Documenting Bob Woodward's "State of Denial"
Some thoughts on what makes history.
By AcademicElephant Posted in History — Comments (8) / Email this page » / Leave a comment »
For the past two weeks, there has been steady buzz about veteran Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward's State of Denial, which currently holds the top spot on the New York Times "Hardcover Nonfiction" list. SoD is Mr. Woodward's third book about the Bush administration. For those of you who have forgotten, the first two were Bush at War (2002) and Plan of Attack (2004). Given the pattern established by the appearance of SoD as we approach the 2006 mid-terms, I can only assume that the final installment in the Bush series will grace bookstores in the lead-up to the 2008 presidential election (Mr. Woodward won't confirm, but he refers to this project coyly as Bush at Peace: Part I). While that's something to which we can all look forward, my topic today is his current offering. Mr. Woodward's new book is being touted as gospel--as the definitive account of the Iraq mission that stands in stark and independent contrast to the lies being fed to the American people by the Bush administration. SoD is a great achievement, Mr. Woodward's admirers proclaim. It transcends journalism.
It is history.
As I noted ten days ago, most of the excitement around SoD centers on the damning portrayal of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld found therein. In that post I wondered about the accuracy of Mr. Woodward's description of Mr. Rumsfeld, given the tendency of his claimed sources to stoutly deny the quotes he attributes to them. I had only the published excerpts of SoD to go on at that point, and they did the book a disservice. Having now read the whole thing, I must say Mr. Wooward's work is engaging and, on the surface, persuasive. He seems to know what is going through the minds of his subjects, and the prospect of gaining such insider access to the great events of our time is irresistible. In SoD, Mr. Rumsfeld cuts a darkly compelling figure as a myopic, paranoid and fatally-flawed wannabe tyrant who permeates Mr. Woodward's narrative, which begins with his selection process and concludes with what Mr. Woodward presents as the end of their 2006 interview. I came away with the impression that SoD is more about Mr. Rumsfeld than his boss, who declined to be interviewed for it--as did, incidentally, Vice President Cheney and Secretary Rice. Mr. Rumsfeld, however, courteously granted an extensive, two-session interview to Mr. Woodward this July, and his good deed did not go unpunished. In SoD, Mr. Rumsfeld's own words come back to haunt him in an inadvertent but devastating self-indictment.
I know it seems a prosaic concern in the face of such exciting "scoop," but having examined the structure of SoD, I have to wonder whose words are they--Mr. Rumsfeld's? Or Mr. Woodward's? If Mr. Woodward was left to his own devices, we would never know for sure because he chose not to burden himself with the tiresome work of preparing documentary appendices for his "history." And SoD seems plausible enough. Furthermore, it confirms conventional wisdom--we can just take the oracular Watergate reporter's word that it's accurate, right?
Wrong. The Department of Defense helpfully released the 54-page transcript of the Woodward-Rumsfeld interview on October 2nd, which happened to be the day SoD appeared. This readily-available document gives Mr. Woodward's readers an unusal opportunity to compare his text with one of his primary sources, and so to judge for themselves the value of his analysis.
Now I've had time to read them both, I think I understand why Mr. Woodward was so leery of the constraints of proper documentation for SoD, and why the DoD released that transcript. Not in the brief essay that serves as a bibliography (pg. 493) but rather in the more lengthy Acknowledgments to SoD, Mr. Woodward dismisses the tedious "archaeology" of actually identifying and documenting his sources (pgs. 524-25). His "notes" generally refer to undocumented "interviews with knowledgeable sources" or, more infrequently, to specific but again undocumented interviews. These are not notes in a traditional sense as the reader does not find letters, numbers or symbols in the body of the text to signal that there is additional supporting information at the end of the tome. This technique gives the impression that there may be more notes than there actually are, and not transcribing his interviews gives Mr. Woodward a great deal of creative flexibility in terms of the words and non-verbal responses he attributes to his sources. But as convenient as this might be for the development of his story, I must say that his is hardly an historian's scholarly method.
[What follows is quite lengthy because of the extended passages from both SoD and the DoD transcript, but please bear with me. I quoted verbatim in the interests of providing readers with a full and fair picture of these texts. For clarity's sake, I have put the parts under specific discussion into boldface.]
