Bob Woodward, in his quiet, modest way, was mad as a wet hen on NBC’s Meet the Press the other Sunday: Why do you call it State of Denial? Tim Russert was asking. Why, in so many words, did you have to be so shrill?
“That’s what the facts show,” Mr. Woodward responded. “It took me over two years to find out what happened, and quite frankly, as I say as directly as can be said in English, they have not been telling the truth about what Iraq has become.”
To which the 83 percent of Americans who said in the latest New York Times/CBS poll that Bush is lying or hiding something about Iraq might well have shouted back at their screens: Now you tell us?
The George W. Bush who strides across the pages of Bush at War (2002) was a superhero even in matters of diction. (“Gerson had written that, in responding to terrorism, the United States would make no distinction between those who planned the acts and those who tolerated or encouraged the terrorists. ‘That’s way too vague,’ Bush complained, proposing the word ‘harbor.’”) And while the picture of the commander in chief in Plan of Attack (2004) was rounder, the White House found it flattering enough to put it on the recommended reading list they prepared for the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign.
But now, in response to State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III, they’ve put out a series of separate spin sheets with titles like “Five Key Myths in Bob Woodward’s Book: Setting the Record Straight.” How blindsided those poor President’s men must feel! From the last book to this, some mysterious torque has twisted even the incidentals 30 degrees in a less flattering direction.
Plan of Attack: “‘I want to know what the options are,’ Bush recalled. ‘A president cannot decide and make rational decisions unless I understand the feasibility of that which may have to happen.’” State of Denial: “Why should I care about North Korea?”
Plan of Attack: “As Tommy planned, I wanted him to understand some of the nuances, or understand issues in a nuanced way.” State of Denial: “I wish those assholes would put things just point-blank to me. I get half a book telling me about the history of North Korea.”
Plan of Attack: “Bush, 55, has a quick, joshing manner which at times borders on the impulsive.” State of Denial: “Bush and Rove in particular dwelled on ‘flatulence’—passing gas—and they shared an array of fart jokes.”
As for the non-incidentals—well, there’s this little matter: the Bush administration’s near-criminal brush-off of George Tenet’s shrieking July 10, 2001, warning about Osama bin Laden, and the plain implication—it’s on page 52—that the fact that this shocking incident didn’t find its way into the 9/11 Commission report might have had something to do with Condoleezza Rice’s friendship with the commission’s “aggressive executive director,” Philip Zelikow.
Then there are the remarkable revelations about Saudi Arabia’s longtime ambassador to the U.S.: George Bush the elder sent his son to Prince Bandar bin Sultan in 1997 for elementary tutelage in foreign affairs; Prince Bandar keeps a shrine to Bush 41 in his 32-room Aspen mansion; Prince Bandar uses the word “we” to refer to the United States and Saudi Arabia as a single corporate entity. Exactly the sort of things Craig Unger, late of this newspaper, reported in House of Bush, House of Saud (2004), and which David Gergen called “so far-fetched and so critical of a Bush family that has honorably served and sacrificed for the country over three generations that no one of serious reputation takes them seriously.”
Apparently now it’s kosher. “If you want to hear the truth about the administration, you got to listen to Bob Woodward,” CNN anchor John Roberts recently proposed to Mr. Gergen, who heartily concurred, adding: “For the country, it means we have got a much more serious problem in Iraq.”
Yes, he appeared to be in earnest: We have a more serious problem because Robert Upshur Woodward says so.
All of which raises reasonable questions. Considering that the subject and substance of Mr. Woodward’s three books overlap, doesn’t the revision indict the originals? If Part III is the better book because it’s a more accurate portrayal of the Bush administration’s abject failures and inadequacies, doesn’t that make the author look worse? What was he withholding? (The word “Bandar,” for instance, is absent from Bush at War.) What was the eureka moment? Why couldn’t Mr. Woodward have exploited his unique insider access to alert the Washington establishment sooner about the danger of harboring this feckless man-child in their midst?
Or to put it in a way Bob Woodward would find familiar: What did the reporter know and when did he know it?
Unfortunately for the author, he’s provided us with laboratory-like conditions to compare and contrast. Call it State of Denial’s smoking gun.
The two most recent books end with the same interview: Mr. Woodward’s several hours with the President on Dec. 10 and 11, 2003. Both books contain the same exchange: Mr. Woodward says, “But we have not found any weapons of mass destruction,” and Mr. Bush replies, “We have found weapons programs that could be reconstituted.” In both accounts we learn what happened next: The reporter probes as if embarrassed to be challenging the commander in chief, making the question a passive one, the wording limp: As he “traveled around the country,” Mr. Woodward confesses, people had been telling him they thought the President was “less the voice of realism” for not acknowledging that weapons had not been found.
In both accounts the President, as the President is prone to do, responds in the language of spin: “The realism is to be able to understand the nature of Saddam Hussein, his history, his potential to harm America.” Mr. Woodward then honors his readers with a dutiful follow-up: “But the status report, for the last six or seven months, is we haven’t found weapons. That’s all.”
“‘True, true, true,” the President is quoted as saying in Plan of Attack. Mr. Woodward then sums up with this paraphrase: “He contended that they had found enough.” The President has been given the last word, an administration talking point that turns the reporter into a quisling who would happily leave a dictator in power because he only had a little bit of weapons of mass destruction. Good enough, apparently, for a book that went to press with George Bush up above 50 percent in the approval ratings.
But the new book went to press with the President’s approval rating below 40 percent, and the author rewinds the tape. Now he remembers: He’d been pushy.
“‘But the status report, for the last six or seven months, is we haven’t found weapons. That’s all,’ I pushed one more time.”
The same “True, true, true” is played back at the reader. The fillip, however, has changed. Now it’s the author who speaks:
“It had taken five minutes and 18 seconds for Bush simply to acknowledge the fact that we hadn’t found weapons of mass destruction.”
That it has taken Bob Woodward two years, 10 months and 18 days to recall his inner George Orwell …. No, no, no: mustn’t go there. The million-plus copies of this volume already in print consecrate it far above my poor power to add or detract. Better just to conclude that the Lords of Washington have given the peasants permission to acknowledge that the superhero is just a man-child, and thank goodness for small favors.
Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (Hill & Wang); his new book, Nixonland: The Politics and Culture of the American Berserk, 1965-1972, will be published next year.