A Portrait of Bush as a Victim of His Own Certitude
In Bob Woodward’s highly anticipated new book, “State of Denial,” President Bush emerges as a passive, impatient, sophomoric and intellectually incurious leader, presiding over a grossly dysfunctional war cabinet and given to an almost religious certainty that makes him disinclined to rethink or re-evaluate decisions he has made about the war. It’s a portrait that stands in stark contrast to the laudatory one Mr. Woodward drew in “Bush at War,” his 2002 book, which depicted the president — in terms that the White House press office itself has purveyed — as a judicious, resolute leader, blessed with the “vision thing” his father was accused of lacking and firmly in control of the ship of state.
As this new book’s title indicates, Mr. Woodward now sees Mr. Bush as a president who lives in a state of willful denial about the worsening situation in Iraq, a president who insists he won’t withdraw troops, even “if Laura and Barney are the only ones who support me.” (Barney is Mr. Bush’s Scottish terrier.) Mr. Woodward draws an equally scathing portrait of Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, who comes off as a bully and control freak who is reluctant to assume responsibility for his department’s failures, and who has surrounded himself with yes men and created a system that bleached out “strong, forceful military advice.” Mr. Rumsfeld remains wedded to his plan to conduct the war in Iraq with a lighter, faster force (reflecting his idée fixe of “transforming” the military), even as the situation there continues to deteriorate.
Mr. Woodward reports that after the 2004 election Andrew H. Card Jr., then White House chief of staff, pressed for Mr. Rumsfeld’s ouster (he recommended former Secretary of State James A. Baker III as a replacement), and that Laura Bush shared his concern, worrying that Mr. Rumsfeld was hurting her husband’s reputation. Vice President Dick Cheney, however, persuaded Mr. Bush to stay the course with Mr. Cheney’s old friend Mr. Rumsfeld, arguing that any change might be perceived as an expression of doubt and hesitation on the war. Other members of the administration also come off poorly. Gen. Richard B. Myers is depicted as a weak chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who routinely capitulated to the will of Mr. Rumsfeld and who rarely offered an independent opinion. Former C.I.A. director George J. Tenet is described as believing that the war against Iraq was a terrible mistake, but never expressing his feelings to the president. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (who appears in this volume primarily in her former role as national security adviser) is depicted as a presidential enabler, ineffectual at her job of coordinating interagency strategy and planning.
For instance, Mr. Woodward writes that on July 10, 2001, Mr. Tenet and his counterterrorism coordinator, J. Cofer Black, met with Ms. Rice to warn her of mounting intelligence about an impending terrorist attack, but came away feeling they’d been given “the brush-off” — a revealing encounter, given Ms. Rice’s recent comments, rebutting former President Bill Clinton’s allegations that the Bush administration had failed to pursue counterterrorism measures aggressively before 9/11.
As depicted by Mr. Woodward, this is an administration in which virtually no one will speak truth to power, an administration in which the traditional policy-making process involving methodical analysis and debate is routinely subverted. He notes that experts — who recommended higher troop levels in Iraq, warned about the consequences of disbanding the Iraqi Army or worried about the lack of postwar planning— were continually ignored by the White House and Pentagon leadership, or themselves failed, out of cowardice or blind loyalty, to press insistently their case for an altered course in the war.
Mr. Woodward describes the administration’s management of the war as being improvisatory and ad hoc, like a pickup basketball game, and argues that it continually tried to give the public a rosy picture of the war in Iraq (while accusing the press of accentuating the negative), even as its own intelligence was pointing to a rising number of attacks against American forces and an upward spiral of violence. A secret February 2005 report by Philip D. Zelikow, a State Department counselor, found that “Iraq remains a failed state shadowed by constant violence and undergoing revolutionary political change” and concluded that the American effort there suffered because it lacked a comprehensive, unified policy.
Startlingly little of this overall picture is new, of course. Mr. Woodward’s portrait of Mr. Bush as a prisoner of his own certitude owes a serious debt to a 2004 article in The New York Times Magazine by the veteran reporter Ron Suskind, just as his portrait of the Pentagon’s incompetent management of the war and occupation owes a serious debt to “Fiasco,” the Washington Post reporter Thomas E. Ricks’s devastating account of the war, published this summer. Other disclosures recapitulate information contained in books and articles by other journalists and former administration insiders.
