An Intimate Look at a Stumbling White House: State of Denial by Bob Woodward
An Intimate Look at a Stumbling White House
State of Denial: Bush at War part III
by Bob Woodward
Simon and Schuster, 2006
by Henry Edward Hardy
State of Denial is Washington Post Assistant Editor Bob Woodward’s third book on the presidential administration of George W. Bush. Like Bush at War (2002) and Plan of Attack (2004), the book purports to be an inside look into the intimate details of executive policy making at the White House. State of Denial uses the same omniscient viewpoint as in the previous books, though Woodward does insert himself into the story this time in order to make a few parenthetical derogatory comments pertaining to the recently retired secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld.
Woodward graduated from Yale in 1965, a few years before Bush. Until 1970 he served on the staff of Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, and sometimes acted as a courier to the White House.Woodward first achieved national prominence in the early 1970’s for his coverage of the Watergate break-in. That scandal led to the resignation of Richard M. Nixon. Woodward and fellow Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein played a significant role in uncovering and reporting on the Watergate conspiracy.
Although it includes some unlikely-sounding quotes and aphorisms, even haiku, State of Denial is clearly written, well-paced and full of pithy and memorable quotes. The book includes this quote from a US Intelligence Colonel early in the Iraq occupation regarding the lack of sufficient occupation troops:
Rumsfeld is a dick
Won’t flow the forces we need
We will be too light
Woodward writes that during a Cabinet meeting on August 27, 2001, the Saudi ambassador (and Bush family friend) Prince Bandar confronted Bush and cabinet members about growing tension in the Middle East. Woodward writes that Colin Powell, then the Secretary of State, confronted Bandar after and demanded, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing? You’re putting the fear of God into everybody here. You scared the shit out of everybody.”Bandar replied, “I don’t give a damn what you feel. We are scared ourselves.”
Woodward’s tale of the tirade by Bandar and the alarmed response by Powell, two weeks before the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, makes the Saudi origins of 14 of the 19 alleged 9/11 hijackers all the more interesting.
This is only one of many blockbusters Woodward apparently withheld from publication by the Washington Post. Woodward never seems to let the interests of the Post or the United States get in the way of his own journalistic coups. He has been criticized for allowing New York Times reporter Judy Miller go to jail for contempt of court and Vice President Dick Cheney’s aide “Scooter” Libby to be charged with leaking the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame. All along Woodward knew that the information had been previously revealed to him by Assistant Secretary of State Richard Armitage.
In a 1996 article in the New York Review of Books, Joan Didion accused Woodward of “curious passivity” in his uncritical retelling of the stories of each of his protagonists. In a wide-ranging attack on his work, methods, and credibility, she accused him of creating “political pornography”. But whereas the previous two books show Bush as a confident and decisive commander, the current work depicts him as vacillating, detached and ill-informed from the outset of his presidency. One would like to see some explanation from Woodward for his extraordinary change of perspective. One almost feels sorry for the thoroughly unlikable Rumsfeld as he is savaged by Woodward’s portrayal of him as a manipulative, vain, overbearing tyrant. Although he evidently granted Woodward several in-depth interviews, Rumsfeld does not come in for the kid-gloves treatment proffered to most of his other apparent sources. So now Bob Woodward has the scalp of Rumsfeld to add to that of Nixon.
This is a fun book, a weighty book, and a political tour-de-force. But it isn’t journalism. Instead it lies somewhere between an historical novel such as Burr by Gore Vidal, and books such as Rise of the Vulcans by James Mann or Imperial Hubris by Michael Scheuer. State of Denial has had great influence among the chattering classes in Washington and I believe influenced the recent congressional elections and led to the downfall of Rumsfeld. This book is highly recommended.
A version of this article appeared previously in Current Magazine and on Electric Current
Copyright © 2006, 2007 Henry Edward Hardy