Bob Woodward, High On Access, Thick With ‘Senior Officials’

Early on in Plan of Attack, Bob Woodward’s surprisingly useful if analytically inane account of the inner machinations behind the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, Mr. Woodward supplies a little forensic digression on the White House, message discipline and the meaning of the phrase “senior administration officials.”

“A news story with that attribution,” he wrote, “often carries a semiofficial stamp, not quite on the record but not against the perceived interests of the president. But such stories can be maddening because it is not always clear whether someone was speaking from the White House or another department or agency, or even what qualified as ‘senior.’”

His own careful watchwords about haphazardly sourced “statements, leaks, and inferences” give no small grounds for wonderment over last week’s bombshell revelation that he had been the first reporter (so far as we know) to learn that Valerie Plame, the wife of Iraq war critic Joseph Wilson IV, was a C.I.A. operative—a bit of news that reportedly prompted special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald to request that another grand jury be empanelled.

And Mr. Woodward announced, in a bizarre statement to The Washington Post (his employer) last week, that he had learned of Ms. Plame’s covert status in a casual conversation with—yes—a senior White House official.

Subsequent details about this shadowy chat just reinforced the impression that Mr. Woodward’s reporting rounds involve much privileged strangeness. First, there was conditional renegotiation of the terms by which he could disclose the contents of this casual chat: on the record to Mr. Fitzgerald, in billowing clouds of guarded anonymity to the public.

Then there was his oddly specific stipulation to his establishment TV confessor Larry King this week that neither the President, the Vice President nor the Secretary of Defense had been his source in the Plame exchange. While saving for himself the privilege of divulging that source’s identity, the legendary Watergate scribe is using the cable airwaves for selective executive skirt-cleaning. And there was the puzzle of Mr. Woodward neglecting to take aside Washington Post executive editor Len Downie at some point over the past 29 months and say, “By the way, old sport, that hot C.I.A.-leak thingamee that everyone’s so worked up about? I spoke to one of my senior White House chums about it before anyone else did.”

Meanwhile, there were Mr. Woodward’s many asseverations about preserving the integrity of an anonymous source, which Americans can now cite nearly verbatim from the libretto of Judith Miller’s opéra bouffe efforts to keep Scooter Libby’s aspens from twisting in the wind. The Deep Throat vet laid it on especially thick: “I’m in the habit of keeping secrets,” he told reporters.

Yet the surprise Woodward chapter in the Plame affair has less to do with the ethics of reporting than with the theology of access, a spiritual discipline in which Mr. Woodward is undeniably the high priest. His weirdly overlapping books on Bush-era warmaking come overstuffed with self-regarding quotes from all levels of White House officialdom, all the way up to the President himself. All of Mr. Woodward’s sources—on the record and off, and every shade in between—rush to avail themselves of Mr. Woodward’s sourcely solicitude, because they know that he will faithfully transcribe the details of their self-regard most precisely, each in their own grandiose chosen formulations.

This is the social compact on display in each entry of Mr. Woodward’s sprawling corpus of inside-Washington books, and it also explains the oddly inert quality that nearly all of them share. For all their topicality, Mr. Woodward’s chronicles of the major political events and players in our age never truly manage to get behind the scene, in the way most reporters understand that phrase. They are, rather, extended studies of mise-en-scène, with each source serving as his own director and the author hovering above events as producer and dealmaker, in a studied posture of noncommittal bemusement that he is pleased to consider both fair and balanced.

The public hears much about its own stake in this social compact, which has to do with getting the governing class to confess sinful doings it’s otherwise disinclined to talk about. Yet when one considers the biggest investigative stories of our age, they are anything but prodigious feats of access from on high. The Iran-contra scandal was famously broken by the Lebanese magazine Ash-Shiraa, the S&L enormity by the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. Abu Ghraib came to light not from the higher reaches of officialdom where Mr. Woodward makes himself at home, but rather courtesy of an anguished soldier-witness.

For all the talk of Mr. Woodward’s ultra-hot status as the “preeminent investigative reporter of his generation” (an oft-used phrase), he has actually joined a much older lineage of aristocratic D.C. journalist, the obliging plier of access for access’ sake.

The man who wrote the virtual book on this unlovely specialty was the late New York Times scribe James Reston. Reston had repeatedly served as a messenger to his editor bosses and senior Sulzbergers on behalf of White House and senior Congressional interests. Once, he even used his prestigious column space in the Times Op-Ed section to publish a piece bylined “By Henry Kissinger, with James Reston.” Indeed, The Washington Post—which, I should disclose, had been a place of mostly happy employment for me from 2000 to 2004, over which time I never once laid eyes on Mr. Woodward—is actually a relative piker in the access business compared to The Times.

For all the paper of record’s pious orations on the Pentagon Papers and other genuine First Amendment triumphs, it has enjoyed frequent and gleeful bouts of footsie-playing with prestige sources on Pennsylvania Avenue. Long before Judy Miller was a gleam in Howell Raines’ eye, Turner Catledge, The Times’ managing editor in 1961, graciously, at J.F.K.’s prompting, downplayed word of the Bay of Pigs invasion prior to its disastrous onset.

And when Arthur Ochs (Punch) Sulzberger telephoned his mother Iphigene to report breathlessly that he had just lunched with President Ronald Reagan, Vice President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State George Shultz, she waggishly replied, “What did they want?”

Iphigene was by all accounts a most appealing woman, far less dreary and self-important than the male successors to the Times publishing ermine. And in her reply to Punch, she was clearly joking. Yet as Mr. Woodward’s recent antics remind us, when establishment papers engage in these kind of self-enamored intimacies with sources and institutions they are charged to regard with principled skepticism—and, more than occasionally, outright suspicion—the joke is most certainly on us.

Richard Brookhiser will return to this space in January.