But if much of “State of Denial” simply ratifies the larger outline of the Bush administration’s bungled handling of the war as laid out by other reporters, Mr. Woodward does flesh out that narrative with new illustrations and some telling details that enrich the reader’s understanding of the inner workings of this administration at this critical moment.
He reports, for instance, that the Vietnam-era Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger “had a powerful, largely invisible influence on the foreign policy of the Bush administration,” urging President Bush and Vice President Cheney to stick it out. According to Mr. Woodward, Mr. Kissinger gave the former Bush adviser and speechwriter Michael Gerson his so-called 1969 salted peanut memo, which warned President Richard M. Nixon that “withdrawal of U.S. troops will become like salted peanuts to the American public; the more U.S. troops come home, the more will be demanded.”
As with Mr. Woodward’s earlier books, many of his interviews were conducted on background, though, from the point of view of particular passages, it’s often easy for the reader to figure out just who his sources were. In some cases he recreates conversations seemingly based on interviews with only one of the participants. The former Saudi Arabian ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Mr. Card, Mr. Tenet, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage and Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adviser (to Bush senior), appear to be among the author’s primary sources.
Whereas Mr. Woodward has tended in the past to stand apart from his narrative, rarely pausing to analyze or assess the copious material he has gathered, he is more of an active agent in this volume — perhaps in a kind of belated mea culpa for his earlier positive portrayals of the administration. In particular, he inserts himself into interviews with Mr. Rumsfeld — clearly annoyed, even appalled, by the Pentagon chief’s cavalier language and reluctance to assume responsibility for his department’s failures.
Mr. Woodward reports that when he told Mr. Rumsfeld that the number of insurgent attacks was going up, the defense secretary replied that they’re now “categorizing more things as attacks.” Mr. Woodward quotes Mr. Rumsfeld as saying, “A random round can be an attack and all the way up to killing 50 people someplace. So you’ve got a whole fruit bowl of different things — a banana and an apple and an orange.”
Mr. Woodward adds: “I was speechless. Even with the loosest and most careless use of language and analogy, I did not understand how the secretary of defense would compare insurgent attacks to a ‘fruit bowl,’ a metaphor that stripped them of all urgency and emotion. The official categories in the classified reports that Rumsfeld regularly received were the lethal I.E.D.’s, standoff attacks with mortars and close engagements such as ambushes.”
Earlier in the volume, in a section describing the former Iraq administrator Jay Garner’s reluctance to tell the president about the mistakes he saw the Pentagon making in Iraq, Mr. Woodward writes: “It was only one example of a visitor to the Oval Office not telling the president the whole story or the truth. Likewise, in these moments where Bush had someone from the field there in the chair beside him, he did not press, did not try to open the door himself and ask what the visitor had seen and thought. The whole atmosphere too often resembled a royal court, with Cheney and Rice in attendance, some upbeat stories, exaggerated good news and a good time had by all.” Were the war in Iraq not a real war that has resulted in more than 2,700 American military casualties and more than 56,000 Iraqi civilian deaths, the picture of the Bush administration that emerges from this book might resemble a farce. It’s like something out of “The Daily Show” or a “Saturday Night Live” sketch, with Freudian Bush family dramas and high-school-like rivalries between cabinet members who refuse to look at one another at meetings being played out on the world stage.
There’s the president, who once said, “I don’t have the foggiest idea about what I think about international, foreign policy,” deciding that he’s going to remake the Middle East and alter the course of American foreign policy. There’s his father, former President George Herbert Walker Bush (who went to war against the same country a decade ago), worrying about the wisdom of another war but reluctant to offer his opinions to his son because he believes in the principle of “let him be himself.” There’s the president’s national security adviser whining to him that the defense secretary won’t return her phone calls. And there’s the president and Karl Rove, his chief political adviser, trading fart jokes.
Mr. Woodward suggests that Mr. Rumsfeld decided to make the Iraq war plan “his personal project” after seeing a rival agency, the C.I.A., step up to run operations in Afghanistan (when it became clear that the Pentagon was unprepared for a quick invasion of that country, right after 9/11). And he suggests that President Bush chose Mr. Rumsfeld as his defense secretary, in part, because he knew his father mistrusted Mr. Rumsfeld, and the younger Bush wanted to prove his father wrong.
