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September 30, 2006

Woodward 2.0

Bob Woodward's new book paints the president as a resolute leader so in awe of his own conviction and resolution that he can't adapt to new realities, and thus has been unable to learn from the mistakes in Iraq. That's in stark contrast to Bob Woodward's last book, which painted Bush as a resolute leader whose in awe of his own conviction and resolution was perfectly suited to the new, post-9/11 reality. Matt asks:

Why were the earlier books so different? Did he somehow not notice this stuff before? It's a serious problem for the most prominent people in the journalism world to be merely lagging indicators, praising leaders when they're popular and then pointing out that, in fact, they suck only after a whole series of disasters discredit them.

Nah, he noticed all this stuff before. And he mentioned it all. His last book was perfectly explanatory. It's merely that then, Bob Woodward thought pigheadedness was a virtue, now it's a vice. The problem is that Woodward is not what folks might call an analyst. Here's Nora Ephron, who was married to his partner Bernstein, explaining Woodward's technique:

Bob has always had trouble seeing the forest for the trees. That’s why people love to talk to him; he almost never puts the pieces together in a way that hurts his sources. And that’s also why he has so much access: his sources can count on him to convey their version of events. When Bob says that when he was first told about Valerie Plame, he [just] didn’t think it was important.

Woodward knows what's going on, but not what to think of it. He's a safe vessel for hall-of-power confessionals precisely because he doesn't put the pieces together in any sort of innovative and damning way. But without that analytical approach, Woodward simply colors his reporting with whatever crayons everyone else is using. If Bush is atop the world, Woodward's interviews show why. If he ain't, the very same interviews will shed light on that, too. What's impressive about the two Woodward books isn't how different they are, but how similar. The reporting hasn't much changed, it's the conventional wisdom that's shifted and, thus, Woodward's adjectives.

And, so far as political experts being nothing but lagging indicators, it's really much, much worse than that. Try incorrect indicators.

September 30, 2006 in Books | Permalink

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Posted by: Poppy | Sep 30, 2006 6:51:30 PM

Nora Ephron thinks the most important thing about the Clinton/Wallace interview was the Big Dog's failure to pull up his socks. Well, anyway, Nora left thoughtful analysis behind a while ago for poli-tainment, too. Was Watergate such a high 30 years ago it leached the judgement of even the most distantly involved? Woodward's enabling lack of analytical judgement did endless harm, now it is the thin bat-squeak of MSM coverage of the Bush lunacy I find myself grateful for. Sigh.

Posted by: Casey | Sep 30, 2006 8:11:53 PM

The surprising thing about seeing the legendary Woodward actually speak is that he just doesn't seem that bright.

He reminds me a little of Larry King. Kind of a glad-hander type, socially inoffensive, a dutiful scribe.

But not all that goddamn sharp.

Posted by: ethan | Sep 30, 2006 8:18:03 PM

Reasoning backward is a widespread journalistic vice. Candidate x loses, x is known to have particular traits, therefore x's particular traits caused his downfall and must be considered fatal flaws.

Reporters are good at dialing telephones but not always good at thinking.

Posted by: Tom Crippen | Sep 30, 2006 8:19:07 PM

I prefer Woodward's approach, which gives you the data you need to decide for yourself, to that of many others who have written about Bush, such as Suskind, who, it seems to me, starts with a theory and then lines up people and quotes who agree. I appreciate good analysis, but good information is more fundamental. Woodward's better than most for that, and gets his from all sides.

Posted by: Sanpete | Sep 30, 2006 8:34:34 PM

The thing is, Woodward does supply analysis, only it appears the analysis is a mix of conventional wisdom and the views of whoever gives him the most interviews.

Thinking about Ezra's post some more, it occurs to me that in his new book Woodward speaks out about Rumsfeld's dotty and high-handed attitude toward events. All right, as Ezra says, the old Woodward presented Bush as inflexible and strong and the new Woodward presents him as inflexible and in denial --- essentially the same cast of mind with different tints. But what was the old Woodward's version of Rumsfeld?

Posted by: Tom Crippen | Sep 30, 2006 8:47:55 PM

It's telling that Woodward's last book seemed far more damning in the excerpts than it did in the actual reading. The excerpts focused on the scandalous quotes and the juicy bits, the frustrated former generals and the bitter Powell-Rumsfeld fued. But all of that was padded out with page after page of the chin-stroking Great Man hagiography, as vapid, inch-deep analysis turned dimwittedness into profundity.

