The Latest Chapters On the War

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 16, 2006

In an age of blogging, podcasting, BlackBerrying and instant messaging, when any thought can be expressed within nanoseconds, an old-fashioned form of technology is making a comeback.

It's called the book, a collection of pages, bound between hard covers, that generally takes at least two years to report, write, edit and publish, using the kind of presses that date to the 15th century.

With striking swiftness, a series of books about the Iraq war has exposed deep flaws in its planning and execution, made the Bush administration appear dysfunctional at times and generated enormous news coverage.

All are by journalists with access to daily or weekly outlets. The bestsellers include "Fiasco" by The Washington Post's Thomas Ricks; "Cobra II" by Michael Gordon of the New York Times and former Timesman Bernard Trainor; "Hubris" by Newsweek's Michael Isikoff and the Nation's David Corn; and now "State of Denial" by The Post's Bob Woodward.

Even President Bush observed last week that "somebody ought to add up the number of pages that have been written about my administration."

The Iraq mess is a large and tempting target. And despite a huge volume of coverage over the last several years, a considerable amount of material remained beneath the surface, awaiting excavation by authors.

Some critics grumble that the journalists should have gone public with their information sooner, rather than saving it for books. But it takes time to build a case and to coax information from people who may have little interest in joining the daily political sniping.

Isikoff says some sources are more willing to talk candidly for the historical record. Former House majority leader Dick Armey, for example, disclosed how he had expressed doubts about the Iraq venture but was pressed by President Bush and Vice President Cheney to keep quiet.

"A lot of stuff was concealed from the public, especially in the run-up to war," Isikoff says. "It's aggressively reporting events of a couple of years ago instead of what happened yesterday. It's the second draft of history."

The Gordon-Trainor book reveals that Gen. Tommy Franks expected to draw down American forces in Iraq to 30,000 within months. Ricks argues that U.S. military and diplomatic missteps in 2003 inflamed the Iraqi opposition. "There are a lot of people who've served in Iraq who were really upset about it -- guys who commanded divisions, brigades, companies," Ricks says. "They had a lot to say and they wanted to say it." He says his biggest ally was time -- both the year off to work on the book and the passage of time that gave sources a greater comfort level.

One former Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) official in Iraq provided Ricks with every e-mail he had sent to the unit's boss, Paul Bremer. A commander gave Ricks a CD-ROM with every PowerPoint briefing he had received. Sources even gave him the classified plan for invading Iraq. In 2003, he says, "they would have deemed it too sensitive. Two years later, who cares?"

Woodward, who builds narratives by granting many sources anonymity, specializes in going back to his subjects again and again. For "State of Denial," he has said that he interviewed former White House chief of staff Andrew Card for seven hours over five sittings, producing 207 pages of transcripts -- and news that Card had tried to get Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld fired.

In "The One Percent Doctrine," former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind revealed al-Qaeda planning for a cyanide attack in New York's subways, and reported that some CIA officials regarded Bush as little more than Cheney's puppet.

Suskind says book projects can break through an administration's "message discipline."

"What you can do in a book that gets around the daily battle over news cycles is you can say to subjects that they will be rendered in context," he says. "Sources often say, 'This is a complex situation.' I can say back to them, 'I've got plenty of time.' " In a newspaper, he adds, "you're probably not going to have space to write thousands of words on some philosophical debate or longstanding internecine conflict."

A striking number of these efforts have come from journalists at The Post, which has a lenient policy toward allowing staffers time off to write books. The Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran, in his best-selling "Imperial Life in the Emerald City," reported that the Coalition Provisional Authority had hired a number of people who had conservative credentials but lacked vital skills and experience. Former secretary of state Colin Powell gave six lengthy interviews to The Post's Karen DeYoung for her biography "Soldier."

Books can also act as a catalyst. New York Times reporter James Risen planned to disclose the administration's domestic eavesdropping program in his book "State of War" after the paper held for a year the article he co-wrote on the subject. As the book neared publication, the Times ran the story after all. Times Executive Editor Bill Keller told New York magazine that the imminent release of the book was a "factor" in the discussions but not the principal reason for his decision.

Once books become fodder for the media machine, the carefully constructed 300-page arguments get boiled down to a handful of scooplets and anecdotes. But it is their accumulated detail and intellectual heft that embosses the books with credibility.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, starting with a slew of anti-Clinton books (against both Bill and Hillary), many of the publishing success stories seemed to be on the right. Ann Coulter's "Slander," Bernard Goldberg's "Bias" and volumes by Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage often topped the charts.

But now, with Bush struggling in Iraq and mired in low poll numbers, the books packing the greatest political punch seem to be those charging the administration with incompetence. And while they are mostly written by working reporters and editors, not commentators, liberal readers are surely fueling the surge in sales.

In one sign of the times, no fewer than three books ripping Coulter -- "Soulless" by Susan Estrich; "Brainless" by Joe Maguire; and "I Hate Ann Coulter" by "Unanimous" -- are all heading to bookshelves.

Tainted Series?

Kentucky's Lexington Herald-Leader yesterday launched an investigative series on Sen. Mitch McConnell pushing legislation for his affluent donors -- an effort originally paid for by a foundation that has financed several liberal groups that oppose the Republican lawmaker.

The paper's parent firm, McClatchy Co., decided last week to repay the $35,000 grant, which underwrote six months of salary and expenses for a Herald-Leader reporter on leave. The grant came from the respected Center for Investigative Reporting, which was passing on money provided by the St. Louis-based Deer Creek Foundation.

Deer Creek has funded a variety of liberal groups, including New York University law school's Brennan Center for Justice, which represented opponents of McConnell in a campaign-finance lawsuit that reached the Supreme Court.

"It's like the NRA funding a report about Sarah Brady," the gun-control advocate, says McConnell spokesman Don Stewart. "You've got to be somewhat leery about the objectivity."

McClatchy Vice President Howard Weaver says his company, which inherited the situation after buying the Herald-Leader, does not believe in such grants. "As a matter of practice, if we want some journalism done in our newsrooms, we pay for it," Weaver says. "But I've heard enough politicians explain why they gave back a campaign contribution to know it's not a perfect remedy."

Dan Noyes, acting director of the reporting center, says he paid for the series because the money went to the reporter, not the newspaper. Noyes sees no conflict because his group has an "arm's length relationship" with Deer Creek, and he says its $300,000 grant will fund campaign finance probes of both Democrats and Republicans.

One Really Long Article

Esquire is taking the strange step of making endorsements -- in all 504 congressional and gubernatorial races.

For the just-released issue, the magazine says it weighed such factors as effectiveness and hypocrisy, not Iraq or taxes, in an idiosyncratic process that wound up backing a majority of Democrats for the House and Senate.

"We didn't come at it from any ideological standpoint," says Executive Editor Mark Warren. "We endorsed Ted Kennedy and Trent Lott, because of a combination of how they serve their state and how they function in the Senate."

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