Bob Woodward: Stenographer to the stars

With his new insider book on Campaign '96, America's foremost investigative reporter once again demonstrates the hollow core of "access" journalism.

Topics: Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Washington Post,

over a decade ago, I worked on an article for the Outlook section of the
Washington Post. The piece concerned a new theory of the motive for
the Watergate break-in — the missing element in a story of which we know the
who, the where, the what and the when but (still) not the why. Robert Kaiser,
now managing editor of the paper, was the man in charge of Outlook and quite liked
my little effort. We were about to conclude business when he decided to make one
last call. It was an internal one. “Bob,” he whispered to me, before going on to give the world’s most famous reporter a pr&eacutecis
of my hypothesis. Kaiser listened for a short time and then hung up. Turning to me, he said, in effect, that
Woodward didn’t buy it. He didn’t say why, nor did Woodward, and I’m not
resentful or anything because the piece did eventually make print elsewhere and
has since been much reprinted. I tell the story to illustrate in miniature
something that is applicable on a wider scale — the role of Bob Woodward as a
gatekeeper in the nation’s capital and at the capital’s most powerful newspaper.

Had I come into Kaiser’s office and claimed to have conducted a deathbed interview
with William Casey, in which the old brute implicitly confirmed everything I had
written by uttering the cryptic words, “I believed,” I would have been brusquely
(and deservedly) told to take my custom elsewhere. But that’s the thing about
being a gatekeeper. You are Janus, and just as you can kill a story that meets
the ordinary test of “objectivity,” so you can also print one that flagrantly
flouts that standard. Did I say I wasn’t jealous or resentful? Perhaps I lied
a little. Who would not wish to have such freedom?



But I think that if I had it, I might make more use of it. There are various kinds of
journalism, of which the best known are the “color” or descriptive, the “objective”
or reportorial, and the “muckraking” or investigative. There’s also a new kind,
peculiar to Washington, which might be termed “access” or insider journalism. This
method involves a trade-off between sources and methods, where anonymously-donated
high-grade information will at least ensure that the source has his or her side of
the story narrated. There’s nothing intrinsically dubious about this proceeding,
which is very often the only way of composing that “first draft on history” which is
the proper ambition of journalism. (A lot of people believe, indeed, that
Woodward and Bernstein’s original Watergate story was not a triumph of shoe-leather and
sleuthing but a masterly spinning of the Post by well-placed anti-Nixonian
forces.)


Not counting his books on the decline and fall of John Belushi and the machinations of the
Supreme Court, Woodward has since given us five conjunctural chronicles
of turning points in Washington. In “Veil” he tried to profile the hidden
workings of the national security state; in “The Commanders” he wrote about the
politics of the Persian Gulf War; in “The Man Who Would Be President,” co-authored
with David Broder, he proposed serious consideration of J. Danforth Quayle as a
successor to the Reagan-Bush tradition and in “The Agenda” he captured the
chaotic early stages of the Clinton-Gore presidency. And now we have “The Choice,”
a book about this year’s riveting cliffhanger of an election. (One might note in
passing that Woodward himself makes this count four, not five. The Quayle book, of
which more later, has been “disappeared” from the flyleaf directory of Woodward’s key
ouevre as proudly presented in the latest volume.)

I have all of Woodward’s books and often use them for reference. I have learned a good
deal from reading them. One thing I have learned is that access journalism is not a
one-way street. Take the case of “Veil,” published as Woodward’s “take” on the
Iran-Contra imbroglio. One of the few statements of literal truth ever made by Ronald
Reagan was that without “that rag in Beirut,” the whole scandal would have been kept
safely under wraps. In other words, the attempt to run a secret and private and illegal
foreign policy, with illegal funds and illegal personnel, was conducted under the
noses of a vast and prestigious and highly-paid Washington press corps, not least Bob
Woodward’s “investigative” team at the Post. A big investment of obfuscation was necessary to prevent people from
drawing the self-evident conclusion that this shadowy state within a state was run by none other than the President. And William Casey was the principal obfuscator.

Woodward may have thought he was drawing Casey out, but Casey — who procured a special
off-the-record apartment in which to meet with the celebrated reporter — undoubtedly thought
he was leading Woodward on. And it’s pretty obvious which of them was right. Woodward
may to some extent have made up for the colossal lapse in attention that had
characterized his paper’s attitude to the Iran-Contra dealings, but Casey had the last
laugh in contriving to present a high-level coup as a “rogue” operation.

