'State of Denial' Lands Early And Hits Harder

(2005 Photo By Brad Barket -- Getty Images)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 30, 2006

The impassioned debate that seems to surround each new book by Bob Woodward burst into public view yesterday, two days ahead of schedule.

The unveiling of "State of Denial," Woodward's latest take on the Bush administration's struggle with the conflict in Iraq, scrambled the usual media alliances. The New York Times ran a front-page exclusive on a book by a journalist for The Washington Post -- which begins running excerpts tomorrow -- and Brian Williams led "NBC Nightly News" with a story based on advance tidbits put out by CBS's "60 Minutes," which airs its Woodward interview tomorrow.

For several years now, liberal critics have been denigrating Woodward as a high-level stenographer for an administration they detest, even as his last two books have also revealed information that embarrassed the White House. But this new volume -- written, unlike the others, without access to President Bush -- has media and political circles buzzing about whether the one-time Watergate sleuth has suddenly gotten tougher on the administration.

"I found out new things, as is always the case when you re-plow old ground," Woodward said. "The bulk of them I discovered this year. I wish I'd had some of them for the earlier books, but I didn't."

Woodward said he pushed repeatedly to interview Bush, who actually suggested that he write the book "Plan of Attack." But White House counselor Dan Bartlett and national security adviser Stephen Hadley, after a period of cooperation, told him an interview was unlikely and then stopped returning his calls. In the new book, Woodward attributes the lack of a presidential interview -- which has the effect of removing a strong counterweight to criticism of the White House -- to Bush's declining popularity.

Bartlett said yesterday that he and other officials, while cooperating, noticed "a different tone and tenor to this project. . . . Some pretty hard conclusions had already formed in Bob's mind. So we made the judgment that the third time was not a charm." The book's "gossipy" aspects will titillate the cocktail party circuit, Bartlett said, but "the underlying issues are ones covered by a half-dozen books before his."

What accounts for the tsunami of publicity? Three decades after he was portrayed by Robert Redford in the movie version of the Watergate book "All the President's Men," Woodward has become a bankable commodity, his books virtually guaranteed to generate headlines and top bestseller lists.

But for all his popularity and credibility, Woodward has seen his reputation has taken a bit of a scuffing as detractors have assailed his recent books as too sympathetic toward Bush, Vice President Cheney and other officials who have cooperated with him. Woodward also apologized to The Post in November for failing to disclose for more than two years that an administration official had told him about Valerie Plame's status as a CIA operative, a silence he attributed to trying to avoid a subpoena from the special prosecutor investigating the leak.

The very title of "State of Denial" suggests a more sharp-edged approach than "Bush at War" or "Plan of Attack," although the latter, in particular, contained revelations about the administration that were seized upon by John Kerry's presidential campaign after its 2004 release. But the narrative pushed by Woodward's critics was that of a journalist who was an outsider while digging into the Nixon White House but had since become wealthy, famous and too cozy with those in the Bush White House.

The dominant theme of the new book -- that the administration was torn by internal divisions over Iraq and failed to recognize its blunders -- could prompt a reassessment of Woodward's work.

"In my view, his reputation had suffered from the first two books on the Bush administration, and I believe he's a very smart guy and he knows that," said Jay Rosen, a New York University journalism professor. "I think he was used to put out a narrative that was radically incomplete."

"Obviously he's more critical of the president, but this comes at a point when the war has gone on as long as World War II," said Times columnist Frank Rich, a fierce Bush critic.

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