Bush vs. Woodward—only one reputation will survive.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 29 2006 6:39 PM

Bush vs. Woodward

Only one reputation can survive.

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Bob Woodward. Click image to expand.
Bob Woodward

Bob Woodward's 2002 book Bush at War portrayed the president in such a heroic light that the Republican National Committee promoted it on their Web site. But Woodward's third Bush book, State of Denial, should probably be for sale on the DNC's Web site. Or perhaps Democrats will just hand it out at campaign rallies.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

The book doesn't officially come out until Monday, but the storm that attends any Woodward publication is already upon us. An excerpt from Woodward's 60 Minutes interview has been released. The New York Times did a speed-readof a copy they were nimble enough to get early, and the Washington Post started its multiday coverage. (By the end of Friday, State of Denial was No. 1 on Amazon.)

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The disclosures so far have been devastating. The book paints the administration as clueless, dishonest, and dysfunctional. The behind-the-scenes anecdotes are irresistible. Laura Bush telling her husband he should fire Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Vice President Cheney pushing aides to call the chief weapons inspector in the middle of the night with coordinates for a site in Syria that might have those elusive weapons. Secret White House visits by Henry Kissinger. Bush having to tell Rumsfeld to return Condoleezza Rice's calls. Memos describing Rumsfeld's "rubber glove syndrome"—he didn't want to leave fingerprints on decisions.

In the renewed battle between the Bush and Clinton dynasties over who did more to kill Osama Bin Laden, the book offers a damaging account of a meeting between Condi Rice and then-CIA director George Tenet. In July 2001, Tenet rushed over to the White House to make his case in person about the rising threat, but Rice blew him off. Administration officials from Cheney to Rice have been throwing Tenet under a bus recently, blaming him for the faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. They recite his line from Woodward's second Bush book, in which he said the case for weapons was a "slam dunk." Presumably, Tenet or his allies are using the third book as payback.

State of Denial is a significant blow to the president both politically and strategically. Politically it comes after the 9/11 anniversary restored some of Bush's popularity and improved voters' feelings about his administration's competency. Democrats jumped on the new revelations, holding a press conference Friday on Capitol Hill to talk about the book before it had even come out, proving that press conferences—like many book reviews—do not require actually reading the book.

As a policy matter, the bookundermines Bush's attempts to strengthen the national will for the long and drawn-out fight ahead. For the last year, the administration has been unsuccessfully trying to get the mix in the president's public statements right: enough candor to show people Bush is aware of what's really going on in Iraq but enough optimism to keep Americans behind the fight. "There is a clear distinction between having confidence in your strategy and that ultimate success is achievable while also recognizing it will be extremely difficult to get there," says a senior White House official. "The president's speeches during the last year have struck that balance. What was Churchill saying during the middle of the blitz—'have no fear, we're losing and things won't get better?' Hell no; he was honest about the predicament, but confident that they would succeed. By no means am I saying the president is Churchillian, but there is a long history of war-time leaders being optimistic even during the darkest days."

Woodward's book undermines the effort to make this pitch. He charges the president has not been straight with the American people about how bad things are in Iraq and how much worse it's going to get. But his most damning claim—screaming at you right there in the title—is not that Bush is deceitful; it's that he's clueless. People may not care if Bush admits reality to the public, but they hope he's admitting reality to himself.

Gen. John Abizaid, the top military officer in Iraq, has said no troops will come home before next spring at the earliest. Will Americans continue to support that level of engagement or greater if they feel that the strategy behind it is the product of the incompetence outlined in the Woodward book? At some point, the American public's sense of courage and determination will be outweighed by its outrage at ineptitude. In the book, the president reportedly says about Iraq: "I will not withdraw even if Laura and Barney are the only ones supporting me." After State of Denial is published, the president may be closer to that moment.

What makes the Woodward book different from the many other books critical of the Bush war effort is not only the piquancy of his anecdotes but the tonnage of the publicity behind it. The Bob Woodward/Simon & Schuster machine is vast and it's not going to let you sit there and think this is just any other book critical of Bush. First printing was 750,000 copies, and they've already gone back for another 75,000. After the Mike Wallace interview on 60 Minutes, Newsweek and the Washington Post will run excerpts, and then the television daisy chain will begin: the Today show on Monday (the first of two parts), followed by NBC Nightly News with Andrea Mitchell, Larry King Live, ABC World News Tonight with Stephanopolous, Charlie Rose, and NPR. Woodward could very well show up on the BBQ network by the time this is all over.

To battle back, the administration might be inclined to shoot the messenger. But the White House has cooperated with Woodward for his first two books. He provided a kind of cover for the Bush team during the Valerie Plame saga as well. He, like Robert Novak, learned that Plame worked at the CIA from Richard Armitage, but Woodward never wrote about it. He went on to describe the investigation into the leaker as an assault on First Amendment protections of the press. It will be hard to paint him as a partisan hack.

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