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.
Said Bob Kuttner, co-executive editor of the liberal American Prospect: "Either Bob was shamed into using his tremendous reporting talent to explain what was really going on, or he felt foolish in light of what was written before and what was subsequently unearthed."
On the conservative side, Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, said of the new book: "I don't know whether that's where his reporting led him or whether it's more fashionable to be anti-Bush in 2006 than in 2002. I don't see what the big revelations are, and I don't see this changing anyone's mind in November."
Asked about criticism that he has gone easy on the Bush team in the past, Woodward said: "Anyone who's read the books would realize that it's unfounded. All of the three books are reported, and this is what I found."
Some commentators have maintained that those who cooperate with Woodward fare better in his narratives. In this case, however, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- who had to be ordered by Bush to cooperate with "Plan of Attack" -- granted two on-the-record interviews. Yet Rumsfeld is portrayed as "an arrogant, indecisive bumbler who won't take responsibility for his mistakes," as the New York Daily News, which also obtained an advance copy of the book, put it.
Yesterday's publication by the Times and Daily News -- Times reporter Julie Bosman bought her copy and, in what is usually a sin in New York, paid retail -- caused plenty of head-shaking in The Post newsroom, where numerous staffers wondered how the paper was beaten on a book by its own assistant managing editor. The Post quickly published a news story online yesterday morning.
Leonard Downie Jr., The Post's executive editor, said the book was "fair game" for any competitor and that he probably should have moved faster after "60 Minutes" issued a press release on the book Thursday.
"We weren't prohibited from doing it; I just didn't think to do it," Downie said. "I was sort of upset with myself for not having decided yesterday to just do a story. . . . I'm somewhat surprised at how much commotion the release of the book has caused."
Newsweek, a Washington Post Co. property, is still planning a cover-story excerpt for tomorrow. Editor Jon Meacham said he was "not surprised" by the leak. "The exclusive excerpts game has been changed over the last five to 10 years, and it's very hard to protect any book after it's shipped from the publisher."
While the Times was scooping The Post -- in part by keeping the story off its Web site until the middle of the night -- NBC was beating CBS by using footage of the "60 Minutes" interview posted on CBS's Web site. "We knew a story when we heard one, and we found a way to cover it," NBC anchor Williams said. "We unabashedly threw CBS's logo up on the air."
NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell had signed a confidentiality agreement in exchange for an advance copy, Williams said, so "she recused herself from any discussions."
"60 Minutes" spokesman Kevin Tedesco was unperturbed, saying: "Ultimately it all adds to the buzz, and hopefully more viewers for Sunday's broadcast."
Times reporter David Sanger, who wrote his paper's story, said Woodward books are always news. "As someone who covers the White House, I can only view this with admiration," Sanger said. "He's got some fabulous supporting details and great scenes. Did we all know there was tension between Condoleezza Rice and Don Rumsfeld? Yes. Did we know the president told him to return her calls? No."
The busting of book embargoes is becoming common practice. After all, the Associated Press obtained an advance copy of "Plan of Attack" before The Post ran its excerpts. (Woodward was also scooped by Vanity Fair last year on the identity of Deep Throat, but that stemmed from his decision that one-time FBI official Mark Felt was no longer mentally competent to release him from a 33-year-old pledge of confidentiality.)
The Post was the aggressive party in 2003 when, on the heels of the AP, the paper obtained an advance copy of Hillary Rodham Clinton's autobiography before it was serialized in Time. A year later, Newsweek, the Times and the AP got hold of Bill Clinton's memoir before an exclusive Time interview with the former president.
When Newsweek had the rights to "Dutch," Edmund Morris's 1999 biography of Ronald Reagan, The Post scooped its sister publication by coming up with a copy. In 1995, Newsweek's Meacham obtained a manuscript of Colin Powell's autobiography, prompting Time to slash the fee it paid Random House for the excerpts.
This time, Simon & Schuster, Woodward's publisher, responded to the leak by moving up the sale date for the book -- 825,000 copies have already been shipped -- from Monday to today. "We were completely blindsided by it," said publicity chief Victoria Meyer.
How does Woodward feel about his newspaper losing first crack at his book? "It's the world we live in," he said.
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.