David Greenberg: Woodward Deserves the Praise He Is Now Getting from Critics Who Doubted His Approach in Bush at War

Roundup: Historians' Take

David Greenberg, in the Boston Globe (May 2, 2004):

FORGET FOR A MINUTE, if you can, the last fortnight of publicity for Bob Woodward's "Plan of Attack." Think back to November 2002 and the release of "Bush at War," his account of White House decision-making just after the Sept. 11 attacks. Like Woodward's previous 10 books, that volume was a bestseller, logging 20 weeks on the New York Times list, devoured by a public craving news of how Bush and his circle waged the war in Afghanistan.

Like many of Woodward's books, however, "Bush at War" fared less well among the chattering classes. Once the darling of the left for helping to expose the Watergate scandal, Woodward has, with each of his bestsellers, drawn increasing criticism from pundits and reviewers, especially those of the liberal intellectual stripe. Over the years they have honed a bill of indictment against Woodward and his methods, to which "Bush at War" was dutifully subjected in 2002.

In a pig-pile of negative reviews (amid some countervailing raves), big guns from Eric Alterman to Christopher Hitchens to Anthony Lewis rehashed the tiresome litany: By reporting but not analyzing his scoops, they charged, Woodward left the reader unsure of what to make of it all. By reconstructing quotations based on people's memories of what they said, they alleged, he violated standard journalistic practices. Worst of all, they griped, he got spun by his sources; by interviewing mainly Bush's own aides, in that instance, he had rendering a one-sided and unduly flattering portrait of the president.

Then, this spring, a funny thing happened. Former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke published his own book, "Against All Enemies," which slammed Bush as delinquent before 9/11 in confronting the danger posed by Al Qaeda. The White House then launched a ruthless campaign to discredit Clarke. Suddenly, those liberal pundits and reviewers who had disparaged "Bush at War" as hagiography -- and Woodward as a mere stenographer to the powerful -- began leafing through their copies for evidence to bolster Clarke's claims that the president had raced to invade Iraq and neglected the more urgent fight against Al Qaeda.

The turnabout on "Bush at War" was as widespread as it was sudden. New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani, for example, who in November 2002 faulted the book as "incomplete, provisional and sometimes highly selective," nevertheless found it useful last month in commending Clarke's memoir. "Against All Enemies," Kakutani noted, gained credibility from Bush's confession to Woodward that he "was not on point" and "didn't feel that sense of urgency" about terrorism before Sept. 11. Others noted additionally that "Bush at War" had shown key administration officials to have been bent on invading Iraq just hours after the Twin Towers fell.

Now, with "Plan of Attack," Woodward has advanced further into the good graces of his former critics. The rediscovery of Woodward's virtues that began with the fresh look at "Bush at War" has climaxed with the chorus of huzzahs for this second volume. Robert Sam Anson, writing in The New York Observer, cheered that like "Clark Kent finally finding a phone booth, the Bob Woodward of yore -- the one Robert Redford played in `All the President's Men' -- has returned." "An astonishing book," raved Robert Scheer in The Los Angeles Times. "Well, Bob Woodward has redeemed himself," declared Eric Alterman in The Nation. While "Bush at War" read like "a superhero comic book mistranslated from its original Serbo-Croatian," he continued, Woodward's latest "expands our understanding" of how the Bush administration goes about "making their catastrophic decisions and then denying them."...

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