Only the Shadow knows

As another Woodward bombshell hits Washington, the daggers come out for one of America's most famous journalists.

Published June 18, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

We sure cut Bob Woodward a lot of journalistic slack.

Not all of us, of course. Controversy about the Washington Post's stellar celebrity snoop's unfathomable access to private conversations in the halls of power rears its head nearly every time he churns out one of his bestsellers. This week that controversy surrounds his new book, "Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate," which hit stores a few days ago.

The reaction to "Shadow" has followed the typical post-Woodward-book-release script: 1) Book hits the stands and the Washington Post excerpts it. 2) Reporters regurgitate the most titillating tidbits, usually missing the point of the tome's larger thesis. 3) Woodward's sourcing is questioned -- either for anonymity, for single-sourcing or for the supposedly unvetted hidden agendas of his informants. 4) The book becomes a bestseller. 5) Years later, after the administration in question has ended, or key players have died, Woodward's accounts are verified.

We are currently somewhere between phases 3 and 4. In "Shadow," Woodward once again titillates his readers by worming his ear near the lips whispering the most private conversations in the world.

President Clinton tells a friend that, post-Monica, his marriage "will never be the same." Clinton calls FBI Director Louis Freeh a "goddamn fucking asshole!" Hillary tells a friend, "I've got to take this. I have to take this punishment. I don't know why God has chosen this for me, but he has and it will be revealed to me. God is doing this, and he knows the reason. There is some reason."

Judge Susan Wright tells Paula Jones' lawyers, "Everyone in Arkansas knows he plays around, but you'll never get 12 people to believe he harassed her." Upon hearing the president's "oral-ain't-immoral" protestation, Clinton attorney Bob Bennett says, "You can't do this. It's insanity ... These distinctions are absurd. This crap won't fly with anyone ... It's awful, awful advice." He goes on to tell his client, "Mr. President, I find your explanation about one of these women, frankly, unbelievable. This is what impeachment is made of."

Good stuff, no? But Woodward argues that by getting stuck on some juicy news hooks, some reporters have missed his larger thesis. "I would argue that the book asks, 'How do presidents [post-Watergate] deal with investigations, scandals, mistakes, questions about their behavior -- from policies to their personal lives, to foreign policy to pardons," Woodward says. "It is a new world that the presidency lives and exists in. If somebody says, 'What's the big deal?' I say, 'The presidency has changed ... and presidents after [Nixon] didn't get it.' So this ducking and dodging and not coming clean, this absence of straight talk, this has had a debilitating effect on the White House, the presidents, their aides and the country."

Still, critics continue to ask what Woodward gives up in exchange for these oft-unattributed retellings. Many reporters argue that one unnamed source for these conversations is not enough to justify dropping his transcripts into the teletype of history. Some say he often gets spun in exchange for the access, buying too readily into his source's agenda-sullied point-of-view. And hardcore anti-Woodward stalwarts ludicrously maintain that Watergate's fabled "Deep Throat" is an amalgam at best, or an invention at worst.

This time around, the recounting of the Bennett-Clinton conversations alone has raised a legal question that goes beyond parlor-room gossip about who the next generation of baby Deep Throats might be. On Wednesday, ABC News' Sam Donaldson asked White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart, "If Bennett didn't violate attorney-client privilege, who would have said that? Because, as you pointed out in an earlier question, there might have been only two people in the room."

"Sam, maybe you should have Mr. Woodward on your program on Sunday and ask him that question directly," Lockhart replied. "The president did not talk to Mr. Woodward. I suggest you ask Mr. Bennett the circumstances of how Mr. Woodward may have acquired that information." The White House would have no further comment.

"The question is the quality of the information," Woodward said in an interview with Salon News. "The information has turned out to be correct, going back to Watergate and going through all of these stories. Look at the recent one, 'The Agenda'" -- the sourcing for which Woodward argues has been verified by others. "In [former White House aide George] Stephanopoulos' book, he tells kind of the whole story about how everyone cooperated with me, including the president and the first lady."