Many of the people in this book seem not only dismayed but also flummoxed by some of President Bush’s decisions. Mr. Woodward quotes Laura Bush as telling Andrew Card that she doesn’t understand why her husband isn’t upset about Mr. Rumsfeld and the uproar over his handling of the war . And he quotes Mr. Armitage as telling former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell that he’s baffled by President Bush’s reluctance to make adjustments in his conduct of the war.
“Has he thought this through?” Mr. Armitage asks. “What the president says in effect is, We’ve got to press on in honor of the memory of those who have fallen. Another way to say that is we’ve got to have more men fall to honor the memories of those who have already fallen.”
WASHINGTON - The impassioned debate that seems to surround each new book by Bob Woodward burst into public view yesterday, two days ahead of schedule.
The unveiling of "State of Denial," Woodward's latest take on the Bush administration's struggle with the conflict in Iraq, scrambled the usual media alliances. The New York Times ran a front-page exclusive on a book by a journalist for The Washington Post -- which begins running excerpts tomorrow -- and Brian Williams led "NBC Nightly News" with a story based on advance tidbits put out by CBS's "60 Minutes," which airs its Woodward interview tomorrow.
For several years now, liberal critics have been denigrating Woodward as a high-level stenographer for an administration they detest, even as his last two books have also revealed information that embarrassed the White House. But this new volume -- written, unlike the others, without access to President Bush -- has media and political circles buzzing about whether the one-time Watergate sleuth has suddenly gotten tougher on the administration.
"I found out new things, as is always the case when you re-plow old ground," Woodward said. "The bulk of them I discovered this year. I wish I'd had some of them for the earlier books, but I didn't."
Woodward said he pushed repeatedly to interview Bush, who actually suggested that he write the book "Plan of Attack." But White House counselor Dan Bartlett and national security adviser Stephen Hadley, after a period of cooperation, told him an interview was unlikely and then stopped returning his calls. In the new book, Woodward attributes the lack of a presidential interview -- which has the effect of removing a strong counterweight to criticism of the White House -- to Bush's declining popularity.
Bartlett said yesterday that he and other officials, while cooperating, noticed "a different tone and tenor to this project. . . . Some pretty hard conclusions had already formed in Bob's mind. So we made the judgment that the third time was not a charm." The book's "gossipy" aspects will titillate the cocktail party circuit, Bartlett said, but "the underlying issues are ones covered by a half-dozen books before his."
Tsunami of publicity
What accounts for the tsunami of publicity? Three decades after he was portrayed by Robert Redford in the movie version of the Watergate book "All the President's Men," Woodward has become a bankable commodity, his books virtually guaranteed to generate headlines and top bestseller lists.
But for all his popularity and credibility, Woodward has seen his reputation has taken a bit of a scuffing as detractors have assailed his recent books as too sympathetic toward Bush, Vice President Cheney and other officials who have cooperated with him. Woodward also apologized to The Post in November for failing to disclose for more than two years that an administration official had told him about Valerie Plame's status as a CIA operative, a silence he attributed to trying to avoid a subpoena from the special prosecutor investigating the leak.
The very title of "State of Denial" suggests a more sharp-edged approach than "Bush at War" or "Plan of Attack," although the latter, in particular, contained revelations about the administration that were seized upon by John Kerry's presidential campaign after its 2004 release. But the narrative pushed by Woodward's critics was that of a journalist who was an outsider while digging into the Nixon White House but had since become wealthy, famous and too cozy with those in the Bush White House.
The dominant theme of the new book -- that the administration was torn by internal divisions over Iraq and failed to recognize its blunders -- could prompt a reassessment of Woodward's work.
"In my view, his reputation had suffered from the first two books on the Bush administration, and I believe he's a very smart guy and he knows that," said Jay Rosen, a New York University journalism professor. "I think he was used to put out a narrative that was radically incomplete."
"Obviously he's more critical of the president, but this comes at a point when the war has gone on as long as World War II," said Times columnist Frank Rich, a fierce Bush critic.
