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…

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