Indeed, Woodward had his facts straight on Nixon, and he's been right ever since. He occupies a higher journalistic plane than the rest of us, and is granted access like no other reporter. And he's proven himself to be reliable -- time and time again.

"In my limited experiences with Woodward, he's been accurate," says the Weekly Standard's William Kristol, a source for Woodward's book on Dan Quayle's vice presidency. "He's a good reporter."

Woodward says that people talk to him because they know he has the time to get it right -- which is also part of the reason these seemingly unattainable sources show him a little leg. "I have the significant luxury of time, which enables me to really look at something in depth," he says. "I can go to people and then go to other people, and then go back and track and try to develop a documentary trail. I have time; most reporters don't have time. Like you, for instance," he said to me, "when you called me you said you had a tight deadline [for this story]. I don't have that."

That hasn't stopped the same old anti-Woodward arguments from being resurrected. Timothy Noah, in Tuesday's Chatterbox column for Slate, noted that "based on Woodward's own accounting of his sourcing methods, this reportage could never have found its way into the New York Times." While Slate docks Woodward for his methods, however, it doesn't once question the accuracy of his work.

The criticisms have dogged Woodward since Watergate. Take, for example, the story of President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger praying on their knees as recounted in "The Final Days," which Woodward penned with his Watergate partner, Carl Bernstein. The night before Nixon resigned, the Washington Post's then-wunderkinder wrote,

The President broke down and sobbed ... He was hysterical. "Henry," he said, "you are not a very Orthodox Jew, and I am not an orthodox Quaker, but we need to pray." Nixon got down on his knees. Kissinger felt he had no alternative but to kneel down, too. The President prayed out loud, asking for help, rest, peace and love ... And then, still sobbing, Nixon leaned over, striking his fist on the carpet, crying: "What have I done? What has happened?" Kissinger touched the President, and then held him, tried to console him, to bring rest and peace to the man who was curled on the carpet like a child.

The passage was highlighted for ridicule in an accusatory U.S. News & World Report article in April 1976. "There is dispute about the truth of these reporters' allegations -- and the way they are written," assailed the U.S. News story. "The authors relate, in eyewitness fashion, events which occurred behind closed doors. They give what appear to be direct quotations from talks that were not recorded or heard by outsiders. Often, even unspoken thoughts of participants are described. The result is a book that reads more like a novel than a news report."

Absolution came when both Kissinger's and Nixon's memoirs later recounted the same story. Of course, U.S. News & World Report failed to give the verification similar play.

Woodward's most controversial retelling, however, was penned for "Veil," when he interviewed former CIA Director William Casey on his deathbed, in room C6316 at Georgetown University Hospital, and asked him whether he knew about the diversion of funds to the Contras:

His head jerked up hard. He stared, and finally nodded yes.

"Why?" I asked.

"I believed."


"I believed."

Then he was asleep, and I didn't get to ask another question.

Again, Woodward came under attack. "Did a Dead Man Tell No Tales? A furor erupts over the disclosures in a book about Bill Casey's CIA," wrote Richard Zoglin in the Oct. 12, 1987, Time magazine. "Not since Charles Foster Kane's immortal 'Rosebud' has a deathbed utterance caused such a stir ... It was the perfect ending for Woodward's dramatic spy saga. Too perfect, in the view of some." Time quoted then-President Reagan as calling the book an "awful lot of fiction."

The fact that Casey had died made verification of the story impossible. But as is often the case when you concentrate on the sizzle instead of the steak, much of the media missed the meat. The debate over Woodward's access to the hospital room, Casey's widow's denial that Woodward had been there and the melodrama of the "X-Files"-ish "I believe," overshadowed much bigger, far more alarming, information in "Veil." Namely, that Casey had helped set up the failed assassination attempt of Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah in a 1985 car bombing that killed 80 innocent Beirut suburbanites. Or, more importantly, that this nation has few checks and balances for wildly out-of-control CIA directors.

The fact is, strange shit happens in the world, and Woodward has an uncanny ability to get sources to dish the goods. His major source on "The Brethren" was Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, Woodward revealed after Stewart's death. Members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told tales out of school for "The Commanders." And Woodward augments his off-the-record interviews with plenty of verifications, document-checking and shoe-leather reporting. None of the charges against his reporting have ever stuck.

