By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 28, 2005
It was a cinematic image that lured thousands of young people into journalism, Robert Redford coaxing information out of Hal Holbrook in a dimly lit parking garage.
And since, in real life, Bob Woodward fiercely protected Deep Throat's identity, what lingered was the mystique of a dogged journalist, plying his trade in the shadows.
Three decades older and millions of dollars richer, Woodward still has plenty of secret sources, but they work in the highest reaches of the Bush administration. They are molding history rather than revealing Watergate-style corruption. Some have even used the press to strike back against a critic of their war by revealing the identity of a CIA operative. And the public is no longer as enamored of reporters and their unnamed informants.
In the days since the Washington Post assistant managing editor apologized to his paper for failing to reveal his role in the CIA leak controversy, Woodward, 62, has found himself under fire not just over this incident but for his very approach to journalism. His unusual relationship with The Post, and whether he hoards newsworthy material for his books, have also come under fresh scrutiny.
Although he has spoken to CNN's Larry King and the Village Voice in the past week, Woodward declined several requests for an on-the-record interview with The Post, saying only that "I think the work speaks for itself."
In today's polarized political atmosphere, Woodward's journalistic methods have been assailed by those who view him as dependent on the Bush inner circle for the narratives that drive his bestsellers.
Still, his track record of consistently breaking news -- the New York Times ran two front-page pieces on his book "Plan of Attack," examining the prelude to the Iraq war -- is probably unmatched by any other journalist. In his 14 books since helping to unravel the Watergate scandal as a 29-year-old local reporter, Woodward has penetrated such varied institutions as the Supreme Court, the CIA and the Federal Reserve.
Most reporters -- whether they cover city hall, Hollywood studios or the local baseball team -- depend on access to the decision makers or celebrities who populate their beat. But they also publish or broadcast most of their stories as events unfold. Under Woodward's unusual relationship with The Post, he stays on the payroll while mainly writing books from his Georgetown home, with the paper carrying excerpts -- and providing a publicity boost -- upon publication. This has sparked some resentment among the staff.
Executive Editor Leonard Downie, maintaining that The Post benefits greatly from the arrangement, says Woodward "has gone from being someone who was on the outside to someone who has such access, who's famous, who's recognized on the street, who's treated by celebrities and very high officials as an equal." And, says Downie, "his access has produced a lot of information about the inner workings of this White House, the Clinton White House, the first Bush administration, and documents, actual documents, that nobody else has gotten."
Downie concedes that months sometimes go by without any contact with Woodward, adding that they have now agreed to communicate more often. He says Woodward occasionally volunteers to break off from his book research to produce news stories for The Post, especially with material too timely to be held, and sometimes does so at Downie's request. In fact, it was when Downie asked Woodward to work on the CIA leak case last month that the reporter acknowledged that a senior administration official had told him in 2003 that Valerie Plame, the wife of White House critic Joseph Wilson, worked for the CIA.A Special Niche
Woodward, of course, is hardly the first Washington journalist to move easily in the corridors of power. In earlier eras, Walter Lippmann, Joseph Alsop and James Reston had the ear of presidents and prime ministers. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy asked Reston if he would say on his own authority, in his New York Times column, that the administration would respond militarily if the Soviets tried to block U.S. access to Berlin. Only toward the end of his career, as the media culture turned more adversarial, did some critics question whether Reston should have allowed his column to be used as an instrument of diplomacy.
Woodward's role is different in that he weaves the intelligence he collects from the powerful into book-length form, freed from regular deadlines, with hundreds of pages to flesh out his instant histories. He is different in that he takes no unpaid leave to produce his books -- unlike most working reporters -- crafting his volumes for Simon & Schuster while retaining The Post's cachet. He is different in that he is a brand name, returning to the same cast of characters again and again, a luxury afforded one of the few nonfiction authors whose books consistently hit No. 1. He is different in that he is more famous than most of the people he interviews.
These days, a sizable number of newspaper and television reporters (including this one) also write books or appear regularly on TV public affairs shows, but unlike Woodward, they also must produce regularly for their primary employers. Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Woodward has written one news story, one Outlook piece and one book review for The Post, not including his book excerpts. These excerpts are carefully edited by the paper, Downie says, they sometimes require additional reporting, and Woodward tells at least one top editor who the unnamed sources are.
Such sources, of course, are at the heart of Woodward's work. "To get what's in the bottom of the barrel," he told CNN's King, "you have to establish relationships of confidentiality with people at all levels of government. You have to establish relationships of trust."
