In the early years of the Bolshevik Revolution, Russia was effectively cut off from all sources of raw film stock. Luckily for the Soviets, cheap copies of the silent films imported during the waning years of the tsar, chiefly from Germany, were still lying around, providing countless thousands of feet of footage that could be cut and rearranged by the brilliant propagandists of the Kuleshov Workshop to create any narrative they wished.
By cutting, pasting, arranging, and coloring snippets of “reportage,” Bob Woodward has shown that journalism can accomplish much the same thing. As we see in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and even Woodward’s own All the President’s Men, the power of the nonfiction novel is its ability to convey not just facts, but also the context necessary to understand them and — most valuable of all — the motivations of the main characters. But the danger in this genre is the temptation to fictionalize at all three levels.
In State of Denial, Woodward succumbs to that temptation on almost every page. Journalists often use imprecision to obscure inaccuracy, but no amount of imprecision can protect a narrative composed mainly of inaccuracies. At one point, he describes Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s “snowflakes.” The snowflake is a famous institution at the Pentagon. It is a routine short memorandum in which Rumsfeld requests some action or information or recommendation about a particular issue. Almost anyone in the Pentagon could have explained to Woodward what they are and how they work. Instead, we get this: “Though unsigned, everyone knew they represented orders or questions from the boss. But if a snowflake leaked, it provided deniability — no signature, no clear fingerprints.”
This is sheer invention. I personally have seen hundreds of snowflakes, and I can attest that they are signed personally by Rumsfeld. And as for deniability, there is a database system, into which the original snowflake is scanned, and which tracks its voyage through the entire bureaucracy, eventually incorporating all decisions, routings, memoranda, and actions taken in response, timestamping the “fingerprints” of the responsible person at every step. It normally takes only minutes to figure out exactly where any given snowflake is currently being worked on in the Pentagon, and I mean the exact office and desk. Far from providing a device of deniability, the snowflake system’s obvious purpose is to enforce accountability and transparency on all levels of the bureaucracy.
So, already on page 23, I was asking myself, “If Woodward gets even this simple and easily verifiable fact entirely wrong, what else does he get wrong?” Well, just a few pages later, we get Woodward’s account of President Bush’s April 25, 2001, announcement that the U.S. would defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression. The Chinese were upset. “How do I get out of this? Bush essentially asked.” Bush is thus portrayed as a hapless fool, taken aback by the Chinese reaction.
In fact, the change in posture was carefully calibrated to make the risks of confrontation with Taiwan prohibitive to the Chinese, because it was felt that strategic ambiguity (“all options remain on the table”) might not prove sufficiently dissuasive. On the other hand, the president’s studied ambiguity in responding to a hypothetical Taiwanese provocation (e.g., a declaration of independence) also kept the risks high for the Taiwanese. The predictable result has been a noticeable cooling of tensions across the Taiwan Straits.
It was a bold stroke — an early indication that the administration would not be cowed by momentary reactions to important strategic decisions. Woodward relates that Brent Scowcroft “was delighted to see the administration recover from its misstep.” What misstep? I completely missed it. But I did notice Woodward’s crafty use of the word “essentially,” which essentially allowed him to attribute whatever quote he wanted to the president.
The book quickly becomes dispiriting reading. It is full from start to finish of verbatim accounts of private conversations that simply could not have occurred, between people who have already loudly (and quite superfluously) denied that they said anything like what Woodward claims they said. One of Woodward’s now-most-notorious assertions is that Secretary Rumsfeld would at times refuse to return the phone calls of then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. And if this were not enough, we have Bush taking Rumsfeld aside, gently urging him to return her calls. You gotta talk to Condi.
It is unbelievable that a responsible journalist of national standing would represent this as fact. I have attended hundreds of high-level staff meetings in the Pentagon and I can tell you there isn’t one that won’t come to a screeching halt if the national security adviser is on the phone, because it may as well be the president — and it might be a national emergency. It is impossible for me to understand how someone whose entire career has been based on the revelation of government “inside information” could fail to know something so elementary about the way government works. Rice’s recent statement that Woodward’s account is “ridiculous” goes so obviously without saying that I am starting to think the administration is demeaning itself by responding to Woodward’s assertions at all. This book is not only political fiction — it is pulp fiction.
