Woodward as Easy Target

In criticizing Bob Woodward's latest book, some critics fail to take an honest look at the true, and enduring, impact of his work.

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.” Like Henry V bracing his troops for battle, book reviewers, media critics and partisan scribblers dutifully set out to rally the troops each time another Bob Woodward book appears. And with the release of each book, we’re treated to the sturm und drang of D.C.’s circular firing squad of media machers, who chase their tails trying to find an angle on which to either pounce or praise, depending on which way the political winds are blowing.

Any look at a new Woodward book necessarily gives at least a nod to his signature style, which, in Joan Didion’s famous essay, holds that Woodward’s “rather eerie aversion to engaging the ramifications of what people say to him” produces “books in which measurable cerebral activity is virtually absent.” It’s not an unfair criticism by any means, and one held by many of Woodward’s critics.

This year the big multimedia rollout, of course, concerns Woodward’s “State of Denial,” which many critics are calling a 491-page walk-back from his previous two books on the Bush presidency — “Bush at War” and “Plan of Attack” — which at times wrapped the president and many of his advisers in a cloak of decisive heroism that left Bush-bashers fuming.

And with “State of Denial,” some of Woodward’s most prominent critics have focused more on his style, and how this book is different from the last two, rather than consider what he has added to the public store of knowledge about how the Bush administration operates. In doing so, these critics have added to a growing body of work intent on criticizing Woodward’s methods rather than what he has actually produced — which is arguably unmatched in the history of American journalism.

Last week, Slate’s Jacob Weisberg took this route, when he tracked the treatment Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld received in Woodward’s three Bush books. In the first, “Bush at War,” most of the major administration officials appear proud, patriotic and decisive — and not much else. “Plan of Attack” tempered this somewhat, and focused quite a bit on Cheney’s obsession with taking out Saddam Hussein and the machinations he undertook to ensure that this became a fait accompli.

Of the new book, Weisberg writes — not without reason — that Woodward “has changed his mind about Rumsfeld without Rumsfeld changing one iota.” During the first two books, Rummy was portrayed as the hard-charging architect of the war in Afghanistan and the wisecracking Pentagon tough guy. But now that the conventional wisdom has replaced this view with one of Rumsfeld, as Weisberg writes, as “a vicious old bastard,” Woodward has unsheathed the knives. “What’s maddening,” Weisberg says, “is the way Woodward reverses his point of view without acknowledging he ever had one — then or now.” A good point, but isn’t there more to Woodward’s book than just his portrayal of the secretary of Defense, or how his portrayal of him has changed over time?

According to a few other high-profile critics, the answer is yes, but it hardly seems to matter. Last Sunday, the New York Times’ Frank Rich slammed Woodward for acting as if he is breaking the news that the violence in Iraq is bad, and possibly getting worse. Rich writes that Woodward’s “new book’s title, ‘State of Denial,’ has a self-referential ring to it,” since Woodward’s previous books failed to paint the administration in the unfavorable light Rich would have preferred.

Echoing Rich’s column, Arianna Huffington piled on last Monday, writing that in talking about how bad things are in Iraq, Woodward is late to the party: “Stop the presses, hold the front page! And burn all the copies of ‘Fiasco,’ ‘Cobra II,’ ‘The One Percent Doctrine,’ ‘Hubris’ — plus 99.9 percent of the blog posts on Iraq that have appeared on HuffPost since we launched — that have previously come to exactly the same ‘damning conclusion.’ Why fork over $30 for much-older-than-yesterday’s news?”

The New York Times’ David Carr, also writing last week, joined the Woodward bashing, dismissing the “actual journalistic accomplishment in ‘State of Denial’” as being “less than grand. It took him three books to arrive at a conclusion thousands of basement-bound bloggers suggested years ago: that the Bush administration is composed of people who like war, don’t seem to be very good at it and have been known to turn the guns on each other. Such an epiphany doesn’t seem to reflect a reporter who had rarefied access.”

Where did all this venom come from? It’s not as if Woodward is running around claiming that he is the first one to have figured out that the Bush administration has made some big mistakes. And if Woodward is such a disappointment for writing a book that reinforces some things we already know, then why isn’t everyone piling on Rajiv Chandrasekaran for his (excellent) new book “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone”, which documents the corruption and cronyism that was rife in the Coalition Provisional Authority? Isn’t that something we all, on some level, already knew?

The answer is that Woodward is a big, juicy target, and even as the Carrs and Huffingtons and Riches of the world pretend he is late on the story of Iraq, any one of them would love to write a book that had anything near the impact any of Woodward’s books have had. For their part, Rich and Huffington merely follow the news, writing instant historical relics to cheer the converted. Woodward, on the other hand, goes out and gets the story, and although his style and strategies are something about which reasonable people can disagree, he breaks stories that other journalists follow up on and chatter about obsessively.

What’s more, as someone who has read all of the books (save “Hubris”) Huffington cited — and having just finished Woodward’s latest — I think I can answer her question as to why someone should bother buying Woodward’s book. Forking over $30 for it is an investment anyone serious about understanding contemporary history needs to make. To be sure, there is some serious overlap between “State of Denial” and “Fiasco” or “Cobra II,” or even “The Assassins’ Gate.” But does that mean that Woodward shouldn’t have bothered? His chapters on the mess that Rumsfeld saddled Jay Garner with are worth the price of admission alone.

The story of Garner, the former Marine general who was appointed as the first head of Iraqi reconstruction (he served from March 2003 to May 2003), has been well told in several other books, most thoroughly in “Cobra II” and “The Assassins’ Gate,” but Woodward goes a little deeper and adds detail and color to the story that other reporters did not have.

In the end, even if Woodward is late in going public with his alarm over the Bush administration’s mishandling of the war in Iraq, for Huffington et al to completely gloss over everything the book adds to our evolving understanding of how the administration has operated since the start of the war, is at least as irresponsible as they accuse Woodward of being.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.