No Heroes Here

Bob Woodward
Bob Woodward; drawing by David Levine

The New York Times columnist Russell Baker once described the lot of the Washington reporter as the weary life of an ink-stained wretch condemned to “wear out his hams sitting in marble corridors waiting for important people to lie to him.” Bob Woodward doesn’t have to wait in marble corridors. Ever since he and his Washington Post colleague Carl Bernstein wrote the best book yet published on the fall of a president—The Final Days, in which a drunken and half-mad Nixon destroys himself, raging like a tinhorn Lear—Woodward has been a singular force in American journalism.

His clout isn’t precisely the equivalent of subpoena power, and it doesn’t exactly constitute a protection racket, but it is something close to the cooperation agreements struck between prosecutors and witnesses. Important people are compelled to come to him with the understanding that they will be spared harsh sentences. They may spin furiously, but they lie to him at their peril. They will be protected by the invisibility cloak of “deep background.” Woodward says no one can get a straight story in Washington by conducting on-the-record interviews, so he exchanges anonymity for candor. He no longer has secret White House tapes to work with, so he often employs a hearsay technique: he will reconstruct word-for-word conversations among two or more participants based on the recollection of one person, who in effect dictates the substance of important passages. Where possible, he will back up his reporting with primary documents and secondary sources. If not, you’ll have to take his word for it.

Woodward is a fantastic fact-finder who cannot and will not analyze the facts he finds. “I am just not capable—and this is a grave fault—of taking A, B, C, and D and saying, ‘O.K., now E,’” he once told the great reporter and writer J. Anthony Lukas. And since he refrains from judging what his sources say, he runs the risk of becoming their prisoner, and, at worst, a stenographer to power. Lukas reflected, “I’m sure Bob realizes this, but his increasing dependence on access to very powerful people necessarily raises questions about whether he is serving the interests of his sources more than those of the public.” A careful reader can often suss out which sources are saying what. The question is whether they are telling him the truth. Here he serves his readers almost as well as his sources until, in the end, he doesn’t.

On the first page of Fear, the former Goldman Sachs executive Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser, steals a draft document off the president’s desk in the Oval Office. Had Trump signed it, he would have abrogated a trade agreement with South Korea. In Woodward’s eyes, this not only would have destroyed Washington’s security alliance with Seoul but would also have set the nuclear clock ticking toward World War III on the Korean peninsula, an extrapolation that if nothing…

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