You’re Back, Bob! Woodward’s Book Bisects Bushies

Plan of Attack , by Bob Woodward. Simon and Schuster, 468 pages, $28.

Welcome back, Mr. Woodward.

Your friends were worried that maybe “Deep Throat” or Judy Belushi or Bill Casey’s widow kidnapped you in some parking garage, hauled you off to a secret lab in Langley and implanted a chip in your noggin that turned you into a stenographer for whoever was throwing the best Georgetown dinner parties. How else to account for what’s been churned out under your name the last decade or two? The Agenda , The Choice , Maestro , Shadow -those were icky enough. But making out Dubya to be George C. Marshall and George S. Patton rolled into one in Bush At War ?

That wasn’t the old Bob Woodward, co-bringer-down of Nixon; it must have been a suck-up doppelgänger.

Plan of Attack , thank goodness, proves our anxieties misplaced: The Bob Woodward who helped ensure that there’d be a Bill of Rights left for John Ashcroft to violate wasn’t body-snatched or imprisoned in Area 51 with the Roswell aliens. In that patient, grinding Midwestern way of his, he’s just been working a plan, lulling the High and Mighty to sleep, making them think he was a court eunuch, waiting for the moment when the nation truly needed him again. Now it’s arrived. And in the manner of Cincinnatus dropping his plow or Clark Kent finally finding a phone booth, the Bob Woodward of yore-the one Robert Redford played in All the President’s Men -has returned, and further invitations to the Bush White House are kaput.

How good is this book? Well, if discomfort caused is the measure of greatness achieved, forget about the Pulitzer-Mr. Woodward deserves a Nobel.

It’s been sweet Schadenfreude to watch all the squirming. There was Condi Rice trying to convince Fox News that Mr. Woodward’s got it wrong about Colin Powell and Dick Cheney loathing each other so thoroughly they no longer speak (they were “very friendly” whenever she lunched with them); and White House spokesman Scott McClellan declining comment on Mr. Woodward’s report that Saudi ambassador Prince Bandar promised Dubya he’d drop oil prices to grease the November election (“You can ask Prince Bandar,” advised Mr. McClellan by way of kiss-off); and Colin Powell-friend and primary source of the author through three books-denying most everything written by Mr. Woodward (with whom, the Secretary of State assured us, he’d only had a couple of phone chats anyway, and he only took those calls on White House orders-which he famously follows undeviatingly).

And Mr. Woodward? He’s been as unruffled as a Presbyterian deacon at a triple funeral whilst making his 60 Minutes – Larry King Live – Today Show rounds. Locked away in his safe is the source of his serenity: three and a half on-the-record hours of the President blabbing on tape.

George W. Bush, you might imagine, has been kicking anything within Residence Quarters reach ever since the A.P. scooped The Washington Post on the about-to-be-detonated literary W.M.D. According to Mr. Woodward, he didn’t just cooperate and command the whole of the executive branch to do the same-the book that became Plan of Attack was the President’s idea.

Truth is, Mr. Bush probably feels fine. The passages that have all of Manhattan and West L.A. a-snicker (not checking with Dad because “there is a Higher Father that I appeal to”; praying to “be as good a messenger of His will as possible” while going about freeing the world) will play swell out in the red states, and in big chunks of the blue ones, too. Moreover, if there’s one character in Plan of Attack who’s in command, who doesn’t suffer doubt, who asks tough questions, sniffs out phonies before their next sentence is out and won’t let nobody lead him around by the nose (except Dick Cheney), it’s George Walker Bush.

For Kerry voters, that’s as amazing as it is alarming. The good news, Senator, is that Mr. Woodward-a Nixon voter whose high-school valedictory was on the wisdom of Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative -delivers other stupefactions that Bob Shrum will want to take a close look at.

In the High Crimes and Misdemeanors category, there’s the $700 million swiped from fighting the war in Afghanistan in order to finance planning to fight one in Iraq that nobody knows about yet. Then there’s the lying about when the decision to go to war was actually made (January 2003, not March 2003); George Tenet assuring a skeptical President that the C.I.A.’s case for W.M.D. is a “slam-dunk”; the briefing of everybody (including Karl Rove, so he can reschedule fund-raiser dates) that the war is a go-which elicits a “whoopsie!” from Condi: We forgot to tell Colin.

But the best, maybe, is giving Prince Bandar an advance peek at the ultra-secret Iraq war plan-never mind that his helpful highness represents the home address of 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers.

