A Capital Gumshoe Hits it Big
Bob Woodward's latest gives the Bush team fits
On its face, it looked like a Washington version of a "did not, did so" schoolyard standoff. But the stakes were a whole lot higher. At issue are the assertions in Bob Woodward's new book about what Bush administration officials knew about the terrorists' plans in the months leading up to 9/11.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insisted she had no recollection of a July 10, 2001, meeting described in Woodward's State of Deial-a meeting at which she was allegedly dismissive of CIA warnings that an attack was imminent. Days later, however, Rice acknowledged through her chief spokesman that she had been briefed by the CIA "on or around" that date-and added that she had instructed her staff to pass on the CIA's information to then Attorney General John Ashcroft and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Rice's embarrassing flip-flop illustrates once again the unique clout that Woodward still wields 3
Though it was overshadowed last week by the evolving congressional page scandal, the new book was instantly a No. 1 bestseller, like 10 of the 14 books he has either written or coauthored. Unlike his past two books on the Bush administration, State of Denial takes an unsparing look at the administration's bungled post-invasion policy in Iraq. "This is a do-over," said commentator Arianna Huffington, who is among those who say Woodward's reputation was damaged by his previous favorable "Bush at war" books. "He wants to make it appear that he hasn't changed, the facts on the ground have changed. That's simply not true." Woodward has responded to such criticism by saying his latest round of reporting simply turned up new information.
Hot topics. Debate about Woodward's reporting has raged since the 1970s, although his influence has never waned. There have been several illuminating books published in the past year about the Bush administration's prosecution of the war in Iraq-from Ron Suskind's One Percent Doctrine to Thomas Ricks's Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq. But only Woodward's drew a White House press-release rebuttal.
The most common criticisms of Woodward, 63, are that he is too easily manipulated by the accounts of Washington insiders who cooperate with his reporting efforts and that he recounts endless strings of facts without context. Woodward was given access to President Bush and other top officials for his first two books on the administration, but he was refused interviews with the president for State of Denial. (The administration has said it believed Woodward had an agenda.) Some dramatic scenes Woodward reported in previous books-a teary Richard Nixon praying with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger; CIA Director William Casey's deathbed admission of the Iran-contra scheme-have been questioned.
There are other criticisms, as well. Thomas Edsall, a retired Washington Post reporter now teaching at Columbia School of Journalism and writing for the New Republic, says his former colleague, along with some reporters for other A-list newspapers, has ready access to high-level government officials but often fails to check their accounts of events with secondary and tertiary sources.
Old-fashioned. Woodward calls such criticisms unfounded. "I understand that there can be a misperception about my method, but if you look in the book's index, you'll see just as many midlevel staffers and Rumsfeld aides as high-profile names," he said last week. "This book makes me feel good about old-fashioned, straight journalism." Woodward defended his past glowing characterizations of the Bush administration as describing their actions during a different time. But he says he feels he erred in his earlier reporting on Rumsfeld, who comes off very poorly in State of Denial. "I should have looked at him sooner," he said.
Even his sternest critics, however, give Woodward credit for his work ethic and determination, his keen interviewing skill, his exhaustive knowledge of the nation's capital and how it works, and for not harboring a political agenda.
So what's Woodward's next book likely to be? "For the country's sake," he said, "I hope it's Bush at Peace." Whatever it is, it almost certainly will be a bestseller that will kick off yet another spirited dissection of one of the nation's most famous journalists.
This story appears in the October 16, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.