End of the Affair

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President George W. Bush, September 2006

Bob Woodward's first book on this Administration, Bush At War, was hagiography, the prose equivalent of those post-9/11 Annie Leibovitz photographs for Vanity Fair that captured the President and his War Cabinet in heroic still lifes. Woodward, the world's most famous investigative reporter and an assistant managing editor at the Washington Post, took a lot of heat for going soft on the President in Bush At War, but the author's critics were wrong to suggest he was politically motivated. That book, remember, chronicled the President and his inner circle during the first three months after 9/11. All things considered, and certainly by comparison to what followed, those were pretty good days for this Administration.

Then came Plan of Attack, Woodward's second Bush book. Published in April 2004, this one was decidedly more nuanced. Like all Woodward products, its tone reflected the moment in time when it was written — in this case, that fuzzy period between Bush celebrating Iraq as a "mission accomplished" and the turning point when the greater national security establishment decided Iraq had become a disaster. In Plan of Attack, Bush and his team were flawed, but well-intentioned; they made both good decisions and bad, and they feuded among themselves, sometimes less than nobly, over the best policies to pursue. But the White House and the Bush-Cheney campaign cleverly decided to ignore all the negative stuff in the book. Instead, they said it showed the President as a leader. They even listed it as recommended reading on the campaign's website. Thanks to the Bush team's embrace, Woodward was accused unfairly of being a lapdog for the President. Woodward, understandably, was chagrined; very, very rich for a working print journalist (Plan of Attack, like most Woodward books, was a best seller), but chagrined nonetheless.

Now we have State of Denial. The title alone is a departure for Woodward. His books during the Clinton years — The Agenda, The Choice — all carried neutral titles that revealed little about how the people in power were portrayed. The same can be said of Bush At War and Plan of Attack. From the moment the title of the third book leaked, White House officials knew they were in trouble.

Actually, they suspected long ago that Woodward's newest book would not be good for them. Woodward had plenty of access to Bush and Cheney for his first two tomes. Not this time. "We had a sense that this was going to be a different kind of book," says one source familiar with the discussions on how to handle Woodward. "The third time is not the charm."

The line out of Bush World on State of Denial is that it's "nothing new" and "old news" — the standard damage control response I remember hearing again and again from Clinton flacks during times of trouble in those years. "These are just gossipy snapshots of issues that have been covered ad nauseam," says Dan Bartlett, the President's counselor. Bartlett has the unenviable task this weekend of appearing on three Sunday shows to talk down the significance of the Woodward book.

But thanks to the New York Times' David Sanger, who scooped the Washington Post on the key revelations in State of Denial this morning, we know that some of Woodward's revelations ARE new. That then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card urged the removal of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld — that's new. That Robert Blackwill, the White House point man on Iraq in the first term, told Condi Rice and her deputy that 40,000 more troops were needed but was rebuffed — that's new, too. And there are more.

Still, Bartlett and others on the Bush team may yet succeed in convincing people that Woodward's revelations are ancient history, but not necessarily for reasons that are helpful to the President or the Republican Party. The real-time news out of Iraq continues to be so relentlessly grim that nothing, not even another Woodward expose, may be able to steal the spotlight for too long. So come to think of it, the White House might want to make State of Denial recommended reading after all.