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The Deferential Spirit

I was not out of questions,” Mr. Woodward concludes, “but I too was growing tired, and it seemed time to stand up and thank him.”

Mr. Woodward dutifully tries, in the note that prefaces The Choice, to provide the “why” paragraph, the “billboard,” the sentence or sentences that explain to the reader why the book was written and what it is about. That these are questions with which he experiences considerable discomfort seems clear:

Presidential elections are defining moments that go way beyond legislative programs or the role of the government. They are measuring points for the country that call forth a range of questions which each candidate must try to address. Who are we? What mat-ters? Where are we going? In the private and public actions of the candidates are embedded their best answers. Action is character, I believe, and when all is said and sifted, character is what matters most.

This quo vadis, or valedictory, mode is one in which Mr. Woodward has crashed repeatedly when faced with the question of what his books are about, as if his programming did not extend to this point. The “human story is the core” was his somewhat more perfunctory stab at explaining what he was up to in The Commanders. For Wired, his 1984 book about the life and death of the comic John Belushi, Mr. Woodward spoke to 217 people on the record and obtained access to “appointment calendars, diaries, telephone records, credit card receipts, medical records, handwritten notes, letters, photographs, newspaper and magazine articles, stacks of accountants’ records covering the last several years of Belushi’s life, daily movie production reports, contracts, hotel records, travel records, taxi receipts, limousine bills and Belushi’s monthly cash disbursement records,” only to arrive, not unlike HAL in 2001, at these questions: “Why? What happened? Who was responsible, if anyone? Could it have been different or better? Those were the questions raised by his family, friends and associates. Could success have been something other than a failure? The questions persist. Nonetheless, his best and most definitive legacy is his work. He made us laugh, and now he can make us think.”

In any real sense, these books are “about” nothing but the author’s own method, which is not, on the face of it, markedly different from other people’s. Mr. Woodward interviews people, he tapes or takes (“detailed”) notes on what they say. He takes “great care to compare and verify various sources’ accounts of the same events.” He obtains documents, he reads them, he files them: for The Brethren, the book he wrote with Scott Armstrong about the Supreme Court, the documents “filled eight file drawers.” He consults The Almanac of American Politics (“the bible, and I relied on it”), he reads what others have written on the subject: “In preparation for my own reporting,” he tells us about The Choice, “I and my assistant, Karen Alexander, read and often studied hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles.”

Should the information he requires lie outside Washington, he goes the extra mile: “I traveled from coast to coast many times, visiting everyone possible and everywhere possible,” he tells us about the research for Wired. Since Mr. Woodward lives in Washington and John Belushi worked in the motion picture industry and died at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, these coast-to-coast trips might have seemed to represent the minimum in dogged fact-gathering, but never mind: the author had even then, in 1984, transcended method and entered the heady ether of methodology, a discipline in which the reason for writing a book could be the sheer fact of being there. “I would like to know more and Newsweek magazine was saying that maybe that is the thing I should look at next,” he allowed recently when a caller on Larry King Live asked if he might not want to write about Whitewater. “I don’t know. I do not know about Whitewater and what it really means. I am waiting—if I can say this—for the call from somebody on the inside saying ‘I want to talk.”’

Here is where we reach the single unique element in the method, and also the problem. As any prosecutor and surely Mr. Woodward knows, the person on the inside who calls and says “I want to talk” is an informant, or snitch, and is generally looking to bargain a deal, to improve his or her own situation, to place the blame on someone else in return for being allowed to plead down or out certain charges. Because the story told by a criminal or civil informant is understood to be colored by self-interest, the informant knows that his or her testimony will be unrespected, even reviled, subjected to rigorous examination and often rejection.

The informant who talks to Mr. Woodward, on the other hand, knows that his or her testimony will be not only respected but burnished into the inside story, which is why so many people on the inside, notably those who consider themselves the professionals or managers of the process—assistant secretaries, deputy advisers, players of the game, aides who intend to survive past the tenure of the patron they are prepared to portray as hapless—do want to talk to him. Many Dole campaign aides did want to talk, for The Choice, about the herculean efforts and adroit strategy required to keep the candidate with whom they were saddled even marginally on target, on message, on the program:

Dole offered a number of additional references to the past, how it had been done before, and Reed [Dole campaign manager Scott Reed] countered with his own ideas about how he would handle similar situations. A sense of diffusion and randomness wouldn’t work. Making seat-of-the-pants, airborne decisions was not the way he operated…. Dole needed a coherent and understandable message on which to run, Reed said. Deep down, he added, he knew Dole knew what he wanted to say, but he probably needed some help putting it together and delivering it…. Reed felt he had hit the right weaknesses.