For instance: you read on page 174 that "Rumsfeld was a little defensive about his role in selecting Bremer when I interviewed him in 2006." If you divine that there is a note to this statement, you find on page 502:
174 Rumsfeld was a little defensive: Author interview with Secretary Rumsfeld, July 6, 2006.
Well, thanks to the DoD we can review what Mr. Woodward quotes in his book and what appears in the transcript, and attempt to judge Mr. Rumsfeld's defensiveness for ourselves. Here's SoD:
"Jerry Bremer, of course, was a presidential envoy, and as such he reported to the president and to Condi and the NSC staff," Rumsfeld said.
"You picked him," I said.
"Just a minute," Rumsfeld said. "We all agreed on him, that he was the guy. I think I've forgotten where his name came from, but it might have been George Schultz had recommended him."
"That's not correct," Schultz said later when I told him of Rumsfeld's recollection.
In my reading of this passage, Mr. Rumsfeld's defensiveness stems from that "Just a minute," which appears to dispute Mr. Woodward's "You picked him." And it does come across as pretty defensive--as if Mr. Rumsfeld is trying to avoid responsibility for the selection of Mr. Bremer by dodging behind Mr. Schultz. Let's take a look at the DoD transcript of this passage to confirm:
MR. WOODWARD: My question really is -- what did you envision in the spring of '03 happening? Because, of course, Bremer comes in with a very different model.
SEC. RUMSFELD: He did? I was more in the Jay Garner mode. And Jerry Bremer, of course, is a presidential envoy and, as such, he reported to the president and to Condi at the NSC staff.
MR. WOODWARD: You picked him.
SEC. RUMSFELD: Yes. We all agreed on him that he was the guy. I think I've forgotten where his name came from. I'm not sure -- but it might have been George Schultz who recommended him. In any event, he had a good background, was a capable guy, understood a lot of the pieces at the Department of State. And of course, he put together a team that was basically Department of State. He built the back office here and did the support for us. I talked to him only rarely, and he had an approach that was different that Jay Garner's, no question.
There are two small but troublesome discrepancies here. According to the DoD transcript, Mr. Rumsfeld did not say "Just a minute." Quite on the contrary, he said "Yes," and so agreed with Mr. Woodward. And he further qualified his guess that Mr. Bremer was suggested by former Secretary of State George Schultz as a possibly faulty memory, which is far from the "recollection" relayed by Mr. Woodward to Mr. Schultz. One more issue: in the "notes," Mr. Woodward says the information in Chapter Seventeen came "from an interview with former Secretary of State George Schultz on June 18, 2006." Fair enough, I suppose, although it would be even fairer if we were allowed to see the full transcript of that interview. Or rather it would be fair enough if Mr. Woodward's interview with Mr. Rumsfeld hadn't taken place a month after his conversation with Mr. Schultz. Was there an additional interview with Mr. Schultz after the Rumsfeld interview? If so, why doesn't Mr. Woodward document it? What exactly is going on here? Was Mr. Woodward playing "gotcha" with his sources?
Perhaps not noting the second Schultz interview was just an oversight, but such confusion of and over primary sources is never a good sign for a book with pretensions to being "history."
I chose this lead example of apparent disconnect between SoD and the DoD transcript from the many that dog the book. Want some more? How about pgs. 26-27, in which Mr. Woodward recounts an exchange regarding the 2001 so-called "Anchor Chain Memo":
"I'VE GOT FOUR DRAFTS OF IT," I told Rumsfeld in a 2006 interview.
"Do you really?"
"Yes sir," I said, handing him copies.
"It got better," he said.
"It did," I agreed. "It almost looks like you're struggling, if I may be frank with you."
"This is a difficult job here," he said. "This is not easy, this department. And I can remember having been here a month or two and standing at my desk at night, reflecting over this whole thing and saying, Okay, I was asked to do this job. I've accepted. And what is it? How do you define the job and what are the problems you're facing and what are the obstacles to getting it done? And what's doable and what isn't doable?"
I quoted from the last draft of the memo: "We'll have to do it for the next president."
"You know," he said, "in a place this big that's almost true of everything." He noted that back in 1975 a secretary of defense the first time he had approved the M1 tank that was used in the first Gulf War and the recent invasion of Iraq. He also had approved the F-16, which was still being used in air operations over Iraq. He spoke almost wistfully. "these decisions you make play out over a long period of time, either to the benefit of the country, or conversely to the detriment of the country if you fail to do something."
And the transcript:
MR. WOODWARD: Do you remember the anchor chain memos?
