A Cautionary Tale

So far, 2004 is the year of the singing insider. In January Paul O’Neill, the former secretary of the Treasury, ascended to a high place on the best-seller list. In March the former counter-terrorism coordinator, Richard Clarke, vaulted over him to the top. In April the journalist/insider extraordinaire, Bob Woodward, surpassed all his predecessors. Although his book may represent the high-water mark of this flood of apparent revelation, there are certainly several smaller surges to come.

The program for an insider book is now well established. There are enticing pre-publication rumors and leaks; at publication time one or two quasi-sensational passages, often out of context, become front-page stories; rumbles of anger and comment from the administration enliven the author’s talk show appearances; the book rises to the top of the best-seller lists; and in a few weeks it is superseded by the next sensation. It is not clear how many people actually read these books, which often contain much new information and interesting comment. As for their impact on the political process, the most recent polls show that, along with the September 11 hearings and the debacle in Iraq, they have so far had little discernible effect on the President’s popularity ratings, although his approval ratings for foreign policy and the Iraq war are declining.

Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack is, for better or for worse, sui generis. Who else can talk on the record for several hours to the President of the United States, who then encourages his senior colleagues to follow suit? The enterprise is filled out by seventy or so lesser mortals who, not that it matters, prefer to remain anonymous. These remarkable arrangements apparently justify the absence of all references or footnotes. The provenance and reliability of the many pages of quoted remarks and dialogue—as many as in most novels of similar length—are left to the reader’s imagination. My favorite product of this method occurs on page 440. “‘HOLY SHIT!’ Powell said to himself as he read a copy of Tenet’s speech.”

Woodward does not set out to be a graceful writer and he avoids analysis or comment, but he certainly has a style of his own. Maureen Dowd has pointed out that body language plays an extraordinarily large part in Woodward’s descriptions. Indeed one often longs for more articulate forms of expression, especially on important issues. Sports also provide important background. George Tenet, the avid basketball player, cries “Slam-dunk!” to justify to a skeptical President a remarkably thin intelligence dossier on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s experience as a college wrestler is given due weight, and Colin Powell believes that “work and life are contact sports.”

As the title implies, the core of Plan of Attack is the long and complex buildup of United States forces from November 21, 2001, when the President asked Rumsfeld, “What kind of a war plan do you have for …

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