Similarly, many Clinton foreign policy advisers did want to talk, again for The Choice, about the equally herculean efforts and strategy required to guide the President, on the question of Bosnia, from one of his “celebrated rages” (“‘I’m getting creamed!”’ Clinton, “unleashing his frustration” and “spewing forth profanity,” is reported to have said on being told of the fall of Srebrenica) to a more nuanced appreciation of the policy options on which his aides had been laboring unappreciated: “Berger [Deputy National Security Adviser Sandy Berger] reminded him that Lake [National Security Adviser Anthony Lake] was trying to develop an Endgame Strategy.” At a meeting a few days later in the Oval Office, when Vice-President Gore mentioned a photograph in The Washington Post of a refugee from Srebrenica who had hanged herself from a tree, the adroit guidance continued:

My 21-year-old daughter asked about that picture,” Gore said. “What am I supposed to tell her? Why is this happening and we’re not doing anything?”

It was a chilling moment. The vice president was directly confronting and criticizing the president. Gore believed he understood his role. He couldn’t push the president too far, but they had built a good relationship and he felt he had to play his card when he felt strongly. He couldn’t know precisely what going too far meant unless he occasionally did it.

My daughter is surprised the world is allowing this to happen,” Gore said carefully. “I am too.”

Clinton said they were going to do something.

This is a cartoon, but not a cartoon in which anyone who spoke to the author will appear to have taken any but the highest ground. Asked, in the same appearance on Larry King Live, why he thought people talked to him, Mr. Woodward responded:

Only because I get good information and I talk to people at the middle level, lower level, try to talk to the people at the top. They know that I am going to reflect their point of view. One of my earlier books, somebody called me who was in it and said “How am I going to come out?” and I said “Well, essentially, I write self portraits.”…They really are self portraits, because I go to people and I say—I check them and I double check them but—but who are you? What are you doing? Where do you fit in? What did you say? What did you feel?

Those who talk to Mr. Woodward, in other words, can be confident that he will be civil (“I too was growing tired, and it seemed time to stand up and thank him”), that he will not feel impelled to make connections between what he is told and what is already known, that he will treat even the most patently self-serving account as if untainted by hindsight (that of Richard Darman, say, who in 1992 presented himself to Mr. Woodward, who in turn presented him to America, as the helpless Cassandra of the 1990 Bush budget deal* ); that he will be, above all, and herein can be found both Mr. Woodward’s compass and the means by which he is set adrift, “fair.”

I once heard a group of reporters agree that there were at most twenty people who run any story. What they meant by “running the story” was setting the terms, setting the pace, deciding the agenda, determining when and where the story exists, and shaping what the story will be. There were certain people who ran the story in Vietnam, there were certain people in Central America, there were certain people in Washington. An American presidential campaign is a Washington story, which means that the handful of people who run the story in Washington—the people who write the most influential columns, the people who conduct the Sunday shows on which Washington talks to itself—will also run the campaign. Bob Woodward, who is unusual in that he is not a regular participant in the television dialogue and appears in print, outside his books, only infrequently, is one of the people who run the story in Washington.

In this business of running the story, in fact in the business of news itself, certain conventions are seen as beyond debate. “Opinion” will be so labeled, and confined to the op-ed page or the Sunday-morning shows. “News analysis” will be so labeled, and will appear in a subordinate position to the “news” story it accompanies. In the rest of the paper as on the evening news, the story will be reported “impartially,” the story will be “even-handed,” the story will be “fair.” “Fairness” is a quality Mr. Woodward particularly seems to prize (“I learned a long time ago,” he told Larry King, “you take your opinions and your attitudes, your predispositions—get them in your back pocket, because they are only going to get in the way of doing your job”), and mentions repeatedly in his thanks to his assistants.

  1. *

    The Washington Post: “Origin of the Tax Pledge,” by Bob Woodward (October 4, 1992, p. A1), “No-Tax Vow Scuttled Anti-Deficit Mission,” by Bob Woodward (October 5, 1992, p. A1), “Primary Heat Turned Deal into a ‘Mistake,”’ by Bob Woodward (October 6, 1992, p. A1), and “The President’s Key Men: Splintered Trio, Splintered Policy,” by Bob Woodward (October 7, 1992, p. A1).

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