The condensed Joseph Wilson.

How to read juicy books.
May 6 2004 6:33 PM

The Condensed Joseph Wilson

Slate reads The Politics of Truth so you don't have to.

BOok cover

Joseph Wilson didn't write the first tell-all about the Iraq war, nor the best, but he did write the longest. His new memoir, The Politics of Truth, weighs in at a lumbar-cracking 514 pages—34 more than Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack and 194 more than Richard Clarke's Against All Enemies.

This is odd since Wilson, a former diplomat, played no more than a cameo role in Saddam's ouster. In short: He wrote a New York Times op-ed rebutting the Bush administration's claim that Saddam had tried to purchase uranium in Niger. Eight days later, the columnist Robert Novak revealed that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA agent—a tip leaked by "senior administration officials." This leak was meant to suggest that Wilson was the beneficiary of nepotism and couldn't be relied upon, or else was a partisan hack, or something—the logic was never entirely clear.

Wilson's book is perhaps best summarized as a 19th-century bildungsroman: Wilson styles himself as a virtuous man, starry-eyed and innocent, journeying out to confront the savage world of Washington politics. Slate zips you straight to the good parts.

Wherein the Diplomat, Our Hero, Meets a Strange Bald Man

Page 28: Wilson travels to Niger and turns up no evidence of Iraqis trying to purchase uranium. The closest thing to the goods: A source tells Wilson he spoke with buffoonish Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf—also known as "Baghdad Bob" and "Comical Ali"—about expanding trade with Niger. The source says uranium might have come up in the course of conversation, but he doesn't remember.

Page 334: Wilson's op-ed, "What I Didn't Find in Africa," appears in the New York Times on July 6, 2003. The following Sunday, Wilson spots Bob Novak in the Meet the Press greenroom.

Page 343: A friend of Wilson's hails Novak on Pennsylvania Avenue. Novak casually tosses out charges of nepotism: "Wilson's an asshole. The CIA sent him [to Niger]. His wife, Valerie, works for the CIA. She's a weapons of mass destruction specialist. She sent him [to Niger]."

Page 344: Two days later, Novak phones Wilson to apologize for the outburst. He asks Wilson if his wife works for the CIA. Wilson demurs, and then Novak apologizes again and hangs up.

Page 348: Novak's column runs on July 14 and outs Plame as a CIA agent. At the moment, Wilson can muster only weak anger: "I felt that punching the man in the nose would not have been an unreasonable response."

Page 394: Wilson again encounters Novak on the set of Meet the Press. They shake hands. Wilson writes, "Around Washington his critics call him Bob 'No Fact' for his sloppy tabloid-gossipy articles. … Having long since prostituted himself to the Right as its uncritical shill, he offers little original insight." Now, that's more like it, Joe!

Wherein Our Hero Becomes a Pundit

Page 294: Wilson appears with Paula Zahn on CNN and warns of the dangers of regime change. After the show, he moans that he doesn't hear from Zahn's producers for "several weeks."

Page 298: Paula Zahn calls him back.

Page 305: Wilson on Fox News host Sean Hannity: "one of the least interesting people I have ever spoken to"; "has no idea what he is talking about, at least on foreign policy"; makes "ad hominem attacks on the integrity and patriotism of those whose views he does not share." Wilson appears on the show several times.

Page 323: On a Nightline appearance: "[T]he one person whom we would have liked most to influence by our arguments—George W. Bush—was probably already asleep."

Page 357: On a Daily Show appearance: "I was more excited than I had been for any other television appearance I had yet made. This, after all, was not news; it was satire."

Wherein Our Hero Considers Romance

Page 283: Valerie Plame is smitten with Brent Scowcroft. The former national security adviser's "one extravagance is a silver Mercedes convertible. Valerie has a not-so-secret crush on him—not for his car, but for his charm."

Page 351: Wilson: "The next morning I appeared on the Today show. Katie Couric was the interviewer. Unfortunately, I was on remote location, in Washington—my one chance to sit face-to-face with 'America's sweetheart,' and all I could see was the unblinking eye of the camera in front of me."

Wherein Our Hero Attempts Historical Analogy

Page 311: Wilson compares Bush's neocon advisers to Napoleon's generals "as they sat around the table and listened to his plans on the eve of the march on Moscow."

Page 348: "I was waking up in the middle of the night and pacing the floor, as I had during that critical period in Baghdad during Desert Shield. Back then, my mind would be going a thousand miles a minute, trying to gain an edge on the thugs in the Iraqi regime; now I was trying to predict what the thugs in my own government would do. …"

Wherein Our Hero Decides To Play Dirty

After seeing his wife unmasked by anonymous Bushies, Wilson wheels out unnamed sources for many of his juiciest allegations.

Page 313: A "colleague" at the State Department tells Wilson that the president wasn't referring to Niger when, in his 2003 State of the Union address, he said, "Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." The Bushies later admit Bush was referring to Niger and concede the error.

Page 326: Even before Wilson publishes his op-ed, a "respected reporter" tells him of a secret meeting in the vice president's office in which administration officials think of ways to slime Wilson. Newt Gingrich attends and "actively participate[s]."

Page 332: Most intriguing: It's a "senior official in the administration" who suggests to Wilson write that he write his infamous op-ed for the Times.

Our Hero Is Disabused of His Delusions of Grandeur

Page 297: Condi Rice, who served in the first Bush administration when Wilson was acting ambassador to Iraq, says she has never heard of Wilson. "Perhaps she has a poor memory," Wilson writes.

Page 348-9: After the publication of Wilson's New York Times op-ed, world leaders race to declare they've never met Wilson. First out of the gate are British Foreign Minister Jack Straw and Australian Prime Minister John Howard.

Our Hero's Delusions Are Restored

Page 354: When Wilson attends a Nation editorial board meeting, someone suggests he deserves a standing ovation.

Page 355: The New York Times' Robert Semple tells Wilson he restored luster to the paper after the Jayson Blair quagmire. Wilson, modestly: "I had not imagined that anyone at the paper would attribute their improvement to me or my piece." 

Page 361: In Beverly Hills, Wilson lunches with Norman Lear ("worldly wise … indomitable passion"); wife, Lyn ("easygoing companion … dedicated partner"); interior decorator Mary Leonard ("ebullient … political junkie"); and Warren Beatty ("inimitable").

Page 409-410: After fretting about her lost anonymity, Valerie Plame poses for Vanity Fair. Wilson: "With proper precautions taken, I saw no reason to deprive ourselves of the pleasure of being photographed together as the happily married couple that we are."

Bryan Curtis, Slate's "Middlebrow" columnist, writes for Grantland, Texas Monthly, and Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.