I Have Seen the Enemy, and He Is Bob Woodward

Young Bob Woodward and his computer, immortalized in wax at Madam Tussaud's. Photo by Cliff1066/FlickrEverybody – which is to say, everybody who works in the Washington media – is talking about this Bob Woodward book, Obama's Wars, that went on sale this week. Everybody in the Washington media always talks about every new Bob Woodward book. Once, as a young man, his reporting helped bring down a president. Having thus made his name, he’s spent the interceding decades selling it out, franchising WOODWARD!-branded ventures in Oval Office access journalism. He is to presidential exposés what Ray Kroc is to hamburgers. Woodward’s books have the same effect as a Kroc-created Big Mac. You get hungry; you see one; you consume it; it never quite satisfies. And you wonder whether you’d have ever been so hungry for one if it wasn’t hawked in your face on every street corner.

That's not to say that, in the process of interviewing very important people about their very important work, Woodward doesn't back into a truth or two. It's just that those truths rarely lie where his readers expect them to. Take, for but one example, the dilemma a president faces in tolerating – much less fostering – military dissent. This is the crux of the stormy faux-Victorian treatment Woodward gives Barack Obama’s administration in the new book: that, amid the flailing characters and grade-school rivalries in the West Wing, the Pentagon has been pulling the strings on our nation’s war policy, and Barack Obama’s been helpless to do much about it. Defense Secretary Bob Gates and his assembled generals and admirals, Woodward tells us breathlessly, pulled some form of “bureaucratic jujitsu” to secure a troop escalation in Afghanistan. This supposed phenomenon we now call Obama vs. the Generals, or the Petraeus Syndrome, or the Fourth Branch.

Think about this for a second, because it's not a revelation that flouts the conventional wisdom. It is the conventional wisdom, the fast-food burger that everyone hungers for and gets fat on. The wisdom, taken to its extreme, is this: Barack Obama, Democratic president, conciliator, hopey-changey guy, is a wilting lily in the shadow of a bunch of tougher, meaner, gun-toting, pushup-doing generals. It reifies so many false instincts that burrow in the American gut: that all military overseers think alike – deviously. That military dissent is always an act of insubordination. That a left-of-center president can't handle said “insubordination.”

In short, Bob Woodward paints a velvety portrait of the commander in chief with Hindenberg and Ludendorff penciled in behind him, shoving sabers into his back. It couldn't be that the president values dissent, diversity of opinion, minority reports, or tough talk in his decision-making corps. It’s not that he wants to participate in a reality-based community that was lacking in the George Bush-Tommy Franks civil-military relationship. It’s that the brass got one up on him.

My first observation is: So what? Of course defense secretaries, generals, and admirals – having spent their lives ascending to a point where their decisions could matter to a president – do everything possible to influence that president. In this, they’re no different from any congressman, lobbyist, or angry letter-writer from Withlacoochee, Florida. Ours is a nation of warring factions. See: Federalist Papers, The.

My second observation is: Woodward, and most of his readers in the media, don’t really give a hoot what this means for America’s foreign policy or moral standing. They only care about what it says politically about the president. Is he a "weak" leader or a "strong" one? Is he "effective" or not? The political supplants the moral, and by God, it hardly ever meets up with the practical, for the practical would ask two questions:

  • Exactly how strong, how effective, would you expect any elected leader to be when he’s inherited an economic sinkhole, a recalcitrant aging white populace, and two wars in which “victory” is only mentioned, even by hawks, in scare quotes?

  • Even if a president could overcome the above pressures, how could he ever go against a conventional wisdom – again, propagated by Woodward, his literary consumers, and presidents from time immemorial – that the president will do what his commanders recommend that he do...a  wisdom developed in direct contradiction of the US principle of civilian control over the military? A wisdom developed wholly for domestic political consumption, to signify that a president “stands behind” the troops?

No matter. Politics is the winning paradigm. Hence the lede of The Guardian’s Woodward story:

Barack Obama was forced into a major damage-limitation exercise today after a new book by veteran investigative reporter Bob Woodward painted a startling portrait of the strained relations between the White House and top US generals.

