strategy: “As long as we’re on target, on message, and got money in the bank, and people are signing up, we’re mostly doing the right thing. But I also have been around long enough to know that somebody can make a mistake and it’ll be all over, too.”

On the Senate: “Somebody has to manage it. And it may not be manageable. It isn’t, you know, it’s a frustrating place sometimes but generally it works out.”

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