But the bonds of trust with some readers seem to have been frayed, if feedback to the paper is any measure. When Downie hosted an online chat recently, the questioners' tone was strikingly hostile.
"Do you think Woodward was covering up for the vice president?" one reader asked. "I used to regard Mr. Woodward as a hero," said another. "Mr. Woodward appeared to be more interested in protecting his book than reporting the news," said a third.
While most reporters are lauded for cultivating high-level sources, Jay Rosen, a New York University journalism professor, sees a "disillusionment" with Woodward over these confidential relationships. "Woodward for so long was a symbol of adversarial journalism because of the Watergate legend," Rosen says. "But he really has become an access journalist, someone who's an insider."
The harshest critiques have come from liberals who admired Woodward's role in toppling Richard Nixon but detest his relationship with President Bush. "A reporter who once brought down one corrupt administration now finds himself protecting another," says a headline in Mother Jones magazine.
Woodward made a "serious mistake" in not informing him about the Plame conversation, Downie says, even as Woodward was repeatedly criticizing special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald as a "junkyard dog" whose conduct in issuing subpoenas to reporters was "disgraceful." But, says Downie, "the fact that people would see that as a firing offense is unfathomable to me."
Woodward, who once headed the Metro staff, is widely admired at The Post, but a series of incidents has made some staffers question his loyalty to the paper. The Post was scooped on his book "Plan of Attack" in April 2004 when the Associated Press obtained an advance copy. Vanity Fair, not The Post, was the first to reveal this past spring that Deep Throat was Mark Felt, although in that case Woodward believed the 91-year-old former FBI official lacked the mental capacity to release him from his long-ago pledge. Metro reporters who wanted to know where they held their parking-garage meetings were miffed when Woodward revealed the Arlington location first to NBC's Tom Brokaw.
And much of the staff was puzzled this month when, on the day he acknowledged having testified in the Plame case, Woodward released a statement but would not answer questions from Post reporters.
In refusing to disclose his source -- except to Downie, The Post's attorneys and then Fitzgerald during his recent testimony -- Woodward has said he was standing up for the principle of confidentiality. Former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who recently left her job after being hammered over her erroneous reporting on whether Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction, said she was protecting the same principle by serving 85 days in jail. Detractors say both operated with few constraints at their newspapers.
But "unlike Judy Miller, his editor is on his side," New Yorker media writer Ken Auletta says of Woodward. "His editor said he made a mistake. He hasn't made very many, and he's a man of great integrity." As for Woodward's unique access to all the president's men, Auletta says: "People confuse access with softness."
David Gergen, a Harvard professor and an editor at U.S. News & World Report, was a Nixon White House aide when he first dealt with Woodward. He says Nixon's chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, and others told him "that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were dead wrong, that this was all a vendetta." But, he says of Woodward's role, "it turned out he was the truth teller and the other people were lying. . . .
"I do think that Bob's politics have changed some over the years. He's much more sympathetic to the establishment, especially the Republican establishment," Gergen says. But after "30 years as a trailblazer," he adds, Woodward "doesn't deserve" the level of criticism directed at him.
Each Woodward book has generated its share of controversy -- particularly a hospital bed scene with a dying CIA chief William Casey in "The Veil" -- but nothing like the impassioned debate surrounding the Bush volumes. His books about Bill Clinton's administration, while nowhere near as polarizing as the work on Bush, were also dependent on top-level sources.
"He needs as his window into history the people who talk to him," says former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry, noting that not everyone in that White House cooperated with Woodward. "That gives you a very flawed and distorted view.
"I certainly was a source on some of his books. I felt like I ended up having a prominent role that really didn't reflect reality. My role was inflated because I talked to him. You become part of the breathless narrative."
Gergen, who worked for Clinton before McCurry joined the White House, says his bosses told him he was expected to talk to Woodward once a week.
During the Bush years, Woodward has enjoyed what seems like unfettered access to the likes of Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Andrew Card and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. His highest-level source is Bush himself, who has granted him several long, on-the-record interviews and ordered Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who initially turned down Woodward, to cooperate with the reporter.
Mary Matalin, a former aide to Cheney, says Woodward does "an extraordinary job" and "works like a dog." But outsiders often wonder: Why does an administration not known for being fond of the press put so much effort into cooperating with Woodward?
