The Boring Fabulist
“State of Denial” amazes me.
The Wall Street Journal: October 6, 2006
Thirty-two years into his career as a writer of books, Bob Woodward has won a reputation as slipshod (“Wired”), slippery (“All the President’s Men,” “The Final Days”), opportunistic (“Veil”; everything) and generally unaware of the implications even of those facts he’s offered that have gone unchallenged. As a reporter he’s been compared to a great dumb shark, remorselessly moving toward hunks of information he can swallow but not digest. As a writer his style has been to lard unconnected sentences with extraneous data in order to give his assertions a fact-y weight that suggests truth is being told. And so: On July 23, 1994, at 4:18 p.m., the meeting over, the president gazed out the double-paned windows of the Oval Office, built in October 1909 by workers uncovered by later minimum wage legislation, and saw the storm moving in. “I think I’ll kill my wife,” he said, the words echoing in the empty room. I made that up. It’s my homage.
Mr. Woodward has been that amazing thing, the boring fabulist.
The Bush White House has spent the past five years thinking they could manage him. Talk about a state of denial.
Now he has thwarted me. I bought “State of Denial” thinking I might have a merry time bashing it and a satisfying time defending the innocent injured.
But it is a good book. It may be a great one. It is serious, densely, even exhaustively, reported, and a real contribution to history in that it gives history what it most requires, first-person testimony. (It is well documented, with copious notes.) What is most striking is that Mr. Woodward seems to try very hard to be fair, not in a phony “Armitage, however, denies it” way, but in a way that—it will seem too much to say this—reminded me of Jean Renoir: “The real hell of life is that everyone has his reasons.”
His Bush is not a monster but a personally disciplined, yearning, vain and intensely limited man. His advisers in all levels of the government are tugged and torn by understandable currents and display varying degrees of guile, cynicism and courage. As usual, prime sources get the best treatment—the affable Andy Card, the always well-meaning Prince Bandar. Members of the armed forces get a high-gloss spit shine. But once you decode it and put it aside—and Woodward readers always know to do that—you get real history:
The almost epic bureaucratic battle of Donald Rumsfeld to re-establish civilian control of the post-Clinton Joint Chiefs of Staff; the struggle of the State Department to be heard and not just handled by the president; the search on the ground for the weapons of mass destruction; the struggles, advances and removal from Iraq of Jay Garner, sent to oversee humanitarian aid; the utter disconnect between the experience on the ground after Baghdad was taken and the attitude of the White House—“borderline giddy.” This is a primer on how the executive branch of the United States works, or rather doesn’t work, in the early years of the 21st century.
There is previously unreported information. Former Secretary of State George Shultz was top contender for American envoy to Baghdad, but there were worries he was “not known for taking direction.” Spies called “bats” were planted in American agencies by American agencies to report to rival superiors back home.
After Baghdad fell, Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia, who appears to be the best friend of everybody in the world, went to the White House and advised the president to fill the power vacuum immediately: The Baath Party and the military had run the country. Remove the top echelon—they have bloody hands—but keep and maintain everyone else. Tell the Iraqi military to report to their barracks, he advised, and keep the colonels on down. Have them restore order. Have Iraqi intelligence find the insurgents: “Those bad guys will know how to find bad guys.” Use them, and then throw them over the side. This is advice that has the brilliance of the obvious, and not only in retrospect.
Mr. Woodward: “‘That’s too Machiavellian,’ someone said. The Saudi notes of the meeting indicate it was either Bush or Rice.”
It’s isn’t clear if “too Machiavellian” meant too clever by half, or too devious for good people like us. Either way it was another path not taken. The newly unemployed personnel of the old Iraqi government took to the streets, like everyone else.
To the central thesis. Was the White House, from the beginning, in a state of denial? I doubt denial is the word. They were in a state of unknowingness. (I have come to give greater credence to the importance, in the age of terror, among our leaders, of having served in the military. For you need personal experience that you absorbed deep down in your bones, or a kind of imaginative wisdom that tells you even though you were never there what war is like, what invasion is, what building a foreign nation entails.) They were in a state of conviction: They really thought Saddam had those WMDs. (Yes, so did Bill Clinton, so did The New Yorker, so did I, and so likely did you. But Mr. Bush moved on, insisted on, intelligence that was faulty, inadequate.) They were in a state of propulsion: 9/11 had just wounded a great nation. Strong action was needed.
Here I add something I have been thinking about the past year. It is about the young guys at the table in the Reagan era. The young, mid-level guys who came to Washington in the Reagan years were always at the table in the meeting with the career State Department guy. And the man from State, timid in all ways except bureaucratic warfare, was always going “Ooh, aah, you can’t do that, the Soviet Union is so big, Galbraith told us how strong their economy is, the Sandinistas have the passionate support of the people, there’s nothing we can do, stop with your evil empire and your Grenada invasion, it’s needlessly aggressive!” Those guys from State—they were almost always wrong. Their caution was timorousness, their prudence a way to evade responsibility. The young Reagan guys at the table grew up to be the heavyweights of the Bush era. They walked into the White House knowing who’d been wrong at the table 20 years before. And so when State and others came in and said, “The intelligence doesn’t support it, we see no WMDs,” the Bush men knew who not to believe.
History is human.
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