SEC. RUMSFELD: Oh, I wrote that myself. You bet.
MR. WOODWARD: Yeah. I've got four drafts of it.
SEC. RUMSFELD: Do you really?
MR. WOODWARD: Yes, sir. I wanted to give you a copy --
SEC. RUMSFELD: It got better.
MR. WOODWARD: What?
SEC. RUMSFELD: It got better.
MR. WHITMAN: It did. (Laughter.)
MR. WOODWARD: I mean, it really -- tell me, were you -- it almost looks like you struggled, if I may be frank with you, trying to define the number of problems and the magnitude of the task.
SEC. RUMSFELD: This is a difficult job here. This is not easy -- this department. And I can remember, having been here a month or two and standing up at my desk and at night reflecting over this whole thing and saying, okay, I was asked to do this job, I've accepted. And what is it? How do you define the job? And what are the problems you are facing, and what are the obstacles to getting it done? And what's doable and what isn't doable? And the more I reflected on it, I ended up coming up with this kind of an analysis that --
MR. WOODWARD: In the end saying we won't be able to do it for this president, we'll have to do it for the next president.
SEC. RUMSFELD: You know, in any administration that's almost true of everything. The people that they -- each president either benefits or is disadvantaged by the decisions of his predecessor. And each president and each Congress has at their fingertips only those things that were invested in five, 10, 15, 20 years before. And if you think about it -- I approved the M-1 tank that was used in the Gulf War and was used in Iraq, back in 1975. The F-16, which we're using, which is what bombed Zarqawi, I was at the fly-over for the F-16 in Fort Worth back in 1974 or 1975. That's the nature of this. These decisions you make play out over a long period of time, either to the benefit of the country or, conversely, to the detriment of the country if you fail to do something.
Again, small discrepancies, but I think telling. "...[I]t almost looks like you struggled, if I may be frank with you, trying to define the number of problems and the magnitude of the task" in the transcript becomes "It almost looks like you're struggling, if I may be frank with you" in SoD, as if Mr. Rumsfeld remains locked in an internal conflict about his role as SECDEF. Furthermore, it is Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman who says "It did" about the memo "getting better," not Mr. Woodward, which suggests that a subordinate feels comfortable ribbing the fearsome Secretary, even in front of an outsider such as a Washington Post reporter. Mr. Woodward's interruption of Mr. Rumsfeld's train of thought to insert the "next president" line is deleted. And even more strikingly, there's this quote: "You know," he said, "in a place this big that's almost true of everything." In the transcript, Mr. Rumsfeld says "in any administration." He is not talking about the DoD--he's reflecting on his role as part of a democracy that changes administrations every four or eight years, and the way that process causes your decisions have ramifications for successors you will never meet. You need to think outside the box of the immediate concerns of your own tenure. For the purposes of SoD, however, it works better to have the Secretary admit his impotence in the face of the behemoth that is the Pentagon, and "almost wistfully" contemplate his own fallibility. After all, it only means changing a couple of words out of so many to achieve the desired effect.
Let's try pg. 103. Mr. Woodward starts another section thus:
AT THE PENTAGON, on Thursday, December 5, 2002, in the middle of the most intense invasion planning for Iraq, Steve Herbits walked into Rumsfeld's office.
"You're not going to be happy with what I'm going to tell you," he said, "but you are in the unique position of being the sole person who could lose the president's reelection for him if you don't get something straightened out."
Herbits continued. "Now that I've got your attention, you have got to focus on the post-Iraq planning. It is so screwed up. We will not be able to win the peace."
Later I asked Rumsfeld if he recalled the conversation with Herbits. "No," Rumsfeld said. "Doesn't mean it didn't happen."
In this passage, Mr. Woodward encourages us to believe that Mr. Rumsfeld tacitly confirmed the confrontation with Mr. Herbits, and so the inference that the Secretary was not properly focused on post-war planning for Iraq. The transcript:
MR. WOODWARD: He supposedly came in -- now this is December of '02, so four months before the war, and said to you -- this is a note: You are in the unique position to being the sole person who could lose the president's reelection. And he went on to say that the postwar operation, that Feith and company are running is screwed up, and then you started looking very hard at who? This kind of put you on the train to find Jay Garner -- to find somebody to run that office. Do you recall that?
SEC. RUMSFELD: No. Doesn't mean it didn't happen, but --
MR. WOODWARD: Understood, understood. That was -- you really looked at a hundred candidates for Garner's position -- or for Bremer's, I'm sorry.