I doubt that there's much in Woodward's new book that you couldn't find put just as well or better by more incisive journalists in books like Fiasco, The Assassin's Gate or The One Percent Solution. What does the man have beyond name recognition and access at this point?

Posted by: Christmas | Sep 30, 2006 9:44:30 PM

I can't see how Nora Ephron could be right. This Woodward fella, didn't he have something to do with uncovering that Watergate thing? And didn't that involve doing a hell of a lot of big picture thinking? Or are we supposed to believe that it was all Bernstein and Woodward was just his scribe? I think Woodward gave the pleasing interpretation before, when Bush was popular, and he's giving the pleasing interpretation now, when he's not popular.

Posted by: bobbo | Sep 30, 2006 10:59:26 PM

How about Woodward is changing his tune because he senses a change of fortunes. It's the repugs' fortunes that are changing and so it's time to go back to being an ace investigative reporter.

Posted by: workingclassannie | Oct 1, 2006 1:13:20 AM

"What does the man have beyond name recognition and access at this point?"

He doesn't need anything beyond access. I read his books purely because of the access.

Posted by: Petey | Oct 1, 2006 7:50:39 AM

I think we were fooled by Robert Redford. He's smart (and it comes through on the movie screen). Woodward, not so much.

Posted by: Bob Munck | Oct 1, 2006 7:11:04 PM

I haven't read any of Woodward's books about Bush, but I'm about halfway through All the President's Men itself. One of the things that I keep noticing is how applicable it is to today — they were how brazen about it? That many people knew beforehand? And some of the people involved are now respectable political figures somehow? — but reading comments in this thread, the brazenness seems to become more important.

Which brings me to a line from a completely different political book, Parliament of Whores by P.J. O'Rourke. He says something like "If you tell a journalist something with a straight face, he will assume it's either the truth or a big, important lie. It will never occur to him that he's having his leg pulled." Woodward and Bernstein apparently did a pretty good job ferretting out the truth when faced with a big, important lie, but when the official story is a barely coherent line of bullshit because the people putting it together didn't really care about the truth in the first place, Woodward seems less capable. Good lie detector, not so good at analysis.

Posted by: Cyrus | Oct 2, 2006 11:54:48 AM

We need reporters like that though. Elizabeth Drew is another fine example. They report as neutrally as possible, and thus have earned bipartisan trust.

Why do you need Woodward to tell you what to think? I didn't find his books on either Clinton or Bush to be overly friendly to their points-of-view. He just reported what he found out from all his sources and let the reader make his own judgements. At those times, it just happened to work more favorably for the Bush administration. I'll bet if you read Plan of Attack or Bush at War today you'd get a much different impression from them.

Posted by: Adam Herman | Oct 2, 2006 3:32:08 PM

He reminds me a little of Larry King. Kind of a glad-hander type, socially inoffensive, a dutiful scribe.

Watching Woodward on King's show made the comparison even starker. Larry is master of the softball, never happier when he's stepping back from synthesis; Woodward was right at home.

I prefer Woodward's approach, which gives you the data you need to decide for yourself

I think it's obvious now that Woodward's 'just the facts' approach turned out to paint a very incomplete picture, meaning that readers made their decisions with one eye closed.

I can't see how Nora Ephron could be right. This Woodward fella, didn't he have something to do with uncovering that Watergate thing? And didn't that involve doing a hell of a lot of big picture thinking?

You betray your own point: consider what characterised Woodward and Bernstein's work then that doesn't characterise Woodward's work now.

As for Suskind, you can't take away the fact that his reporting has been generally more timely and significant. Woodward may have filled in a few blanks, but historians will be quoting that 'reality-based community' line in decades to come.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Oct 3, 2006 8:18:10 AM

I think it's obvious now that Woodward's 'just the facts' approach turned out to paint a very incomplete picture, meaning that readers made their decisions with one eye closed.

The fact remains that his books give more information from more sources from more points of view than most of the other work out there, especially that trying to sell some strong point of view. Not everyone reading Woodwards's earlier stuff on Bush reached the same conclusions he did, because the information was there to support other views.

Posted by: Sanpete | Oct 3, 2006 12:12:04 PM

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