Bush at War

by Bob Woodward

(Simon & Schuster) $28

All the President's Men, the great 1975 movie based on the great 1974 book by Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, is an unbeatable thriller because the sinister drama is taken directly from historical records. Everything--the bags of dollar bills, the wiretapping, the meetings in parking garages, the burglars, the downfall of a Shakespearean president, and even Ben Bradlee, the Post's archetypal hardass newsroom editor--is true! bona fide! and actual!

I always loved the movie. I took comfort knowing that Richard Nixon and the events he inspired were more exciting than something Hollywood could ever dream up. Unfortunately, as I was pontificating about this to a girlfriend one night while we watched the video, she dropped a bomb. "This movie is not real," she said. "Half the fun is that Robert Redford is a total fox. Bob Woodward is not Robert Redford."

I guess that's true. And as it turns out, Bob Woodward's newest book, Bush at War, makes it plain that Bob Woodward isn't even Bob Woodward anymore.

Unlike the amazing feat Woodward pulled off as a young journalist in 1972-73--forcing his way behind the locked doors of power to get at the concealed truth--Bush at War finds Woodward cordially invited into the welcoming arms of the Bush administration (and Bush himself) to crank out hagiography as telegraphed by Bush's scriptwriters.

At first, however, the conceit of Bush at War seems exciting for historians and political junkies. Woodward, with (evidently) limitless access to White House officials, transcripts, and minutes, recounts the day-by-day drama as the off-balance Bush administration reacts to September 11, and then wades through the minefield of Afghani and Middle Eastern politics to devise and execute the war on al Qaeda.

For a while, the story is breathtaking. We eavesdrop on cell-phone calls between Condoleezza Rice and President Bush, cutting in and out as the administration scrambles to safety on Tuesday afternoon; we're at the wood-paneled Camp David meetings during heated debates and awkward breaks when White House factions form; we're privy as Bush crosses out words and reprimands his speechwriters. Woodward even gives us the Bushes' bedroom talk. "Tone it down," the first lady, Laura Bush, tells W. after his "dead or alive" comment on September 17.

But Woodward's front-and-center theme--that W. has a common man's touch, a bartender's wisdom, for translating complex political debates into masculine, gut-level decision-making--begins to overwhelm the story, turning the book into nothing short of a campaign ad for Bushismo. "I'm not a textbook player. I'm a gut player," Bush tells Woodward during one of the four hours of exclusive interviews Woodward conducted with the president--interviews that Bush clearly used to dictate the theme of Woodward's tale.

You certainly have to question Woodward's judgment when he starts anchoring straight quote-driven accounts of cabinet meetings with Bush's own self-aggrandizing hindsight analysis--analysis that obviously came during one of Bush's on-message interviews with Woodward. Nearly every segment of Bush at War is a buildup to some heroic one-liner from Bush: "We're angry, but we're not stupid," or "The President has got to be decisive, but not be hasty."

Woodward even squanders a fly-on-the-wall account of an awkward Camp David meeting wherein Bush's discombobulated cabinet sits down together for the first time since September 11 (on September 15). Woodward, you see, uses the meeting to affirm Bush's own assessment ("If I have any genius or smarts, it's the ability to recognize talent... and reach consensus... which makes my job easy") rather than using the ill-informed meeting to raise questions about the Bush administration's ill-prepared, incompetent, and frankly cynical foreign policy.

While Woodward seems to have lost the nerve for questioning those in power these days, his paper, The Washington Post, has not. In fact, the paper still sees fit to go after powerful insiders. For example, last November, when Woodward's new book was published, the Post's ombudsman, Michael Getler, had this to say about Bush at War: "[Woodward is] blessed with a style... that [seems] to lead many people to trust him and--for some of them, I'm sure--to use him."