What a difference a "but" can make. What was Mr. Rumsfeld going to say about this "supposed" conversation that appears as such a damning reality in SoD? What context might he have provided for the exchange? We'll never know because Mr. Woodward cut him off and hurried on--clearly flustered--to preserve his money quote.
The omission of the "but" leads me to another issue: the things from this interview that wound up on "the cutting-room floor," as Mr. Rumsfeld put it. Of course SoD is Mr. Woodward's book and he got to choose what went in it, but reviewing the transcipt is instructive regarding the sorts of choices he made. There's so much in the transcript that provides fascinating insight into both Mr. Rumsfeld and into the relationship between these two men. A very different Secretary of Defense emerges from its pages than the one we encounter in SoD. One revealing passage comes on pg. 31 of the transcript, at the end of the first day of the interview:
MR. WOODWARD: You know, you've got lots of people in the military who are quite unhappy that the rest of the government hasn't showed up with the same level --
SEC. RUMSFELD: Don't say you have, we have --
MR. WOODWARD: We have. Okay, fair point, fair point.
SEC. RUMSFELD: You're a citizen. I've got a lot of rocks in my knapsack, and I don't mind you dumping some more in there. But I like to think we're all part of this country.
This rather effective method of patriotism-questioning tells us that having an American put the DoD into the second person is a hot button for Mr. Rumsfeld. He watches for it, and pounces when it happens--a technique that is itself revealing. It seems Mr. Rumsfeld can indeed be aggressive and I can see how those who walk into this trap might resent it, but he's not doing this for the greater glory of Donald Rumsfeld. He's doing it for the sake of his department and his country. We also learn that he feels the burden of his office--what's more he knows Mr. Woodward is probably going to make it heavier--but doesn't resent having to carry it, as long as we understand that we are, first and foremost, Americans together.
I think that's pretty interesting stuff for an insider portrait of the Secretary and I don't recall seeing a similar episode elsewhere, so it may well be "new" news about him. But the exchange doesn't reflect terribly well on Mr. Woodward. It didn't make the cut.
And then there's the conclusion. Mr. Woodward takes his parting shot on pages 487-88:
AT THE END OF THE SECOND INTERVIEW I quoted former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, "Any military commander who is honest with you will say he's made mistakes that have cost lives."
"Um hmm," Rumsfeld said.
"Is that correct?"
"I don't know. I suppose that a military commander--"
Which you are," I interrupted.
"No I'm not," the secretary of defense said.
"Yes sir," I said.
"No, no. Well..."
"Yes. Yes," I said, raising my hand in the air and ticking off the hierarchy. "It's commander in chief, secretary of defense, combatant commander."
"I can see a military commander in a uniform who is engaged in a conflict having to make decisions that result in people living or dying and that would be a truth. And certainly if you go up the chain to the civilian side to the president and to me, you could by indirection, two or three steps, make the case."
Indirection? Two or three steps removed? It was inexplicable. Rumsfeld had spent so much time insisting on the chain of command. He was in control--not the Joint Chiefs, not the uniformed military, not the NSC or the NSC staff, not the critics or the opiners. How could he not see his role and responsibility?
I could think of nothing more to say.
What a withering denouement this makes to Mr. Woodward's expose of the Secretary, as the verbose reporter who has made his living by his pen for decades is left bereft of words in the face of Mr. Rumsfeld's denial of responsibility. The book formally concludes with a brief discussion of Mr. Woodward's 2003 interview with its ostensible subject, President Bush. But Mr. Woodward's speechlessness is the climax of SoD--and it's certainly a dramatic device on which to end. Unfortunately, the transcript suggests that Mr. Woodward was rather more chatty in the actual interview (continue to bear with me; this is a very long passage but it's important to get it right, don't you think? I have put all the text after Mr. Woodward "could think of nothing more to say" in bold):
MR. WOODWARD: Are you optimistic in the fighting?
SEC. RUMSFELD: We're fighting the first war of history in this new century and with all these new realities with Industrial Age organizations and in an environment that has not adapted and adjusted, a public environment that has not adapted and adjusted.
[Portion deleted by ground-rule and mutual consent]
MR. WOODWARD: Because Bob McNamara said publicly -- and very interesting and hard point, and I want to ask it directly of you. He said, "Any military commander who's honest with you will say he's made mistakes that have cost lives."
