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The Deferential Spirit

It was “Karen Alexander, a 1993 graduate of Yale University,” who “brought unmatched intellect, grace and doggedness and an ingrained sense of fairness” to The Choice. On The Agenda, it was “David Greenberg, a 1990 graduate of Yale University,” who “repeatedly worked to bring greater balance, fairness, and clarity to our reporting and writing.” It was “Marc E. Solomon, a 1989 Yale graduate,” who “brought a sense of fairness and balance” to The Commanders. On The Veil, it was “Barbara Feinman, a 1982 graduate of the University of California at Berkeley,” whose “friendship and sense of fairness guided the daily enterprise.” For The Brethren, Mr. Woodward and his co-author, Scott Armstrong, thank “Al Kamen, a former reporter for the Rocky Mountain News,” for his “thoroughness, skepticism, and sense of fairness.”

The genuflection toward “fairness” is a familiar newsroom piety, the excuse in practice for a good deal of autopilot reporting and lazy thinking but a benign ideal. In Washington, however, a community in which the management of news has become the single overriding preoccupation of the core industry, what “fairness” has too often come to mean is a scrupulous passivity, an agreement to cover the story not as it is occurring but as it is presented, which is to say as it is manufactured. Such institutionalized events as a congressional hearing or a presidential trip will be covered with due diligence, but the story will vanish the moment the gavel falls, the hour Air Force One returns to Andrews.

Iran-contra” referred exclusively, for many Washington reporters, to the hearings. The sequence of events that came to be known as “the S&L crisis,” which was actually less a “crisis” than the structural malfunction that triggered what remains an uncontrolled meltdown in middle-class confidence, existed as a “story” only on those occasions (hearings, indictments) when it showed promise of rising to its “crisis” slug. Similarly, “Whitewater” (as in “I do not know about Whitewater and what it really means”) has survived as a story only to the extent that it allows those who cover it to note the waning or waxing probability of a “smoking gun,” or “evidence.”

If there is evidence it should be pursued,” Mr. Woodward told Larry King to this point. “In fairness to the Clintons. And it’s—it—you know, we all in the news business, and in politics have to be very sensitive to the unfair smear…. It’s not fair and again it goes back to what’s the evidence?” Yet the actual interest of Whitewater lies in what has already been documented: it is “about” the S&L crisis, and thereby offers a detailed and specific look at the kinds of political and financial dealing that resulted in the meltdown in middle-class confidence. What Whitewater “really means” or offers, then, is an understanding of that meltdown, which is now being reported as an inexplicable phenomenon weirdly detached from the periodic “growth” figures produced in Washington; but this is not a story that will be put together by waiting for the call from somebody on the inside saying “I want to talk.”

Every reporter, in the development of a story, depends on and coddles, or protects, his or her sources. Only when the protection of the source gets in the way of telling the story does the reporter face a professional, even a moral, choice: he can blow the source and move to another beat or he can roll over, shape the story to continue serving the source. The necessity for making this choice between the source and the story seems not to have come up in the course of writing Mr. Woodward’s books, for good reason: since he proceeds from a position in which the very impulse to sort through the evidence and reach a conclusion is seen as suspect, something to be avoided in the higher interest of fairness, he has been able, consistently and conveniently, to define the story as that which the source tells him.

This fidelity to the source, whoever the source might be, leads Mr. Woodward down avenues that might at first seem dead-end: On page 16 of The Choice we have President Clinton, presumably on the authority of a White House source, “thunderstruck” that Senator Dole, on the morning after Clinton’s mother died in early 1994, should have described Whitewater on the network news shows as “unbelievable,” “mind-boggling,” “big, big news” that “cries out more than ever now for an independent counsel.” On page 346 of The Choice we have Senator Dole, on December 27, 1995, telling Mr. Woodward “that he had never used Whitewater to attack the president personally,” to which Mr. Woodward responds only: “What would be your criteria for picking a vice president?” On page 423 of The Choice we have Mr. Woodward, on April 20, 1996, by which date he had apparently remembered what he said on page 16 that Senator Dole said, although not what he said on page 346 that Senator Dole said, advising Senator Dole that the President had resented his “aggressive call for a Whitewater independent counsel back in early 1994, the day Clinton’s mother had died.”

Only now do we arrive at what seems to be for Mr. Woodward the point, and it has to do with his own role as honest broker, or conscience to the candidates. He reports that Senator Dole was “troubled” by this disclosure, even “haunted by what he might have done,” so much so that he was moved to write Clinton a letter of apology:

Later that week, Dole was at the White House for an anti-terrorism bill signing ceremony. Clinton took him aside into a corridor so they could speak alone. The president thanked him for the letter. He said he had read it twice. He was touched and appreciated it very much.

Mothers are important,” Dole said.