Note that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are a stage for the drama, the president and generals merely players. The metacontext – how will this hurt the president’s political prospects? – becomes the primary text. The play’s the thing. The wars? The nations? They have their entrances and exits. But the central drama goes on, and on, and on.

And in this sick genre, no one’s a more-celebrated dramatist than Bob Woodward. Having once told a solemn and sorry story of power gone amok, he’s relied on the same plot devices ever since, and the American polity’s gotten a little dumber and deafer for it, enthralled by electoral shiny things while ignoring the rot of politics and mainstream media.

And yet so strong is his hold that, compelled to answer Woodward, I’ve dwelled on him for 900 words. I too, am regrettably a part of the rot. Who knows? Perhaps in his next tell-all, I’ll show up in a Greek chorus. Or perhaps writing that sentence grossly overestimates my own significance to the conventional wisdom. For the sake of true wisdom, I hope the latter is the case.

Reader Comments (2)

Nice photo.

I'm going to cut.n.past some intell here:

Bob Woodward has consistently lied about his background ever since the first time anybody started asking who this person is. He came from Wheaton, Illinois. His father was a judge. He joined the Navy and became a communications officer, which is not Naval Intelligence per se. Naval intelligence is a separate organization. Communications officers are at the very highest level of receiving coded and top secret information from around the world and they get it before anybody else does. It's up to them to relay this information to the people in power.

Woodward's and Bernstein's editor at Simon and Schuster, Alice Mayhew, urged them to "build up the Deep Throat character and make him interesting." According to the book, Ben Bradlee advised Carl to go hang out at a movie until after 5:00 p.m., then to call into the office, Carl went to see Deep Throat, hence the reason for the name "Deep Throat" having been given to Woodward's secret source. But there was no Deep Throat playing anywhere in D.C. at that time. In fact, the theaters were being very cautious, having recently been raided by law enforcement authorities. Not one theater in town was showing Deep Throat.

While it is now clearly known that at least one of Woodward's informants was, in fact, Robert Bennett, the suggestions from Colodny and Gettlin in Silent Coup about Al Haig and Deborah Davis's suggestions in Katherine the Great about Richard Ober may not be contradictory. Other names that have been suggested have included Walter Sheridan (Jim Hougan in Spooks) and Bobby Ray Inman (also in Spooks). If there is no "person" who was known as "Deep Throat", it is possible that any or all of the above were passing along information, explicitly not to be sourced or credited to them in any way, on deep background.

History professor Joan Hoff of Montana State University, an expert on the Watergate scandal, finds it interesting that Bob Woodward is now claiming that he had a close relationship with former FBI official Mark Felt, now identified as Deep Throat, when Felt suffers from serious health problems, including dementia, and can’t deny it. “It’s just like when he said he interviewed (former CIA director Bill) Casey when Casey was comatose.”

Woodward's 2002 book Bush At War, based partly on selected National Security Council documents leaked to him at White House instruction, was invaluable to the administration for its portrait of Bush as strong and decisive.

The night before Vice-President Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, was indicted on five counts of perjury and obstruction of justice, Woodward appeared on CNN and said: "I'm quite confident we're going to find out that it started as a kind of gossip ... There's a lot of innocent actions in all of this ... I don't know how this is about the build-up to the war." He expressed his sympathy for those who might be indicted: " ... what distresses me is, you know, so and so might be indicted and so and so is facing ... And it is not yet proven." He concluded with invective against Patrick Fitzgerald, "a junkyard dog prosecutor".

On November 16 Woodward admitted he had been called to testify on November 3 before the prosecutor, having been given up by a source after Libby's indictment. Woodward, it turned out, was the first journalist to learn Plame's identity.

[More research, less beltway ego rot]

Oct 1, 2010 at 7:17 | Unregistered CommenterLuther Blissette

Woodward has really been long removed from his Watergate reporting, instead becoming a stenographer for Washington insiders. Too bad.

Nov 4, 2010 at 10:02 | Unregistered Commentermichelle branch
Editor Permission Required
You must have editing permission for this entry in order to post comments.