SEC. RUMSFELD: Mmm-hmm.
MR. WOODWARD: Is that correct?
SEC. RUMSFELD: I don't know. I suppose that if a military commander --
MR. WOODWARD: Which you are.
SEC. RUMSFELD: No, I'm not.
MR. WOODWARD: Commander in chief, secretary of Defense, combatant commander.
SEC. RUMSFELD: I can see a military commander in a uniform who is engaged in a conflict having to make decisions that result in people living or dying and that that would be a truth. And certainly if you go up the chain to the civilian side, to the president and me, you could, by indirection, two or three steps removed, make that case. But the fascination with that question comes up at almost every press conference. "Oh, tell us every mistake you've ever made, please. We want to have a litany of all your mistakes." And I hear it over and over. And they ask the president. And finally everyone says well, of course there have been mistakes made. And then they'll tell us about these mistakes. You know? I think it's kind of a -- my attitude is this: Our job is to get up every morning and figure out how we can help protect the country and the American people, and to have people that are dedicated to this country, that are patriotic, that care about defending the American people, and help to organize and encourage and lead and bolster their efforts to do that. And sitting around contemplating the kinds of questions that you in the media are so fascinated with is not my idea of how to spend my time on the taxpayer's dollar.
MR. WOODWARD: Can I just say something very -- we know each other well enough -- that you don't understand the power of admitting error --
SEC. RUMSFELD: I do.
MR. WOODWARD: It is the most powerful thing you can do is to -- (inaudible) -- as the leader --
SEC. RUMSFELD: I've done that. I've done that.
MR. WOODWARD: You have.
SEC. RUMSFELD: I've done that.
MR. WOODWARD: I understand that. I understand.
SEC. RUMSFELD: But do I need to do it every day?
MR. WOODWARD: No.
SEC. RUMSFELD: Do I need to spend an hour on it with every journalist who comes in and says, "Oh, tell me all the terrible things you've done"
[Portion deleted by ground-rule and mutual consent]
SEC. RUMSFELD: I have demonstrated my understanding of that principle.
MR. WOODWARD: Yes, I understand.
SEC. RUMSFELD: Then why did you say you don't understand?
MR. WOODWARD: Well, I think --
SEC. RUMSFELD: He's not as bad as he sounds -- (inaudible). (Laughter, cross talk.)
MR. WOODWARD: Will you get him to write me a snowflake about -- (laughter) -- have you ever written a journalist a snowflake?
SEC. RUMSFELD: No.
MR. WOODWARD: Oh, could I be the first to get a snowflake? No, seriously --
SEC. RUMSFELD: They are reserved for --
MR. WOODWARD: You're going to think of things about Bush or Cheney that should be in my book that if you just -- you know, they come to our head, make him a snowflake for the Bible, for the "Gospel According to Rumsfeld."
[Portion deleted by ground-rule and mutual consent]
SEC. RUMSFELD: The Cold War was won not by some buildup to a crescendo of a military battle. It was won economic, political and military. And the war on terror, the struggle against violent extremists, is going to be won the same way-- over an sustained period of time. And anyone who thinks it is purely a military battle is wrong. It is going to take the same kind of patience and persistence, and ultimately it will take what helped us prevail in the Cold War, and that is the fact that through successive administrations of both political parties, people recognized the threat and they were willing to invest and persevere, and they were willing to work with other countries in Western Europe, in this case, and make tough decisions.
MR. WOODWARD: And Wolfowitz got -- right after 9/11 set up this thing called Â– Bletchley II. Do you remember that? Chris DeMuth at the AEI --
SEC. RUMSFELD: I asked him to. I said look, we ought to get some group going to think about --
MR. WOODWARD: And they wrote a paper, seven pages, called, "The Delta of Terrorism," meaning the origin of terrorism, and it essentially said we are in a two-generation war with radical Islam, and we have to do something, and we better start with Iraq.
SEC. RUMSFELD: I remember that.
MR. WOODWARD: Yeah. It had a lot -- quite an impact on the president and Cheney and Rice, because it was short, and it said a two-generation war; that other countries are the real problems, but you can't deal with them; you better start with Iraq.
SEC. RUMSFELD: Interesting--…I don't remember that. I remember asking that they gather a group and that we think that through discussed it with Paul. Where you there Bill?
MR. LUTI: No?
SEC. RUMSFELD: I had in mind something different than they ended up with, and I participated in the initiation of it.
