Woodward Changes Tune, Finds Quotes to Match It

Dante Chinni writes in the Christian Science Monitor that Watergate hero Bob Woodward has an uncanny ability to produce quotes for whatever his line of narrative is at the moment.

As this Michael Ramirez cartoon demonstrates, even the most innocuous statement can be modified for a preestablished narrative.

It's exciting to feel as though you're a fly on the wall when, on July 10, 2001, then-CIA Director George Tenet tells then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that there is a "compelling case" to be made that Al Qaeda is preparing for "the big one." And as a reader of "State of Denial," Woodward's latest book on the Bush administration, there's frustration when you learn Mr. Tenet felt that he was "not getting through to Rice" and she was giving him "the brush off."

But then you wonder: Why didn't I hear this before now? It's 2006. Why hasn't more been made of the fact that Ms. Rice, now secretary of State, brushed off the CIA director's warning only two months before the terrorist attacks of Sept 11, 2001? Those are good questions and they go to the heart of not only problems with "State of Denial," but the shortcomings inherent in the way Woodward puts his books together and the style of journalism he champions.

Woodward has changed his tune about Bush, as many people suggest his books have the viewpoint that is most popular at the moment.

This list of critics includes not only Woodward's sources, but Woodward himself. "State of Denial," Woodward's third book on the Bush administration, is more than anything a reconsideration of Bush. It may be subtitled "Bush at War, Part III," but it begins in the fall of 1997 and takes pains to talk about how Bush was largely ignorant about foreign policy before the 2000 campaign. It makes Bush look shallow and uninformed.

While the latest book is critical, Woodward's earlier "Bush at War" was a gift-wrapped presidential encomium. Unsurprisingly, he was able to find quotes to match that narrative as well.

Chinni says there are two dangers when finding quotes to bolster your case.

One, the people you talk to are hostage to the town's political climate and may remember things differently from before - out of either a shifting perspective or a desire for a better image. After all, once the tide has turned against someone, it only makes sense that a source would argue that he or she was the lone voice of reason and no one else would listen.

Two, as an author, once you set on a certain theme - positive or negative - you are going to, wittingly or not, ask questions and pursue sources and documentation that validate it at the expense of others. This is a natural tendency any journalist is familiar with and Woodward should be particularly aware of it.

It's a mystery how the same author could find quotes to bolster both sides of an issue, a skill which Woodward demonstrates effortlessly, like a high school debater arguing both sides of the topic.

"State of Denial" follows two previous Woodward books on the administration that may have pointed out some problems - disputes within the administration and the usual behind-the-scenes politicking - but were mostly complimentary where Bush was concerned. In those tomes, Bush is largely displayed as a decisive leader who makes decisions by the gut.

These two divergent images of Bush aren't new. They have been the subject of debate in this country since the 2000 campaign. But which Bush does Woodward believe is actually in the White House?

The fact that the same author writes separate books that stand on different sides of that debate suggests that even if his approach may yield a compelling, detail-filled narrative, there's a question of how reliable it all is.

Ultimately, Woodward knows that whatever he writes will be considered reality, a benefit of which most in Washington can only dream. Activists and reporters long to have their press releases/news stories considered reality, instead of flawed material from a shallow perspective.