David Greenberg: The Merits of Bob Woodward's State of Denial

Roundup: Talking About History

Dear David C.,

I'm pleased to have this debate with you as well, and I hope that, despite our differences, we can have a civil and enlightening exchange. I'll make some general remarks, then respond to some specifics.

Like you--and like most TNR readers, I suspect--I've been consistently outraged by Bush's rhetoric and policies. The columnists I admire most include people like Frank Rich and Sidney Blumenthal who bring insight and rigor to their criticisms of Bush's disastrous presidency. I say this to let readers know that I'm writing as an ideologically kindred soul to the many liberal pundits who have been bashing Woodward for years (long before his Bush books). But, on the issue of assessing Woodward's work, I part company from the liberal conventional wisdom.

The main critique of Woodward from liberals (and some others) has hardened into what now strikes me a cliché of elite punditry. In essence, the beef is that Woodward's reportorial skills aren't matched by an equal analytical prowess--or even by an inclination to interpret his material. As a result, it's alleged, he's too credulous toward his sources' accounts or too immersed in the weeds to see the big picture.

I've argued elsewhere why I think this critique is off-base. I offer this 2004 Boston Globe article to readers, since I can't restate the whole argument here. But let me address a few issues.

Having worked with Woodward early in my career, as his assistant on The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House, I know firsthand that the claim he gets spun is one made from ignorance. (He remains a good friend.) Woodward interviews as many players involved in his story as is humanly possible. He doesn't trade on access, as is often alleged--he has no more access than you or I--but works hard to cultivate sources and convince reluctant officials to open up. Each source offers his own take on events; many, perhaps, fancy that they will outwit the master. But they forget that Woodward is talking to other people, too, who have different accounts of what happened. By getting multiple versions, Woodward can compare and contrast and separate spin from fact.

Let's not forget either that his sources often come to regret what they say to him--or simply don't realize how their own words come across. Just ask George Stephanopoulos, who, in his memoir, copped to the hubris of thinking he could spin Woodward. Or, for that matter, just ask Donald Rumsfeld.

Still, one might ask, isn't it fair to charge that Woodward misses the big picture? It depends what you mean. On any given subject, we consistently learn more from Woodward's books than we did from the daily reporting. If journalism is the first draft of history, Woodward's books are the second draft. He adds indispensable detail. In Plan of Attack, Woodward revealed the vast preparations for invading Iraq that Bush, Rumsfeld, and General Tommy Franks were making as early as November 2001. The deception was apparent to anyone who cared to take note of it. The entire Washington press corps had missed this story for three years. The same could be said for Woodward's revelation in State of Denial that the administration has low-balled the level of violence in Iraq. Everyone else missed this story.

It's true that Woodward tries not to analyze, advocate, or editorialize much. While he's not naïve about the baggage that we all bring to our writing, he values the ideal of not taking sides in Washington's partisan wars. He lets readers draw their own conclusions. For those who like their reporting with a heavy dose of interpretation--a group that includes many of us who have strong ideological leanings and read journals of opinion like TNR, Slate, or The Nation--Woodward's studied neutrality can be frustrating.

By the same token, however, one rare virtue of his work is that readers across the political spectrum trust it. Today, too many books are published simply to tap into liberals' hatred of Bush or conservatives' hatred of liberals. Woodward's are among the few that are read (or appreciated) not by people who want their preexisting views confirmed but by those seeking to learn about how key high-level decisions were made.

Of course, that doesn't stop some people from reading his books through the lenses of their ideology. And here's where I think my liberal compatriots go astray. They want Woodward to take down Bush much as they imagine he took down Nixon. They read into his work judgments that aren't there....

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