MR. WOODWARD: which was more or less -- (inaudible)
SEC RUMSFELD: More like Bletchley.
MR. WOODWARD: Think tank or
SEC. RUMSFELD: -- yeah, that you'd end up with a continuing body that would bring together some very fine minds, on a highly confidential basis, and provide you the intellectual content for something that was obviously new and different and challenging. And that did not happen.
MR. WOODWARD: And just one quick thing so I'm -- I'm going to be able to cover everything here. In '03, this business about the Army and where the Army took McKiernan out and put Sanchez in with his very light headquarters, a number of people have said you were not happy with that because it wasn't visible to you – what was happening. Is that correct?
SEC. RUMSFELD: That's true.
MR. WOODWARD: What happened there?
SEC. RUMSFELD: I have no idea. I shouldn't say I have no idea. I've asked people to think about it so that we don't repeat the mistake. And regrettably, the lessons learned, what occurred, ended at the end of major combat and did not start up again until about six months later. And it was during that period where things happened that I did not have visibility into. I do not know the extent to which other in the building did, but no one on the civilian side that I know did. And I'm -- it's not clear to me that Pete Pace or Dick Myers did.
MR. WOODWARD: Because I know at the time how you were talking with Franks about putting in a four-star as the commander in Iraq in May of '03, you were discussing it.
SEC. RUMSFELD: I felt badly a year or so later when I started looking at all that stuff that had happened so rapidly without my awareness. So that is about my learning. I also felt badly for General Sanchez. I think he ended up in a position that was difficult.
I've got something that's time sensitive.
[Unrelated banter deleted by mutual agreement]
I hate to accuse of Mr. Woodward of disingenuity, but judging from the transcript, he did not conclude the interview in stunned disgust after Mr. Rumsfeld said "...make that case." Far from being bereft of words, it seems to me that he might still be exchanging "banter" in Mr. Rumsfeld's office had he not been given the hook, as it were. He was told to wrap it up before that question was even asked, and he did not heed the warning. Mr. Woodward also was somewhat less aggressive in his assertion that the civilian head of the Department of Defense is a military commander than he claims in SoD. Furthermore, Mr. Rumsfeld's answer that Mr. Woodward found so troubling while sitting at the keyboard does not end with the word "case" as it does at the end SoD. It goes on to explain why Mr. Rumsfeld was not interested in pursuing this line of questioning--because it was not original. "But the fascination with that question comes up at almost every press conference," he said (and which came up yet again as recently as last Wednesday). This is a question he has answered many times, as he points out rather bluntly to Mr. Woodward. And the Secretary does go on to take somewhat startlingly frank responsibility for faults and to express regret for oversights--but these reflections don't fit into Mr. Woodward's pre-conceived portrait of Mr. Rumsfeld, and so do not appear in SoD. For his part, it seems Mr. Woodward displayed no offended patriotism in the actual interview as he soldiered on, obsequiously playing on their personal relationship to take liberties and with rather mawkish awkwardness trying to gain access to Mr. Rumsfeld's inner circle as the first journalist to get a "snowflake." Am I unfairly mischaracterizing him? Well, you can check the transcript and judge for yourself, but I don't think so.
All right. Enough already, you say. I get the point. So Mr. Woodward is a serial modifier who selectively isolates statements, alters verb tense and even changes inconvenient words and omits relevant chunks of his material when it suits him. So what? He's making a larger point in SoD. These are small things in the face of the truths being told to power here, and they all serve to make what he calls his "story" (see pg. 526) more clear and coherent. Indeed, as I said at the outset, Mr. Woodward's story is a good read. It's simple and easy to follow as all the pieces fall neatly into place. But that's a problem in and of itself, because history, as opposed to a story, is never that tidy. And if Mr. Woodward was this sloppy with the one source we can check, I have to wonder how badly he has manipulated his other "interviews with knowledgeable sources" that we can't? At this point, it ceases to matter if Mr. Woodward's characterizations are accurate or not. I believe that they're not, but that isn't the point here. The point is that they're unsubstantiated--worse, they're undermined when examined in the context of the very sources Mr. Woodward claims. He seems not to be content to record history, but aims rather to re-make it after his own vision.
And so State of Denial may be many things. But it is not history.