Said Bob Kuttner, co-executive editor of the liberal American Prospect: "Either Bob was shamed into using his tremendous reporting talent to explain what was really going on, or he felt foolish in light of what was written before and what was subsequently unearthed."
On the conservative side, Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, said of the new book: "I don't know whether that's where his reporting led him or whether it's more fashionable to be anti-Bush in 2006 than in 2002. I don't see what the big revelations are, and I don't see this changing anyone's mind in November."
Asked about criticism that he has gone easy on the Bush team in the past, Woodward said: "Anyone who's read the books would realize that it's unfounded. All of the three books are reported, and this is what I found."
Some commentators have maintained that those who cooperate with Woodward fare better in his narratives. In this case, however, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- who had to be ordered by Bush to cooperate with "Plan of Attack" -- granted two on-the-record interviews. Yet Rumsfeld is portrayed as "an arrogant, indecisive bumbler who won't take responsibility for his mistakes," as the New York Daily News, which also obtained an advance copy of the book, put it.
Book embargo busted
Yesterday's publication by the Times and Daily News -- Times reporter Julie Bosman bought her copy and, in what is usually a sin in New York, paid retail -- caused plenty of head-shaking in The Post newsroom, where numerous staffers wondered how the paper was beaten on a book by its own assistant managing editor. The Post quickly published a news story online yesterday morning.
Leonard Downie Jr., The Post's executive editor, said the book was "fair game" for any competitor and that he probably should have moved faster after "60 Minutes" issued a press release on the book Thursday.
"We weren't prohibited from doing it; I just didn't think to do it," Downie said. "I was sort of upset with myself for not having decided yesterday to just do a story. . . . I'm somewhat surprised at how much commotion the release of the book has caused."
Newsweek, a Washington Post Co. property, is still planning a cover-story excerpt for tomorrow. Editor Jon Meacham said he was "not surprised" by the leak. "The exclusive excerpts game has been changed over the last five to 10 years, and it's very hard to protect any book after it's shipped from the publisher."
While the Times was scooping The Post -- in part by keeping the story off its Web site until the middle of the night -- NBC was beating CBS by using footage of the "60 Minutes" interview posted on CBS's Web site. "We knew a story when we heard one, and we found a way to cover it," NBC anchor Williams said. "We unabashedly threw CBS's logo up on the air."
NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell had signed a confidentiality agreement in exchange for an advance copy, Williams said, so "she recused herself from any discussions."
"60 Minutes" spokesman Kevin Tedesco was unperturbed, saying: "Ultimately it all adds to the buzz, and hopefully more viewers for Sunday's broadcast."
Times reporter David Sanger, who wrote his paper's story, said Woodward books are always news. "As someone who covers the White House, I can only view this with admiration," Sanger said. "He's got some fabulous supporting details and great scenes. Did we all know there was tension between Condoleezza Rice and Don Rumsfeld? Yes. Did we know the president told him to return her calls? No."
The busting of book embargoes is becoming common practice. After all, the Associated Press obtained an advance copy of "Plan of Attack" before The Post ran its excerpts. (Woodward was also scooped by Vanity Fair last year on the identity of Deep Throat, but that stemmed from his decision that one-time FBI official Mark Felt was no longer mentally competent to release him from a 33-year-old pledge of confidentiality.)
The Post was the aggressive party in 2003 when, on the heels of the AP, the paper obtained an advance copy of Hillary Rodham Clinton's autobiography before it was serialized in Time. A year later, Newsweek, the Times and the AP got hold of Bill Clinton's memoir before an exclusive Time interview with the former president.
When Newsweek had the rights to "Dutch," Edmund Morris's 1999 biography of Ronald Reagan, The Post scooped its sister publication by coming up with a copy. In 1995, Newsweek's Meacham obtained a manuscript of Colin Powell's autobiography, prompting Time to slash the fee it paid Random House for the excerpts.
This time, Simon & Schuster, Woodward's publisher, responded to the leak by moving up the sale date for the book -- 825,000 copies have already been shipped -- from Monday to today. "We were completely blindsided by it," said publicity chief Victoria Meyer.
How does Woodward feel about his newspaper losing first crack at his book? "It's the world we live in," he said.