Joe Conason's Journal

Bob Woodward (with Colin Powell's help?) exposes Bush's reliance on polling, his close relationship with Fox News and his failure in Afghanistan.

Published November 18, 2002 12:05PM (EST)

Bartley's boondoggle
To be accused of "hysteria and name-calling" by Robert L. Bartley -- the man who made the Wall Street Journal editorial page disreputable -- is like being called extreme by Tom DeLay.

In his column today reviewing liberal commentary about the midterm election, Bartley scolds me for remarking that "San Francisco Democrat" is a gay-baiting code phrase. He doesn't attempt to argue the point, as Andrew Sullivan at least tries to do. (Sullivan does forthrightly concede, "There's no question that if you use the words 'San Francisco Anything,' some people will immediately think of homosexuals." Especially if you happen to be Dick "Barney Fag" Armey.)

Aside from paying me the compliment of inclusion among such writers as Garrison Keillor, Molly Ivins, Helen Thomas, Bob Herbert and Paul Krugman, Bartley describes me as someone who "made his mark by volunteering for the grimy task of defending Bill Clinton ..."

Actually, the grimy task at hand was cleaning up the nasty mess dumped into our public discourse during the past decade by Bartley and his associates, among others, under the rubric of "Whitewater." That was no minor endeavor. What his page's journalism lacked in quality, Bartley sought to compensate with quantity, eventually filling several phone book-size volumes with reprinted material that ballyhooed phony scandals and indicted innocent bystanders.

He shouldn't fret that his own impressive record of "name-calling" and "hysteria" will be surpassed.
[3:12 p.m. PST, Nov. 18, 2002]

What Woodward heard
Whether or not you're an admirer of Bob Woodward's post-Watergate journalism, don't skip the Washington Post series culled from his new book. Despite the reporter's usual opacity and vague sourcing, it is clear enough that his chief source among many is again Colin Powell (indeed "Bush at War" might as well have been titled "The Commanders: A Sequel"). And from Powell's point of view, Woodward reveals important details of the White House struggle over Iraq, what went wrong in Afghanistan and what kind of president George W. Bush really is.

Toward the bottom of last Friday's table-setting story on the Woodward book by Mike Allen, for example, the reader learns that Bush was "preoccupied by public perceptions of the war, looking at polling data from Rove, now his senior adviser, even after pretending to have no interest." How remarkable to be told so bluntly about this Bush obsession -- after hearing so many blabbermouths on cable TV and in opinion columns insist that this president, unlike his predecessor, "doesn't care about polls." The difference between Clinton and Bush isn't that one doesn't care about polls and the other did. The difference is that Clinton never pretended that polling data wasn't part of his political work, and didn't expect anyone on his staff to lie about such trivia. (This matrix of deception is likewise exposed in Woodward's scoop about the back-channel advice on public opinion provided to the White House by Fox News chief Roger Ailes. An old Bush family employee, Ailes runs a network that frequently promotes the false but uplifting notion that Bush has no interest in polls.)

Today's front-page excerpt clarifies how Bush's policy failed to achieve American objectives in Afghanistan, although Woodward never quite states it bluntly. Based on bombing and bribery, without committing ground troops, the White House's cheap Afghan strategy permitted Osama bin Laden to escape -- even though Woodward says the CIA understood its mission to include the killing of the al-Qaida leader and as many of his followers as possible. "Get bin Laden, find him. I want his head in a box ... I want to take it down and show the president," the agency's counterterror chief told the veteran operative who led the Afghan effort. Later, of course, the White House realized that bin Laden is "just one man" who "doesn't really matter." That was after he got away.
[9:02 a.m. PST, Nov. 18, 2002]

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