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The Deferential Spirit

Joan Didion, who has just been awarded the 2012 National Humanities Medal, has contributed nearly fifty reviews, articles, and letters to The New York Review since 1973. The following is an extract from “The Deferential Spirit,” a review of The Choice and five other books by Bob Woodward, which appeared in the September 19, 1996, issue.

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, 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 [as CIA director], which occurred on January 29, 1987. This was almost four months after the crash of the Hasenfus plane [which was carrying supplies to the contras] 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 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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