Emotion rose up in both men. They looked at each other for an instant, then moved back to business. Soon they agreed on a budget for the rest of the year. It was not the comprehensive seven-year deal both had envisioned and worked on for months. But it was a start.

The human story is the core,” as Mr. Woodward said of The Commanders. To believe that this moment in the White House corridor occurred is not difficult: we know it occurred, precisely because whether or not it occurred makes no difference, has no significance, appears at first to tell us, like the famous moment described in Veil, the exchange between the author and William Casey in Room C6316 at Georgetown Hospital, nothing. “You knew, didn’t you,” Mr. Woodward thought to ask Casey on that occasion.

The contra diversion had to be the first question: you knew all along.

His head jerked up hard. He stared, and finally nodded yes.

Why? I asked.

I believed.”

What?

I believed.”

Then he was asleep, and I didn’t get to ask another question.

This account provoked, in the immediate wake of Veil’s 1987 publication, considerable talk-show and dinner-table controversy (was Mr. Woodward actually in the room, did Mr. Casey actually nod, where were the nurses, what happened to the CIA security detail), including, rather astonishingly, spirited discussion of whether or not the hospital visit could be “corroborated.” In fact there was so markedly little reason to think the account inauthentic that the very question seemed to obscure, as the account itself had seemed to obscure, the actual problem with the scene in Room C6316 at Georgetown Hospital, which had to do with timing, or with what did Mr. Woodward know and when did he know it.

The hospital visit took place, according to Veil, “several days” after Mr. Casey’s resignation, which occurred on January 29, 1987. This was almost four months after the crash of the Hasenfus plane in Nicaragua, more than two months after the Justice Department disclosure that the United States had been selling arms to Iran in order to divert the profits to the contras, and a full month after both the House and Senate Permanent Select Committees on Intelligence had completed reports on their investigations into the diversion. The inquiries of the two congressional investigating committees established in the first week of January 1987, the Senate Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition and the House Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran, were already underway. The report of the Tower commission would be released in three weeks.

Against this background and this amount of accumulated information, the question of whether the Director of Central Intelligence “knew” about the diversion was, at the time Mr. Woodward made his hospital visit and even more conclusively at the time he committed his account of the visit to paper, no longer at issue, no longer relevant, no longer a question. The hospital interview, then, exists on the page only as a prurient distraction from the real questions raised by the diversion, only as a dramatization of the preferred Washington view that Iran-contra reflected not a structural problem but a “human story,” a tale of how one man’s hubris could have shaken the basically solid foundations of the established order, a disruption of the solid status quo that will be seen to end, satisfyingly, with that man’s death.

Washington, as rendered by Mr. Woodward, is by definition basically solid, a diorama of decent intentions in which wise if misunderstood and occasionally misled stewards will reliably prevail. Its military chiefs will be pictured, as Colin Powell was in The Commanders, thinking on the eve of war exclusively of their troops, the “kids,” the “teenagers”: a human story. The clerks of its Supreme Court will be pictured, as the clerks of the Burger court were in The Brethren, offering astute guidance as their justices negotiate the shoals of ideological error: a human story. The more available members of its foreign diplomatic corps will be pictured, as Saudi ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan was in The Commanders and in Veil, gaining access to the councils of power not just because they have the oil but because of their “backslapping irreverence,” their “directness,” their exemplification of “the new breed of ambassador—activist, charming, profane”: yet another human story. Its opposing leaders will be pictured, as President Clinton and Senator Dole are in The Choice, finding common ground on the importance of mothers: the ultimate human story.

That this crude personalization works to narrow the focus, to circumscribe the range of possible discussion or speculation, is, for the people who find it useful to talk to Mr. Woodward, its point. What they have in Mr. Woodward is a widely trusted reporter, even an American icon, who can be relied upon to present a Washington in which problematic or questionable matters will be definitively resolved by the discovery, or by the demonstration that there has been no discovery, of “the smoking gun,” “the evidence.” Should such narrowly-defined “evidence” be found, he can then be relied upon to demonstrate, “fairly,” that the only fingerprints on the smoking gun are those of the one bad apple in the barrel, the single rogue agent in the tapestry of decent intentions.

I kept coming back to the question of personal responsibility, Casey’s responsibility,” Mr. Woodward reports having mused (apparently for once ready, at the moment when he is about to visit a source on his deathbed, to question the veracity of what he has been told) before his last visit to Room C6316 at Georgetown Hospital. “For a moment, I hoped he would take himself off the hook. The only way was an admission of some kind or an apology to his colleagues or an expression of new understanding. Under the last question on ‘Key unanswered questions for Casey,’ I wrote: ‘Do you see now that it was wrong?”’ To commit such Rosebud moments to paper is what it means to tell “the human story” at “the core,” and it is also what it means to write political pornography.

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