Who does this? As with everything else involved in driving the U.S. to a current total of nearly 700 K.I.A.’s and counting, Mr. “powerful, steamroller force” himself, Richard Cheney. (Just coincidence, of course, that the Vice President has a more than passing interest in a commodity that Saudi Arabia possesses more of than anyplace else on earth. And, no, it’s not sand.)

Every good story requires a villain, and for Plan of Attack -the best yarn to come along since, well, Mr. Woodward’s first book-the author casts Mr. Cheney, who’s so well suited to the part you can almost hear the Dracula music every time he tiptoes into the narrative. There’s all kinds of evil-doing your reviewer could tip you to, but that would spoil the fright. So let’s leave it at a single malefaction: Marines are approaching Tikrit, American kids are dying, and God knows how many Iraqi mothers’ sons. And who do you suppose decides it’s the perfect occasion for a celebratory dinner party? Clue: He lives in the same house Al Gore used to.

Wife Lynne, no pansy herself, only has a walk-on, but it’s priceless. During a rushed swing through the Gulf States, Mr. Woodward writes, the Second Lady found herself lunching with the favorite wife of the Emir of Qatar. When do the children in Bahrain start school? asked Ms. Cheney, trying to make nice. Came the answer: This isn’t Bahrain.

As his tragic hero, Mr. Woodward has Colin Powell. The Secretary of State’s arguments about the lame-brainness of the impending enterprise can’t be listened to because a) they have to be solicited first; b) nobody bothers to (including the Commander in Chief); and c) Mr. Powell’s not one to push. Whether this is due to military schooling or fear of career blemishes, Mr. Woodward doesn’t say. The upshot, in any event, is that Mr. Powell-the sole veteran of combat in an armchair posse itching for it-is left without much to do, other than enlist Congress and the U.N. in backing a war he privately believes will be catastrophic.

Though he notes that many of the Secretary of State’s dire forebodings (friendly Arab regimes undermined; oil prices sent stratospheric; Iraq left up to its elbows in Shia vs. Sunni blood) have yet to come to pass, Mr. Woodward-a better friend to his source than vice versa-sympathizes, and allows Mr. Powell to roam through the chapters like Banquo’s ghost. We overhear him muttering about Donald Rumsfeld “wearing rubber gloves” so as to leave no fingerprints; about the “Gestapo” that is the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans; about the “lunatic” notions of Paul Wolfowitz (who, to be fair, has them aplenty).

One wishes that Mr. Woodward had provided some background history. There’s a long, well-documented record (ignored by liberal admirers) of St. Colin being wrong. Remember the Bosnia intervention, perhaps the Clinton administration’s greatest foreign-policy success? Mr. Powell thought it idiotic. There’s also a parallel record of incidents when he had to choose between satisfying his masters or hewing to conviction: Each time he elected to lap-dog, with self-excusing paeans to duty. As Michael Steinberger points out in this month’s The American Prospect , whether the humiliation is North Korea, the Kyoto Protocol, the A.B.M. Treaty or the Middle East, resignation on principle is not in Colin Powell’s vocabulary.

Compare Mr. Powell’s behavior with General Tommy Franks’ first set-to with Donald Rumsfeld over the ways and means of conquering supposedly unconquerable Afghanistan. According to Mr. Woodward, the general said:

“Mr. Secretary, stop. This ain’t going to work. You can fire me. I’m either the commander or I’m not, and you’ve got to trust me or you don’t. And if you don’t, I need to go somewhere else. So tell me what it is, Mr. Secretary.”

Suffice it to say that a modus vivendi was reached soon thereafter.

Mr. Woodward’s liking for General Franks is evident, and the CENTCOM commander repays it with juicy quotes like this one, on hearing that Washington wants him to draw up a plan for war in Iraq, while he’s in the midst of fighting one in Afghanistan: “Goddam,” General Franks said, “what the fuck are they talking about?” (Not a bad subtitle.)

We hear a lot about and from General Franks in Plan of Attack , including point-by-point details of his endless, Rumsfeld-ordered revisions of the Iraq war plan, down to the exact number of slides he brings to each presentation. And every time he drags out the projector and the briefing books, you gasp, How did Woodward get this stuff? Who gave him what General So-and-So said about Iraq to the eavesdropping whizzes at the National Security Agency, an outfit so “black” the joke is that N.S.A. stands for “No Such Agency”?