Does this distinction matter? I would say that to Mr. Woodward (based on the material discussed below), it matters very much--as it does to those who wish his book to be understood and respected as history. I expect it also matters to Mr. Rumsfeld, who seems to be far more conscious of the judgment of history than he is of contemporary approval polls. In addition, one thing that emerged to me as I reviewed these two texts was Mr. Woodward's desire to have Mr. Rumsfeld acknowledge his book(s) as history--contemporary history, yes, but history nonetheless. It was also pretty clear that Mr. Rumsfeld knows this and will have none of it (he's pretty merciless with Mr. Woodward on this point). The issue may be at the heart of Mr. Woodward's problem with Mr. Rumsfeld; indeed, it's the first thing he mentions in the DoD transcript (this passage does not to my knowledge appear in SoD):
MR. WOODWARD: If I can be cleared to do that, that would be great. Because I want to begin with a couple of months ago in a public briefing down there, you said Woodward's book is not the Bible.
SEC. RUMSFELD: Well, I think I --
MR. WOODWARD: You did, you did.
SEC. RUMSFELD: I said you guys are not writing history. (Laughs.) And I said basically, by God --
MR. WOODWARD: Woodward's book is not the Bible.
SEC. RUMSFELD: That's right.
The topic came up again later in the interview:
MR. WOODWARD: How much time was it between the two letters?
SEC. RUMSFELD: - there's a fixation on this. I don't know.
MR. WOODWARD: Was it weeks or something like that? Was there a reason, or just "I hereby resign"?
SEC. RUMSFELD: No. One was a relatively short letter and the other was a relatively longer letter.
MR. WOODWARD: A longer letter saying?
SEC. RUMSFELD: Oh, I don't know.
MR. WOODWARD: It would help for the history of this --
SEC. RUMSFELD: Your book is not the history of this. (Laughter.) I've told you that.
MR. RUMSFELD: You admit it! (Laughter.)
MR. RUMSFELD: It's not the Bible.
MR. WOODWARD: It's not the Bible; I agree. But it's history -- or between journalism and history. Listen, I totally agree. No one is -- I wake up in the middle of the night thinking I don't know anything about this, like Rumsfeld's letter to the president -- it was long.
For the record, this is what Mr. Rumsfeld said in that press conference that so got Mr. Woodward's goat earlier this year:
SEC. RUMSFELD: Do you think I'm going to stand around reading your books and disputing things in them or validating or not validating?
Q Well --
SEC. RUMSFELD: I've got a real daytime job.
Q I know --
SEC. RUMSFELD: I mean, you'd do nothing else but that if you did that. The fact that I haven't disputed something is -- I mean, if I disputed all the mythology that comes out of this group and the books of the world, I wouldn't have any time to do anything else.
Q Yeah, but the record's starting to emerge here in terms of the decision-making track, and we just wanted to ask you. One -- November of '01, you were asked by the president to start looking into updating plans and --
SEC. RUMSFELD: I don't remember that myself, and I'd have to go back and look.
Q Woodward --
SEC. RUMSFELD: But there's -- it is -- oh, Woodward's book is not the Bible.
Q I know that. (Off mike.)
SEC. RUMSFELD: Some of you may not know that. (Subdued laughter.)
Q The editors know that. (Laughter.)
You can see how Mr. Woodward, with his strong sense of his own importance and his desire to write history, might be piqued at being so mocked not only by the Secretary of Defense, but by the Pentagon press corps as well. And there's one more thing that I think relevant here. In the earlier 2003 interview for Plan of Attack, Mr. Rumsfeld began the discussion with a lecture to Mr. Woodward on how to do his job because he had found the methodology in Bush at War faulty:
Rumsfeld: Okay, a couple of things before we start. I am not great with dates or times and I don't have a lot of notes that can be helpful. The last time we met you asserted things, saying, "You did this or you said that," as though you knew what I did, and you were wrong a lot.
Q: I apologize for that. It was based on NSC notes and what other people said.
Rumsfeld: Other people, exactly. And your assumption is, if somebody says that to you, that it is correct. Therefore you assert it to me. That causes me a lot of problems, because then I have to stop and say, "No, that's not right." Almost everything you asked me was premised with an assertion that was either incomplete or wrong, and it changed the whole nature of it. You'd be better off with me if you asked those questions about the premises in the question you want to ask.
Ouch. (And, incidentally, so much for the theory that the Bush administration only became critical of Mr. Woodward when he began SoD.)
