Bob Woodward is late to the party. With his new book, State of Denial, he catches up with recent history–big time. As part of the PR blitz for the third of his Bush-at-war chronicles, Woodward appeared on 60 Minutes and summed up the book thus: “It is the oldest story in the coverage of government: the failure to tell the truth.” But other journalists were on to that story for years while Woodward was producing books that shied away from such a confrontational conclusion, although his earlier accounts did include negative information about the President and his aides. (Interest declared: The book I wrote with Michael Isikoff, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, has been competing for attention during the Woodward tsunami.)
Woodward has slammed his Bigfoot brand name on a notion that’s not new: George W. Bush has not been honest with the public. Woodward’s last book, Plan of Attack–chock-full of fly-on-the-wall reporting–missed this story as Woodward zeroed in on the palace infighting and neglected the Administration’s use of flimsy and fraudulent intelligence to rally support for the Iraq invasion. (Before the war, Woodward declared on CNN that “the intelligence shows…there are massive amounts” of WMDs “hidden, buried, unaccounted for” in Iraq.) This time around, he hurls one tale after another at the reader to make the grand point that Bush and his aides have pushed happy-talk about Iraq in public when the real skinny–the intelligence reports, the military assessments–was grounds for despair.
The core narrative is simple: Donald Rumsfeld is a jerk and has ruined the Iraq War. He is the villain of the piece: distrustful, arrogant, indecisive, possessed of a short attention span and micro-managing–make that micro-mismanaging–everything. He wants the power; he shirks the responsibility. He (with help) screwed up the postinvasion planning and ignored warnings from subordinates that he was doing so. He wouldn’t return National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice’s phone calls. He refused to recognize that there were not enough troops in Iraq. Even Paul Wolfowitz, his number two at the Pentagon, got into the act. Woodward notes that Wolfowitz could not compel Rumsfeld to focus on key issues like training Iraqi security forces.
Iraq is a mess–and it’s as if Woodward and his sources decided there was something on which they could all agree: Rummy, described in rosier terms in earlier Woodward books, is the one to blame. Bush and Dick Cheney–though not portrayed in a positive light–are not roughed up nearly as much as the Pentagon chief. But who’s in charge?
Along the way, Woodward drops intriguing nuggets. When Bush started pondering a presidential run, in 1997, one of the first people he talked with was Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia’s US Ambassador. He told the Saudi, “I don’t have the foggiest idea about what I think about international, foreign policy.” Rumsfeld turned Gen. Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, into a broken man who took to scratching his arms compulsively. When retired Gen. Jay Garner, tapped by the Pentagon to lead the postinvasion reconstruction effort, told Bush his small office could not handle four of its nine assignments (including reshaping the Iraqi military), Bush barely responded. As Bush campaigned for President in 2004, the National Security Council’s coordinator for Iraq, Robert Blackwill, traveled with him, but Bush never asked him what was happening there. Bush and Karl Rove enjoyed fart jokes.
In some instances, Woodward might be overdramatizing. He reports that at a July 10, 2001, meeting, CIA Director George Tenet and an aide briefed Rice on intelligence indicating Al Qaeda was planning something big, but Rice gave them the brush-off. This makes it seem that Rice was out to lunch. But a former intelligence official familiar with the meeting told me that Tenet did not see Rice’s response as a dismissal. “Woodward’s hyping,” the source said. Nevertheless, there’s enough material in the book to support an old-news idea: Before the war Bush didn’t think through his Iraq project; after the invasion he was unable to lead a dysfunctional Administration through the ugly problems he had created. Bush resorted to denial. In private, he ordered his aides not to call the conflict an “insurgency.” In public, he claimed progress when classified reports were saying the opposite.
Detractors wonder why it’s taken Woodward so long to focus on the Administration’s obvious troubles with candor and competence. Woodward insists he always calls it as he reports it–not that he has tacked with anti-Bush winds. But compare the final pages of the last two books of his trilogy. In each, he quotes passages from his interview with Bush in late 2003. In Plan of Attack, he reprinted a portion that illustrated “Bush’s conviction that he made the right decision.” He noted the President told him he was “fully prepared to live with it” if the Iraq War cost him re-election. At the end of that book, Bush came across as resolute. In State of Denial, Woodward has Bush in this same interview resisting an acknowledgment that WMDs were not found in Iraq. He included these statements in Plan of Attack, but in the new book he now cites them as evidence of Bush’s “habit of denial.” Despite all his insider access, Woodward did not report that denial until it could no longer be denied.