From War to Denial Woodward and the Bush Administration

The American journalist Bob Woodward became an icon in the 1970s for his work in uncovering the Watergate scandal, which helped end Richard Nixon's presidency. Now he writes bestselling investigative books, and his new one is a devastating -- and controversial -- account of the Bush era.

By Georg Mascolo and


Bob Woodward's last two books about Bush have given mixed accounts of the president's job, putting the author on the defensive.
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Bob Woodward's last two books about Bush have given mixed accounts of the president's job, putting the author on the defensive.

Bob Woodward is every television moderator's dream. At 63, he still has his youthful good looks and is meticulously polite. He also possesses the deep voice and serious expression of authority. Yet Woodward tends not to seek out the bright lights of the television studio all that often -- only about every two years or so, when he publicizes a new book.

This autumn, with his most recent book on the presidency of George W. Bush, called "State of Denial," new in the bookstores, Woodward made his way to the CNN studios for an interview with the icon of American TV interviewers, Larry King. As he always does, King did his best to make the interview seem like a light chat between friends. Given the sharply critical tone of Woodward's new book, though, one question had to be asked. "Bob," King said, leaning across the interview table: "Bob, there appears to be a 180-degree turn here. The Bush in "Bush at War" and "Plan of Attack" -- is he different from the Bush in this book?"

The point is legitimate. Woodward's first book, "Bush at War," was full of praise for the strong, decisive president who seemed to know what to do after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001: Invade Afghanistan, destroy the Taliban, hunt down al-Qaida head Osama bin Laden, and initiate a war on terrorists the world over so America would never again be the target of a major terrorist attack.

His second book, "Plan of Attack," was a bit more reserved. It mixed respect for Bush with a healthy skepticism. The work took a close look at the run-up to the Iraq war with a focus on the internecine conflict between Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on the one side, and then Secretary of State Colin Powell on the other. Once again, the star investigative reporter had to listen to accusations that he was in Bush's back pocket -- a stenographer of power.

"This is just reporting," Woodward tells King. "I've done it for 35 years and sometimes it has an impact and sometimes it doesn't." He adds that "Plan of Attack" isn't all nice to Bush. "If you read the book," he says, "it looks both ways."

Next to him on the table is an impressive stack of papers full of memos, notes, and cabinet files -- much of which was handed to him by sources within the Bush government. Woodward, though, has learned many of the details, numbers and statistics by heart, just as he's memorized much of what former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card told him during the course of seven hours' worth of interviews. Larry King's eyebrows raise slightly -- a gesture of respect.

Card headed up the Bush White House until March of this year and was a model of loyalty. He was present whenever important decisions on Iraq were made; he knows better than anyone else who said what, and when. Card also had a front-row seat for the conflict between Rumsfeld and Powell, as well as the subsequent disagreements between Rumsfeld and Powell's successor, Condoleezza Rice. Card is the dream source for an investigative journalist: an insider with his finger on the pulse of power.

Woodward doesn't like talking about himself, but King forces him to. The entire American capital, after all, is talking about Woodward. He denies having sung Bush's praises in the earlier books, and says he wanted to call the new one "Crisis," before opting for the more breathless title, "State of Denial." The title fits the tone of the book, though, and Woodward provides another clue to the title's origin. Bush refused to be interviewed for it, he says.

The decision to rebuff Woodward's requests may have been tough for the White House. The reporter has a reputation for fairness, after all, and those who agree to an interview are generally treated well. But Presidential adviser Dan Bartlett justified the White House by saying that Woodward's requests had sounded more aggressive than before.

The cub reporter who helped topple a president

Woodward is no stranger to controversy. As a young journalist for the Washington Post, he teamed up with Carl Bernstein to uncover the Watergate affair -- a major scandal in post-World War II America which started with a break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate Hotel and ended with Richard Nixon's resignation in August 1974. It was Woodward who ended up with the decisive source for the story, the mysterious "Deep Throat," whose identity was only recently revealed. Woodward became a star -- a 31-year-old cub reporter who helped bring down a president.

It was a rapid start to a brilliant career, and Woodward has long left the life of a simple reporter behind. Articles with his byline appear only seldom in the paper. Instead, he writes bestsellers -- about the CIA, about the Supreme Court, about former US President Bill Clinton, and now, of course, about George W. Bush.

Woodward's name only partially accounts for why his books sell so well. He is also extremely well connected and often ends up with better sources than most other reporters. This time is no different: A number of people opened up to him, including Card, former CIA head George Tenet and the first US interim administrator in Baghdad, General Jay Garner. Woodward, a patient listener, carefully records and transcribes his interviews. Then he has proof when the accusations and denials start.

The results of his reporting are stored in the attic of his home in Georgetown neighborhood of Washington. He has secret reports on conditions in Iraq from the likes of Philip Zelikow, whom Rice sent to Baghdad when she became Secretary of State; or from General James Marks, who headed up the search for Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction following the successful American invasion. There's even a study there from the Joint Chiefs of Staff warning that 2007 could be even bloodier that 2006.

He calls his work "a big puzzle," and his writing style lends credence to his claim to be "just" a reporter. His books are neither over-intellectual nor particularly elegantly written. "State of Denial" is more of a mosaic, with the author jumping back and forth from Baghdad to the Pentagon to New York. He jumps from Rumsfeld to Rice to Garner. Even as his book focuses on the inside workings of a political decision making process at the highest of levels, he doesn't forget that he is dealing with real, live human beings. In the case of Rumsfeld, who talked to Woodward for the book, a portrait slowly emerges of an intellectual giant who isn't afraid to show it, especially to Rice and Card -- and who eventually stumbles over his arrogance.

And the president? A pale figure in the White House, less and less interested in reality even as Iraq sinks deeper and deeper into the quagmire of violence. Bush is presented as primarily concerned with proving to his father that he possesses greatness, too, and with finishing a project which his father, President George Herbert Walker Bush, left unfinished: regime change in Baghdad and a new democratic order in the Middle East.

Andrew Card tried to convince Bush three separate times that it might be better for Rumsfeld to go. Rumsfeld, he told his president, was the reason for the miserable situation in Iraq. Bush listened, according to Card in Woodward's book, and said it was an interesting idea. But Rumsfeld remained.

Larry King wanted more -- he wanted to hear what Woodward really thought of Bush. Technically, he laid the question on someone else -- "One of our key staff members wants to know if you think we can trust George Bush" -- and Woodward's gaze slid over to the stack of documents next to him. It was a question where his pile of facts offered little assistance. "You know, that's a good, interesting question," he said, "but I -- I don't address it, and I think … it's not my job."

"You're saying it's up to the reader?" said King.

"Of course it is," said Woodward.

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