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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.”

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.

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.

  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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