On October 4, 2001–less than a month after that horrific day–George W. Bush and the members of his National Security Council were nailing down the details of the coming war in Afghanistan. Gen. Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reported that search-and-rescue teams, which would be used to locate and extract any downed US pilots, were to be up and running in Uzbekistan in days. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice discussed the need to get other countries to contribute funds for rebuilding Afghanistan. Then Bush inquired, “Who will run the country?” Darn, Rice said to herself, her boss had raised a crucial matter she and the others hadn’t yet considered. Bush, it seemed, was looking around the corner–further than his advisers.
This vignette–brought to us by Bob Woodward, scribe to the stars (of Washington)–is one of many in his Bush at War showing that, whaddayaknow, the Commander in Chief is actually in command. Bush a dunderhead who has to depend upon the intelligence of others? Bush a puppet maneuvered and manipulated by Cheney, Rove, Rumsfeld and Rice? Sorry, all you lefties and Democratic partisans who hold fast to Bush-is-a-ninny biases. Woodward’s latest history-before-it’s-history, and another book by ex-Bush speechwriter David Frum, The Right Man, a tales-out-of-school memoir, cast Bush as the go-to guy of this Administration. It is his White House, his presidency and his war. Each of these two very different insiders offers a strong case that the country is indeed being led by Bush, not by committee or cabal. Scary, isn’t it?
Woodward zeros in on the weeks following 9/11 and Bush’s step-by-step construction of the war in Afghanistan. His book is, he claims, “largely the story as the insiders saw it, heard it and lived it.” That is, Woodward stuck with what has become in recent years his standard MO: Approach each power player and say, “All the other power players are telling me their side of the story, so you should do so as well.” Woodward then weaves the various self-serving versions–supplied, of course, on background–into a quasi-official chronicle, with little overt sourcing. He did interview Bush on the record at The Ranch, and when his narrative has Rice thinking a particular thought, it takes little guesswork to suss out who enabled Woodward to be a mind reader. This courtside journalism is a far cry from what placed Woodward on the path to fame. Three decades ago, he and Carl Bernstein, the crusading, superhero reporters of Watergate, excavated a story the big shots didn’t want public. Now, he tells us (more so than less) what the powerful do want known.
This in-house form of journalism does have entertainment and enlightenment value. There’s good, high-end gossip. Donald Rumsfeld thought Bush père “was a weak CIA director who seriously underestimated the Soviet Union’s military advances and was manipulated by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.” Colin Powell and George W. had an awkward, no-connection relationship. Army Gen. Hugh Shelton and Rummy were bitterly at odds. Dirt on Cheney? The Veep is not as big a presence in the book as a reader might have expected. (Did he not give Woodward sufficient time?) Overall, though, Woodward is too kind to his sources. He downplays CIA lapses pre-9/11 as he sympathetically depicts CIA chief George Tenet. He raises the issue of whether the Bushies paid enough attention to terrorism and Al Qaeda before the attacks–but does not vigorously pursue the matter. And Top Gun comes out as a strong figure, emotional when the moment dictates, heroic and stoic when necessary. Bush is a man transformed. Woodward, an assistant managing editor of the Washington Post, ends up devoting less attention to Bush’s faults and missteps than does Frum, a neocon intellectual/writer who worked for Bush.