Sunday, October 01, 2006

Bob Woodward’s new book, State of Denial, probably exhibits the same core weakness as all his previous books, but this time out its weakness may be its strength.

Woodward, the insider’s insider, practices the ultimate form of access journalism. Important people want to talk to him. They’ll spend hours with him, spilling their guts, answering his every question, opening their memories up to his probing to the point that small details that you wouldn’t have expected made it past the filters in a source’s short-term memory, like what color tie someone was wearing when Woodward’s source bumped into him in the hallway outside the Oval Office a year ago, like long-repressed but psychologically key childhood dreams.

“By God!” you can imagine the source exclaiming, “He was wearing a blue tie that day! And it was askew! I knew there was something that told me how worried he was about the President’s indifference to the terrorist threat!”

Woodward thinks like a biographer and tries to write like a novelist and the result is that in his books he tells stories. I like stories. But stories aren’t driven by analysis; they’re driven by themes carried along a narrative arc that is drawn by the actions of the main characters.

And Woodward is a self-effacing storyteller, not quite Joyce’s God-like narrator standing offstage in the wings, paring his nails, he’s watching the performances of his characters as raptly as a stage mother whose little darling is making her debut; but he does keep out of his characters’ way, leaving them to tell their stories themselves.

Consequently, his books are dominated by the best storytellers among his sources, and the narrative arc is drawn by the stories they want to tell.

A knock on Woodward is that his books are too flattering to his sources. But this isn’t because Woodward is a sycophant. It’s because his sources flatter themselves. People are vain. We are all inclined to flatter ourselves or at least put ourselves in the best possible light. Add to this this that it’s pretty easy to guess from the self-flattering details who Woodward’s sources are, and his sources know this going in, they know they have an audience to whom they are not anonymous and certain members of that audience have thin skins and a lot of power, so Woodward’s sources have the temptation and the incentive to flatter other people.

Woodward’s last two books in what's now a series, Bush at War and, not nearly as uncritically, Plan of Attack, told stories George Bush and Dick Cheney wanted told about themselves. Bush and Cheney were two of Woodward’s sources and Woodward’s other sources felt they needed to tell him flattering stories about the President and the Vice-President.

It’s important to note that, according to the New York Times, neither Bush nor Cheney were interviewed for State of Denial, and it appears that Woodward’s sources, many of whom were most likely sources for Bush at War and Plan of Attack, didn’t feel called upon to tell any more flattering stories about Bush and Cheney.

In other words, while State of Denial may be a sign that Bob Woodward has at last gotten fed up and decided to go back to being the hard-hitting journalist he was when he and Carl Bernstein faced down the Nixon White House, it’s more likely a signal that there’s been a sea change in Washington.

The insiders’ insiders’ insiders who are Woodward’s sources are now willing to state, if not on record then in a forum where their identities can be guessed, that George Bush has presided over one of the greatest foreign policy screw-ups in American history.

This means that some very important people are no longer worried about what George Bush and Dick Cheney think of them.

It means that some very important people no longer think that it’s in their best interest to be on Bush and Cheney’s side.

It means that some very important people are so appalled and outraged and scared by the Bush Leaguers’ mistakes, blockheadedness, corruption, and incompetence that they can’t keep quiet about it any longer.

It means that George Bush and Dick Cheney and Karl Rove have lost control of the story. They are no longer driving the narrative.

Unfortunately, they are still driving the country.

By way of Maha, see Dan Froomkin and John Dickerson.

The Washington Post has begun publishing excerpts from State of Denial.

Cross-posted at the American Street.


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