Access journalism cannot be value-free because it involves playing, and rewarding,
favorites. In the case of “The Commanders” the favorite was Colin Powell (as if
the man were not the darling of the entire press already). In exchange for some fancy
butt-covering — which turned out not to be necessary since the Iraqis succumbed to
firepower so easily — Powell gave Woodward his version, backed up with some extremely
useful disclosures. The exercise of reading Woodward subsequently has been an exercise
in decoding, and is a preferred Washington indoor sport. Who gave him what, and why?
And at what price?

In the case of the Quayle book, there wasn’t much mystery. Woodward and his colleague
David Broder, dean of the punditocracy, acknowledged “twenty formal interviews”
(imagine!) with the Vice President himself, and “four lengthy conversations with his
wife, Marilyn Tucker Quayle.” Seldom can access have been more handsomely rewarded, as evidenced by this startling Woodward revelation:

“Quayle’s political aide, Jim Pitts, a South Carolinian and protege of the late Lee
Atwater, estimated recently that ‘of the 50 state chairmen, you could probably count
10 or 15 fall-on-your-sword Dan Quayle people, probably another 20 who are loyal to
whoever is the Republican vice president and probably five or six out there who are
just going to hate him, no matter what he does.’ A senior party official who works
closely with the state chairmen said Pitts may even be underestimating Quayle’s
strength.”

The book concluded with the thought that Quayle would still have to beat such
formidable “rivals as Baker, Jack Kemp, Richard B. Cheney, Senator Phil Gramm of Texas
and, doubtless, others.” Doubtless. Passages like the above are a handy reminder of the essential
shallowness and ephemerality of Washington journalism, and indeed of the ethereal
mediocrities that it purports to “cover” even as it acts as their megaphone.

This fault has of course been present in the two Clinton-era volumes from the Woodward
collection. Access journalism, you see, involves taking people at their own valuation. We
learn from “The Choice” that Bill Clinton “had taken his whole life personally,” which is one way of awarding a president a distinction. Clinton apparently didn’t cooperate,
but of those who did, those who confided most (like Al Gore) came out best. Gore is
even credited with changing Bill’s mind on Bosnia by making a husky appeal based on his
daughter’s TV-watching. I don’t think that will make it into the second draft on recent
history.

Postmodern literary theory has suggested that authors do not really “write” their books,
so much as evolve them in collaboration with their readers. I think that this effort
to deconstruct authorship is largely piffle. Still, Woodward is evidence of something
in the postmodern publishing game — an author whose books are written by his sources.
Take Mari Will, hired rhetorician to Bob Dole and wife of columnist George F. Will
(another stenographer to the rich and powerful). Both she and the Senator have obviously
been very helpful, with the result that Dole’s non-mental non-agony about his decision
to leave the Senate is written up as one of the most wrenching dilemmas since Elsinore
or Gethsemane. Reading the account carefully (caffeine pills near at hand), one forms
the conclusion that Dole made his Great Withdrawal from the Majority Leadership almost
entirely so that Woodward and others would have something to write about. The spin was
in place before the idea had been shaped. And Woodward probably knew about it before
it occurred — not the first time that he has deprived his newspaper of a scoop in order
to preserve material for a later customized book. “There is no writer like him,” bellows
the Simon & Schuster full-page ad. “No one with his access, his insight, his experience.”
All these claims are true in their own special way — especially the first one and, as we
have noted, the second. Access is all. Analysis and criticism are nowhere.

Above all, though, the method depends on taking “politics” itself at its own valuation.
For Woodward, campaign officials and pollsters and image-carpenters are all who they
say they are. This by contrast, for example, with campaign donors, who make no
appearance in the book at all unless you count one passing reference to Dwayne Andreas.
Listen to this:

“Presidential elections are defining moments that go way beyond legislative programs
or the role of the government. They are measuring points for the country that call
forth a range of questions which each candidate must try to address. Who are we? What
matters? Where are we going? In the private and public actions of the candidates are
embedded their best answers.”

And if you believe that, Sir, as the Duke of Wellington once riposted, you will believe
any damn thing. Prose like this is not just a matter of unbearable triteness. It is a
negation of the pretense of “objectivity” that is supposedly the guarantee of
mainstream journalism. It involves taking the ideology of the powers that be and
pumping it straight through the recycling system that is the daily press. I’m glad to
know about Hillary’s New Age drivelings (of which I had a suspicion) and Dick Morris’
“bipartisan” manipulations (about which I already knew). I am touched to see the
acknowledgement on page 439 to Rosa Criollo, who “again cared for and nurtured us at
home so well and with love.” A man who remembers to thank his maid is obviously a
believer in detail. But as it becomes ever clearer that vacuous Washington possesses
no “inside” and no core, so the role of the alleged “insider” becomes more and more a
matter of making bricks without straw.

Christopher Hitchens is a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, the Nation and Salon News.

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