And pulp fiction composed of an almost endless succession of breezy calumnies. “Barbara Bush thought that [James] Baker was out for himself.” (Baker is a lifelong friend of the family.) He quotes one Bush “political associate” back in Texas (who for some unexplained reason is not in Washington) as saying that Karl Rove “can be your loyal, dear friend — and cut your throat the next day without thinking about it if he perceives that you’re a threat to him.” At the Oval Office, “the whole atmosphere resembled a royal court, with Cheney and Rice in attendance, some upbeat stories, exaggerated good news, and a good time had by all.” (Never mind that Woodward has never witnessed a staff meeting in the Oval Office.) George Tenet is quoted as saying that “The f**king military can never get anything organized.” Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz thinks that “The U.S. government, especially the Pentagon, is incapable of producing the kinds of ideas and strategy needed to deal with a crisis of the magnitude of 9/11.” Rumsfeld “resembled John le Carré’s fictional Cold War British intelligence chief George Smiley.” Well, not as much as Woodward resembles Kitty Kelley, the infamous purveyor of aristo-gossip.
Woodward has a great capacity to imagine the human element in conversations he never witnessed. At the National Security Council, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers “is there, making an occasional comment, at times briefing, only to have his points embarrassingly repeated by Rumsfeld. It was as if the secretary hadn’t listened to what the chairman had said. At times Myers inquired of close aides if they thought it possible Rumsfeld might leave. The answer was always no. Myers would just shake his head or put his head down.”
Woodward portrays Myers as a man overwhelmed and depressed by Donald Rumsfeld’s rampaging arrogance. It is one of the saddest cases of character assassination in this book, because so obviously unintentional. In fact, Myers has been among the secretary’s most staunch defenders. In the spring of this year, after a group of retired generals called for Rumsfeld’s resignation, Myers, already in retirement, did the Sunday-morning talk-show circuit in his defense, most especially against the accusation that the military brass was against him. And why did he do that, Bob? For the same reason that Rumsfeld would “repeat” Myers’s points in staff meetings, the same reason Myers was recommended for the chairmanship by Rumsfeld in the first place, which is that they are on the same page.
WOODWARD GETS PUNK’D
The difficulty in writing a review of State of Denial is that many passages, chosen at random, are so false at so many levels as to justify an entire review of their own. Take the following as an example: “In a small fifth-floor corner office of his international consulting firm three blocks north of the White House, Brent Scowcroft, one of the few men as close to former President Bush as Bandar, viewed the fledgling presidency of Bush’s son with mixed emotions. . . . Scowcroft communicated with Bush senior as much as Bandar did.”
To say that this passage is outrageous is only the start of what one can say about it. First of all, consider the implied atmospherics: Just a few blocks north of the White House, this intimate friend of the Bush family sits in brooding contemplation of the new Bush presidency with something akin to . . . what is it, foreboding? And what to make of the reference to former Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan? Should we draw the inference that Bandar is closer to former President Bush than almost anyone?
Prince Bandar, one of Woodward’s most important sources, and obviously the source for this passage, is one of the greatest confabulators in the history of diplomatic Washington. His capacity for denying the obvious with a straight face, or for confidently assuring you of the wisdom of his every theory, is well known in the nation’s capital. And he loves to talk. Indeed, he represents a noble tradition of long standing in nomadic Arab culture: the traveling storyteller. For anyone familiar with Prince Bandar, the Woodward “background” interview that might have given rise to this enter Scowcroft passage is vividly easy to imagine:
W: Tell me about Scowcroft.
B: Oh, Bob . . . [Leans in and lowers his voice, for dramatic effect — perhaps touches Woodward’s knee]. General Scowcroft is brilliant. He is very close to Bush the father, closer maybe than I myself. He is a very important thinker.
W: And tell me, what does he think of Bush the son?
B: Well, Bob, you know, he had mixed feelings.
