The Cheerleader

G. Pascal Zachary December 20, 2002

In page after dread­ful page of his lat­est book, Bush at War, Bob Wood­ward demon­strates an old adage about jour­nal­ism in wartime: The first casu­al­ty is truth. Pur­port­ing to get inside the minds of Pres­i­dent George W. Bush and his clos­est asso­ciates — and to tell us the ulti­mate truths about the war on ter­ror­ism” — Wood­ward instead cre­ates a clever fic­tion that obscures truth and ele­vates myth to the sta­tus of revelation. 

Woodward’s betray­al of his jour­nal­is­tic duty — so com­mon these days among his col­leagues — would be ordi­nary and unwor­thy of com­ment were it not for his sta­tus as the dean of Amer­i­can inves­tiga­tive reporters. Wood­ward is an icon, and he remains influ­en­tial, admired across the polit­i­cal spec­trum, for his tenac­i­ty and stub­born empiri­cism. The touch­stone of his great­ness is clear: As a cub reporter in the 70s, Wood­ward helped bring down Pres­i­dent Nixon by expos­ing in the Wash­ing­ton Post the web of deceit and intrigue that lay behind a bun­gled bur­glary of a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty office in Washington’s Water­gate hotel. 

The media estab­lish­ment repeat­ed­ly dis­missed Water­gate as irrel­e­vant. But Wood­ward, along with his co-reporter Carl Bern­stein and leg­endary Post edi­tor Ben Bradlee, resist­ed pres­sure to aban­don their inves­ti­ga­tion, over­com­ing skep­ti­cism even from with­in their own newsroom. 

Water­gate made Wood­ward a star; Robert Red­ford even played him in a hit movie. While he remained at the Post as a reporter and edi­tor, Wood­ward grad­u­al­ly acced­ed to the pres­sure of his own rep­u­ta­tion. To bol­ster his jour­nal­is­tic brand” as a scoop­meis­ter, he grad­u­al­ly turned from hard-hit­ting expo­sure to tit­il­lat­ing gos­sip. Wood­ward mar­ried his reportage to a crass form of lit­er­ary jour­nal­ism, reveal­ing pow­er­ful fig­ures by get­ting inside their heads. At first mild­ly crit­i­cal, these stream-of-con­scious­ness accounts (for exam­ple, Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA: 1981 – 1987 or The Com­man­ders, about the inva­sion of Pana­ma) turned increas­ing­ly fawning. 

By the time Wood­ward pub­lished an account in 2000 of Fed­er­al Reserve Chair­man Alan Greenspan, his apoth­e­o­sis from muck­rak­er to cheer­leader was com­plete. Mae­stro: Greenspan’s Fed and the Amer­i­can Boom appeared almost simul­ta­ne­ous­ly with the col­lapse of the Inter­net bub­ble and the out­break of glob­al eco­nom­ic cri­sis. Both devel­op­ments threat­en to ruin Greenspan’s rep­u­ta­tion for eco­nom­ic wis­dom — and high­light the rein­ven­tion of Wood­ward as publicist. 

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In Bush at War, Wood­ward again shows his flair for pub­lic rela­tions. Wood­ward makes much of his sources, boast­ing of an inside account, large­ly the sto­ry as the insid­ers saw it, heard it and lived it.” This inside” account relies chiefly on self-serv­ing rec­ol­lec­tions of the chief par­tic­i­pants (Bush, Vice Pres­i­dent Dick Cheney, Defense Sec­re­tary Don­ald Rums­feld, Sec­re­tary of State Col­in Pow­ell and Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Advis­er Con­doleeza Rice) and san­i­tized tran­scripts of meet­ings in which the main play­ers sound like they’re play­ing to a tele­vised audi­ence rather than speak­ing to each other. 

I’m doing a press con­fer­ence tonight,” Bush declares at the start of one meet­ing, accord­ing to Wood­ward. After descrip­tions of dozens of sim­i­lar set pieces, Wood­ward com­ments that Bush in his pri­vate meet­ings does seem to be speak­ing in media-bites rather than to his com­rades, which sug­gests that he should have titled his book Bush at Meet­ings. Wood­ward is more like­ly to tell us what the pres­i­dent is wear­ing, or who is present (or absent) at meet­ings, than tack­le the big ques­tions that remain unan­swered about Sep­tem­ber 11 and the offi­cial U.S. reaction. 

Absent from the book, for instance, is any men­tion of how and why, sev­en days after the 911 attacks, Bush orga­nized the removal from the Unit­ed States of dozens of bin Laden’s rel­a­tives on behalf of friends in Sau­di Ara­bia, with­out even assess­ing whether these Saud­is might assist in the U.S. inves­ti­ga­tion. To quote Frank Rich of the New York Times, who list­ed a num­ber of Woodward’s omis­sions in a recent col­umn: The tru­ly sen­si­tive issues for the Bush admin­is­tra­tion are those that are giv­en short shrift in the book or left out entire­ly. We hear no inside accounts of its fail­ure to track down the anthrax ter­ror­ists. John Ashcroft’s inabil­i­ty to arrest a sin­gle ter­ror­ist dur­ing his post‑9/​11 mass roundups goes unnoticed.” 

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Odd­ly, the strongest parts of Bush at War take place on the ground in Afghanistan. Wood­ward inter­spers­es his account of Wash­ing­ton meet­ings with the exploits of the first CIA team sent into Tal­iban ter­ri­to­ry. The team, code­named Jaw­break­er, is shown hand­ing out cash to Afghan war­lords. Wood­ward remains uncrit­i­cal of these CIA agents, and of the Pen­ta­gon Spe­cial Forces units who lat­er join them. He ends the book with a strange image of a group of them cre­at­ing a 911 memo­r­i­al in the Afghan moun­tains. One of the Amer­i­cans vows, We will export death and vio­lence to the four cor­ners of the earth in defense of our great nation.” 

The dec­la­ra­tion rings false, as does Bush’s imi­ta­tion, through­out the book, of a lone gun­slinger who intends to clean up the Wild West. Despite all the war-mon­ger­ing rhetoric, Bush and his admin­is­tra­tion have actu­al­ly failed to meet fire with fire; bin Laden and his top lieu­tenants have large­ly escaped U.S. wrath. Char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly, Wood­ward says lit­tle about the set­backs in the war on ter­ror­ism, but he can­not com­plete­ly erase from view the evi­dence that Bush and his cohorts view Sep­tem­ber 11 as a boon: an oppor­tu­ni­ty to extend Amer­i­can mil­i­tary pow­er and ignite a new phase of U.S. imperialism. 

The president’s smug con­fi­dence that the Unit­ed States can and will police the world obscures but does not elim­i­nate from Woodward’s account (large­ly in the form of Col­in Powell’s fore­bod­ings) that the source of glob­al resent­ment toward the Unit­ed States is root­ed, in large mea­sure, in U.S. poli­cies and practices. 

But Wood­ward can be excused for fail­ing to grasp the seeds that doom Amer­i­can impe­ri­al­ism to fail­ure. He has become, after all, a nov­el­ist rather than a jour­nal­ist, and a poor one at that.

G. Pas­cal Zachary is the author of the mem­oir Mar­ried to Africa: A Love Sto­ry and The Diver­si­ty Advan­tage: Mul­ti­cul­tur­al Iden­ti­ty in the New World Econ­o­my. From 1989 to 2001, he was a senior writer for the Wall Street Jour­nal. Zachary has con­tributed arti­cles to In These Times for more than 20 years and edits the blog Africa Works, about the polit­i­cal econ­o­my of sub-Saha­ran Africa.
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