Sitting on Top of the News

The Commanders

by Bob Woodward
Simon and Schuster, 398 pp., $24.95

Colin Powell
Colin Powell; drawing by David Levine

The release of each new book by Bob Woodward has become something of a national ritual. As the publication date approaches, word spreads that Woodward has spent months interviewing officials in one or another of the government’s deep recesses. Book reviewers are informed that, because of the book’s sensitive contents, they will not receive advance galleys, only the published book. When it finally does appear, The Washington Post runs extracts on its front pages for several days running, and Newsweek, a Post property, features it on the cover. Woodward himself makes the rounds on TV and radio, fielding questions about his reporting technique.

The questions raised by The Commanders are similar to those stirred by Woodward’s earlier books. The book contains no notes, no bibliography, no identified sources. Conversations from months or even years ago are recounted verbatim; personal thoughts are rendered with no hint of attribution. Instead, we are referred to a “Note to the Reader” that indicates the number of people interviewed (more than four hundred) over how long a period (twenty-seven months) and how often (“Many key participants were interviewed repeatedly, some on a regular basis as events unfolded. Several were interviewed two to three dozen times”). In a formulation that has become as familiar as the health warning on a cigarette pack, Woodward notes that

direct quotations from meetings or conversations come from at least one participant who specifically recalled or took notes on what was said. Quotation marks are not used when the sources were unsure about the exact wording.

No doubt many readers—especially those wary of the you-are-there narrative techniques of “the new journalism”—will find this unconvincing. Yet Woodward’s reporting has not been discredited. When The Final Days disclosed that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger had prayed together in the White House, many were skeptical, but Kissinger’s own memoirs later confirmed that the incident had taken place. Woodward’s Watergate coverage has recently been challenged by Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin in the book Silent Coup: The Removal of a President, but for the most part his reporting has stood up over time. The Brethren, Woodward’s book on the Supreme Court, was criticized for being gossipy and ignorant of the various legal issues that came before the Court, but it gives one of the few reliable accounts of the Court’s inner workings. Veil caused much controversy with its claims that Woodward made a bedside visit to the expiring William Casey, yet no one has seriously challenged its description of life at the CIA.

Now comes The Commanders, with its inside look at Bush administration policy making during the invasion of Panama and the war in the Persian Gulf. Anyone concerned with historical evidence will no doubt find much to complain about. Powell becomes “alarmed,” Scowcroft is “astonished,” and Cheney turns “furious”—all without attribution. Yet, in the weeks since The Commanders appeared, only one senior…

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