"There is a really deep respect for his work, and a deep desire by the president to have a contemporaneous, historically accurate account," Matalin says. "The president rightly believed that Woodward, for good and ill, warts and all, would chronicle what happened. It's in the White House's interest to have a neutral source writing the history of the way Bush makes decisions. That's why the White House gives him access."The Game of Access
Woodward views himself as conducting the same kind of reporting -- piling fact upon fact from a range of sources -- as he did during Watergate, with the added benefit of access to Bush. He has said Bush is just one voice in a complex narrative and that he includes material that does not necessarily cast the president in a favorable light.
Woodward's 2002 book, "Bush at War," was a largely positive portrayal of the successful military campaign in Afghanistan, and some critics derided it as too soft on the president. But last year's "Plan of Attack" was more of a critical success.
The book made headlines with reports that Rumsfeld had given the Saudi ambassador a heads-up on the coming war, that then-CIA Director George Tenet had called the weapons intelligence a "slam dunk," and that then-Secretary of State Powell had warned Bush on Iraq that "you break it, you own it." Campaign aides to both Bush and John Kerry embraced the book, seizing on different aspects.
Fresh memories of events can also be crucial, academics say. "If you didn't have Woodward at the time or shortly afterward pushing people very hard to get information for his books, much of that stuff would be lost forever," says historian Michael Beschloss.
What, then, explains the recent storm of criticism? "There's an enormous jealousy factor over this guy," says Jeff Leen, The Post's assistant managing editor for investigations, who has worked closely with Woodward. "People like to see the king fall. . . . There are a lot of armchair quarterbacks who couldn't carry Woodward's shoes but are weighing in on whether he should keep his job."
Some liberals, while crediting Woodward's past work, suggest he has been co-opted.
"The administration plays along with this by giving him some juicy details in service of the larger effort to make Bush look like he walks on water," says Robert Kuttner, co-editor of the American Prospect. "Bob is the willing enabler of that, and it's shameful. Bob has it both ways -- he's the court biographer and he keeps intact his reputation as an investigator."
Kuttner accuses Woodward of running "a protection racket -- you sit still for an interview and you get treated generously. You don't cooperate with Woodward and it's going to be hell."
Woodward dismissed criticism of any "quid pro quo," telling King: "I'm not compromising anything. And anyone who looks at the books or the coverage will see that it has some pretty tough stuff in it. At the same time, the president or others get to express their point of view."
Gergen calls Woodward "one of the most seductive individuals in the whole world," one who will stress that he's already spoken to others in a meeting and that "you're only going to hurt yourself and hurt the cause you care about if you don't talk."
Woodward has faulted himself for not being more aggressive before the war when three sources told him the weapons intelligence on Iraq was not as strong as the administration was claiming. "I blame myself mightily for not pushing harder," he said last year.
Woodward, who employs researchers at his own expense, disputes the notion that he saves all his material for his books. Indeed, he wrote numerous stories for The Post after 9/11 that, combined with the work of colleagues, won the paper a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.
On Sept. 28, 2001, he disclosed a handwritten note left behind by hijacker Mohamed Atta. On Oct. 21, he revealed that Bush had signed an intelligence order directing the CIA to take lethal action against Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. On May 18, 2002, Woodward co-wrote a piece disclosing that a top-secret memo presented to Bush a month before the attacks was headlined "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S."
"The man was a dynamo," Leen says. "All hell was breaking loose, and he went out and brought the story back. He does triangulation reporting. He goes back to people and back to people and back to people." At the paper, however, "people are obviously intimidated by him," Leen says. "You don't approach Bob Woodward and give him an order like you would other reporters."
At the same time, Woodward has readily collaborated with Post colleagues, sometimes passing along information without credit.
As an author, Woodward regularly reconstructs scenes without identifying sources, a practice that stirred controversy again with the Bush books. "If you don't know where the information is coming from, it really does diminish the value of the book you're reading," says historian Robert Dallek.
Rick Shenkman, a history professor at George Mason University, says Woodward's books are "very, very important" in an age when presidents and their top aides no longer keep diaries or write letters for fear of possible subpoenas. "To the extent Bob Woodward has become a captive of their narrative, that's to the advantage of historians," Shenkman says. "He's channeling these people."
For all his fame and fortune, Woodward will forever be compared with the scrappy shoe-leather reporter who was investigating a president three decades ago, rather than sitting down with a president for long chats at his Texas ranch.