But all is not lost for Mr. Woodward in his quest for scholarly legitimacy. Reading some of the early reviews of SoD, I found it interesting that despite the rather pathetic system that poses as the "documentation" of this book, there are some who buy what Mr. Woodward is peddling as gospel. It is perhaps not particularly surprising the likes of The New Republic's Jonathan Chait fall hook, line and sinker for SoD ("State of Denial, Bob Woodward's latest, has delivered the coup de grace. This scathing indictment, coming as it does from a pillar of Washington-establishment thinking and a former court stenographer of the Bush administration, represents the final indignity."). But I must say that I was surprised and dismayed to see no less than Peggy Noonan take to the pages of The Wall Street Journal to deride Mr. Woodward's previous and more complimentary books on Mr. Bush as "boring," and proclaim that SoD "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.)" Huh? Did her review copy come with different documentation than mine? Or is she ignorant of what seriously attempting to write history entails? "History is human," she sonorously concludes. Perhaps I am being obtuse here, but I do not understand what that means. From where I sit, history is a discipline. A subjective one, it is true, that is written by all-too-fallible humans. But the challenge of writing good history is to try our utmost to look beyond our biases and see the evidence clearly for what it is, not what we want it to be. Being human does not excuse a spurious effort in which selectively revised "facts" masquerade as history--even if the result suits Ms. Noonan's whim of the moment.
Fortunately, someone a little more knowledgeable on this topic delivered a short seminar this week on what it means to be an historian. Writing about Fiasco, Cobra II and SoD, Victor Davis Hanson noted:
The authors, as journalists, are well aware that after The New York Times' problems with Jayson Blair and other high-profile media scandals, the public no longer necessarily accepts what reporters write as gospel. That perhaps explains their and others' apparent adaptation of scholarly methods. Often these days journalists mimic the footnoting of historians - giving the impression that their reporting is history documented by verifiable primary and secondary sources also available to the reader.
Indeed, the verifiability of source material is what distinguishes history from hearsay -and what distinguishes the genre from journalism or first-person recollections. Since the time of the historian Thucydides - who not only recorded what speakers said, but, more controversially, made them voice what he thought they might or ought to have said - historians have developed protocols to ensure credibility. Whether or not historians use footnotes or citations, they at least now agree to draw on information that can be checked by others, who will determine how skillfully, honestly or completely such sources were employed.
But by too often using only the veneer of the historical method, the authors of these three books give their work a patina of scholarly credibility that can confuse the reader...Among the endnotes in "State of Denial," we are apprised, "The information in this chapter comes primarily from background interviews with seven knowledgeable sources."
But who are these "seven knowledgeable" sources? Since Woodward so far won't name them, how do we really know that they are "knowledgeable" or even "primarily" used? Is the answer because they talked to Woodward (and not to others?), or were pre-selected because they happened to agree with his own views?
There are a number of other things wrong with all this gossip...
Indeed there are, Professor Hanson.
Fortunately for those who will write the proper histories of Mr. Bush and his administration, and there is certainly room for some serious work on this topic, Mr. Woodward's books will not serve as Bibles for this period, although they may be of use as evidence of how poorly understood this President and those who work for him have been by our media. When exposed to the cold light of the primary documents that will inform more rigorous investigations, we find that rather than practicing history, Mr. Woodward was writing a story in which the material he gathered as a journalist is routinely compromised in the service of his narrative. He masks sensationalist allegation with a thin facade of historical legitimacy in an effort to create buzz around his product. After all, Mr. Rumsfeld is pretty much guaranteed to draw attention these days, so trumpeting SoD as a factual (not to mention highly critical) "history" of him is no more nor less than a reliable publicity stunt designed to fuel book sales.
Don't get me wrong; I'm no enemy to the concept of selling large numbers of history books. Nothing would make me happier than to have work such as Professor Hanson's make the same numbers as Mr. Woodward's. I also would not object to paying full market price for an in-depth, no-holds-barred, fair and accurate history of Mr. Rumsfeld's role in the Bush administration. This is not, however, what Mr. Woodward produced. Playing at writing a history of a topic this serious to justify a publisher's advance, further a political agenda or out of plain old personal pique is the height of irresponsibility. I think that, love him or hate him, there are few who would dispute Mr. Rumsfeld's role in literally making history over the past six years. And while Mr. Woodward might claim to have been observing history during this period from a privileged perch, after reading State of Denial I do not believe he has any pretensions towards writing it.
In the end, I expect we can trust history to judge them both.