The Power of Publishing

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 16, 2006; 6:36 AM

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.

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