One of the things that is obvious in State of Denial is that Woodward got royally punk’d by Prince Bandar. Brent Scowcroft is one of Bush senior’s most intimate friends, perhaps his single closest adviser during their White House years. They have written a book together. To say that he is infinitely closer to former President Bush than any Saudi prince — especially a famous playboy who is infinitely more well-liked than he is trusted or respected by anybody — is so needless as to be embarrassing to say. Scowcroft is not exactly a supporter of the current administration’s policies. And yet what did he have to say just days after Woodward released State of Denial? “I did not agree to be interviewed for his latest book. Further, there are statements in the book, directly or implicitly attributed to me, that did not and never could have come from me.”
Far from revealing the motivations of any of its main characters, State of Denial is most effective in revealing the motives of Bob Woodward, most disheartening of which proves to be his almost childlike taste for cruelty. Rumsfeld is breezily described as someone who “despises the uniformed military.” This is despicable, and Woodward should be ashamed of himself for having written it. I can tell you from personal experience that it is not unusual to be moved to tears by how eloquently and humbly Rumsfeld expresses his obvious admiration and appreciation for the devotion and sacrifices of our nation’s military. To fail to recognize basic decency in those with whom one disagrees politically is a failure of basic decency. And it is especially depressing to see that it come so easily to one of the country’s most prominent shapers of public opinion.
Yet State of Denial purports to have the novel’s clairvoyance into the inner worlds of its characters. “When thoughts, conclusions, and feelings are attributed to a participant,” Woodward explains in the appended Note on Sources, “I have obtained them from that person directly, from the written record, or from a colleague whom that person told.” Well, by page 50 it is already obvious that Woodward has gotten most of these attributions of “thoughts, conclusions, and feelings” from dubious sources who told him exactly what he wanted to hear — if in fact he did not invent those attributions himself.
A LIBERAL WEATHERVANE
State of Denial is most of all a revelation of Woodward’s lack of what George Orwell called a “decent intellect. . . . impervious to the fashionable bunk of the moment.” As Jacob Weisberg put it on Slate, Woodward’s Rumsfeld goes from “hero to zero” in just the three books Woodward has written about this administration. But in all three cases, even in the fawning Rumsfeld portrait in the 2002 book Bush at War, the character is a caricature that does no justice at all to this very complicated and brilliant man. Woodward’s books trace not the evolution of Rumsfeld’s character, but rather the twirlings of the weathervane of liberal opinion — the fashionable bunk of the moment — an orthodoxy to which Woodward blindly subscribes.
After a while, every page of State of Denial began to remind me of a passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Self-Reliance: “Well, most men have bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief, and attached themselves to some one of these communities of opinion. This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars. Their every truth is not quite true. Their two is not the real two, their four not the real four; so that every word they say chagrins us, and we know not where to begin to set them right.”
The task of setting Woodward right in this book is a monumental one, and this returns me to a stance of basic sympathy — and even pity — for the writer himself. He has failed, for all history to see, in his most essential task: to provide a valuable and lasting account of the events and motivations he attempts to relate. And yet anyone would have failed, in these complicated and difficult times, following his formula, to construct a narrative that was even remotely accurate.
Where Woodward succeeds is in revealing the dangers of the political nonfiction novel, and its susceptibility to abuse as a tool of propaganda. State of Denial is a magisterial exposition of how nearly all the possibilities of the genre can be exploited to oversimplify and distort the truth — and replace it with any story you might like.
Woodward accuses Henry Kissinger of wanting still to fight the Vietnam War, for asserting that the only good exit strategy in Iraq is victory. But Kissinger appears never to have thought that Vietnam was winnable, and he coldly realized that South Vietnam could be abandoned to its own devices without impairing America’s broader strategic interests — just as he realizes now that Iraq cannot be abandoned without risking calamity. Kissinger is not fighting Vietnam. Rather, it is Woodward who is still fighting the wars of Watergate; except that now he has come around to the other side — the side of paranoia, cruelty, and, most of all, fantasy.
– Mario Loyola, a former consultant to the Department of Defense, is a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.