Regardless of his batting average, readers are alerted as to the special Woodward rules. When Woodward's books are excerpted by the Post, a special box accompanies each piece informing the reader that sourcing for the excerpt is different than for other stories. Not that Washington Post Outlook editor Steve Luxenburg -- a colleague and former deputy of Woodward's, who worked on two of these excerpts -- has any doubts about whether or not to trust the man once portrayed in film by Robert Redford.

"I know firsthand that these sources are all real," Luxenburg says. "I've seen the notes from his interviews which are extensive. And I believe, for most sophisticated readers of his books, you pretty much know who he was talking to."

"My problem is not with Woodward," says Kristol. "It's with the people who have genuinely confidential conversations with their bosses who seemed to have blabbed about them to Woodward."

But even if, like me, you take Woodward's accounts on faith, there are some deeper issues that have been raised about his work. In her scathing 1996 anti-Woodward screed in the New York Review of Books, for instance, Joan Didion wrote, "Woodward's rather eerie aversion to engaging the ramifications of what people say to him has been generally understood as an admirable quality, at best a mandarin modesty, at worst a kind of executive big-picture focus, the entirely justifiable oversight of someone with a more important game to play." Didion dismissed Woodward's ability to be critical, saying that "measurable cerebral activity is virtually absent" from his work. By allowing sources to paint themselves in his books at least partially in the way they see themselves, Didion says, Woodward is guilty of creating "political pornography."

That last clause alone is nice and juicy, and no doubt scored Didion plenty of hype, but it fails to address a few key points. First of all, any time a reporter uses an anonymous source -- which is standard for political reporting -- agendas are factored in. Even though Justice Stewart was the major source for "The Brethren," for instance, by the time of its publishing he didn't emerge as the narrative's white knight. Woodward is no suck-up, and even if he hasn't been as harsh as he could have been to his sources, you could fault the entire Washington press corps for that.

"I let people have their say," Woodward says, "but then you check everything and report what you think actually happened." It's called fairness, and reporters who aspire to be agenda-free themselves get tarnished with the brush of suck-up every time. You think Nixon thought Woodward a lackey? You think Clinton does?

Maybe his narratives are a tad dramatic. "Everything's just a couple of degrees more colorful than it really was," former CIA deputy chief Bobby Inman told Time magazine about "Veil" -- but that's not necessarily Woodward's fault. His sources fill his notebooks with the purple prose at least as much as Woodward does.

This vividness is the one aspect of Woodward's reporting that the Weekly Standard's Kristol does take issue with, particularly since the writing is often done weeks if not months after the actual events. "I guess you could question the 'verbatim' conversations in the books," Kristol says. "I don't know about you, but my memory isn't so great that I can recall conversations from three weeks ago, much less three years ago. Unless these people have perfect memories, or they walked out of the meetings and debriefed Woodward immediately," he says, the complete and utter accuracy is in question.

Though, of course, that's always a question unless the reporter was in the room.

Finally, there are some who look at Washington's cult of Woodward worship and say, "Who cares?" My friend and former boss David Carr, editor of the Washington City Paper, for example, recently wrote in Slate that what Woodward does is offer scintillating details of stories that are way beyond ancient history.

"The conceit that drives his work these days is that Woodward is a fly on the wall of history and that even though you know how the story turns out, you will stick around because YOU ARE THERE," Carr wrote. "It's autopsy, and unless you are thrilled by the music of recent history, these artifacts of epistemology might have you contemplating a quick nap before work, but dammit, remember, YOU ARE THERE."

Woodward seems to have grudgingly accepted his role as a focus for discussions of journalistic ethics, though he'd rather that his readers focus on more pressing, vital themes.

When I tell him about the Slate article, and say that some people are asking what the big deal is, Woodward says that "Shadow" reveals much more than a snoop's peak into Clinton's relationship with his wife or his attorney. It is an analysis of why and how the last five presidents have all been gripped with scandalosis.

"The 'big deal' is the functioning of the government," Woodward says. "But people are going to read in it what they want."

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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