The secret-ferreting doesn’t stop there. Mr. Woodward invites the reader along when an Arabic-speaking C.I.A. spook nicknamed “Tim” slips across the Turkish border into Iraq with a truck full of loot to recruit spies. “They were carrying tens of millions of dollars in U.S. $100 bills stored in black Pelican boxes, heavy cardboard boxes with hinges that are often sold in art stores,” Mr. Woodward recounts. “Tim had to sign for his share. In the end he had been advanced $32 million, and he would have to present vouchers to account for it all. Yellow, 3-by-3 Post-its signed by the paid agents would suffice, he hoped. When the others lost sight of Tim’s vehicle on the way in, they joked that he probably was heading for the Riviera. Tim had found that $1 million in $100 bills weighed 44 pounds and fit neatly into a day backpack.”

When Tim’s investment produces senior Iraqi military officers spilling big beans, Mr. Woodward reports the reaction of his handler thus:

“‘Holy shit!’ Saul muttered. “If it is 50 percent bullshit, we’ve still hit a goldmine.'”

How’s that for up close and personal?

Tim’s chief, the basketball-metaphoring Mr. Tenet, does not come off so well, for all the widely advertised reasons. Need more? Mr. Woodward reveals that Mr. Tenet now and again dropped by the White House mess for a jocular nosh with Karl Rove. What’s the Director of Central Intelligence doing courting the President’s top political operative? Mr. Woodward doesn’t say. A guess: keeping his job.

There’s a groaning board of such canapés served with Plan of Attack ‘s main course, several too delectable to miss.

A White House scene to savor: Nick Calio, head of the White House Congressional lobbying reporting to the President that the Senate is about to “vitiate” a filibuster holding up the vote on the Homeland Security bill. “‘Nicky, what the fuck are you talking about, vitiate?’ Bush asked.” And the Yale flunk-out Vice President? He didn’t know what it meant, either.

Another tasty morsel: what State Department director of policy planning Richard Haass tells Colin Powell after Time runs an apparently White House–sanctioned story that Mr. Powell is hopelessly out of the loop: “It sucks. The only thing that would have been worse would have been if it had showed you were in charge. Then you would have been totally fucked.”

Yet another: George Tenet’s sum-up of British intelligence’s assessment of the time required for Saddam to launch a C.B.W. strike: “they-can-attack-in-45-minutes shit.”

A final delicacy: George Bush’s reaction to the same information? He uses it in a speech.

Large incident and small, this is the craft of a journalist without peer-and for you old George readers, that comes from someone who was throwing everything but the kitchen sink at him just a few years ago.

To be sure, some will pick nits. They will say that Mr. Woodward’s abjuring of footnotes vitiates documentation-a quirk that has occasioned flak since “Deep Throat” went unnamed (a blank Mr. Woodward promises to fill in once the chain-smoking Deep is deceased). But, like Tommy Franks, either you trust him or you don’t, and the track record shouts that you should. Remember the pooh-poohing that greeted the Oval Office scene in The Final Days of Nixon kneeling in prayer with Kissinger? Remember the omelets on pusses when Dr. Kissinger later confirmed Mr. Woodward’s account? Besides, the sort of information Mr. Woodward unearths (i.e., the kind no one else gets) wouldn’t be available for shoveling if he ran around tattling.

Plan of Attack , like all its predecessors, demonstrates yet again why Mr. Woodward is in no danger of winning a style prize. Carl Bernstein was the man with the golden pen, and without him, Mr. Woodward’s prose is reminiscent of a 1940 Ford turning over on a frigid morning. A graduate of the Joe Friday “Just the facts, ma’am” school, Mr. Woodward is parsimonious as well-sometimes maddeningly so-with personal opinion. But that is part of the power of his work. He simply lays it out, unvarnished, and leaves it to you to decide what to make of it.

What to make of Plan of Attack ?

Let’s ask Condi Rice (who’ll be lucky to land an adjunct professorship at Pepperdine if Iraq continues to quagmire). Pausing from her Augean Stables duties on the talk shows this weekend, Ms. Rice had this to say about the latest writer to burden her with a manure fork:

“I haven’t read Bob’s book, which I’m sure is terrific. He’s a great journalist and I look forward to reading it …. I’m sure it will be fantastic.”

She’s got that right.

Robert Sam Anson reviews books regularly for The Observer.