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States of Denial
Woodward At War

Difficult to tell who’s more in denial, George Bush or Bob Woodward. The first has an excuse: He’s been consistent all along: Boorishness and stubbornness made to look like resoluteness, a lack of curiosity made to look like a zeal for unfettered decision-making, an incoherence and dim-wittedness made to seem like an expression of his Everyman humanity, his “outsider”’s status, his contempt for Beltway sophistry. It was all bunk of course. With Bush, what you see is what you get: the boorishness is boorishness, nothing more (except the vulgarity of his execution, most of which we’re spared from witnessing). The lack of curiosity is just that, an inability to know what questions to ask because the man’s one-dimensional thought process cannot see past the minimalist world of his own matrix, the black and white simplicities of his own reductive world view. His incoherence is an expression of his incoherence — not of his alleged (and in fact imaginary) affability, not his rolled-up-sleeve look of a man engaged in the real world around him, speaking the language of the people. He is as disengaged, as isolated, as clueless a president as we’ve had. But he’s also a seductor, an intimidator, a bully in manner and policy. He has cowed his aides into serving him like cruiseline stewards rather than challenging his assumptions like White House aides are supposed to. He’s managed to equate questioning him with questioning the fundamental tenets of his wars, his “defense” of America , “his” patriotism, and he’s cowed the media into a form of fearful submission through the same means. What’s astounding is the media’s willingness to play along, as it did beginning in 1998 when he was emerging as a potential candidate for the presidency he’d dubiously claim two years later, and “ with less experience and time in government than any incoming president since Woodrow Wilson in 1913,” as Woodward notes in his new book. Even Anthony Lewis, the New York Times’ most liberal columnist in 1998, called him a “centrist” who “could have trouble winning the nomination in a convention dominated by the right, whatever his poll numbers.”

The deception only grew worse after Bush’s so-called “bullhorn moment” on top of the World Trade rubble, an image concocted out of the dust of the moment to debut him as war leader, though the image should’ve gone back to the dust whence it came and debunked him right there as the war enabler he so glaringly wanted to be. And leading the way among his deceivers in charge of projecting the bullhorn image was Bob Woodward with “Bush At War,” a White House manifesto rather than a journalistic book—“a managed reconstruction of recent events,” as I wrote at the time, “not for the sake of telling the story of those events, but as a projection of events to come. What B-52s do to soften up enemy ground ahead of a military invasion, ‘Bush At War’ is doing to soften up Bush’s coming war on Iraq and possibly more. ” And so it did. This is the kind of Bushy phrases we were treated to in that book:

  • “Bush’s leadership style bordered on the hurried. He wanted action, solutions. Once on a course, he directed his energy at forging on, rarely looking back, scoffing at—even ridiculing—doubt and anything less than 100 percent commitment. He seemed to harbor few, if any, regrets. His short declarations could seem impulsive. ‘I know it’s hard for you to believe, but I have not doubted what we’re doing,’ Bush said in a later interview. ‘I have not doubted.... There is no doubt in my mind we’re doing the right thing. Not one doubt.’”
  • Bush: “I’m the commander—see, I don’t need to explain why I say things. That’s the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don’t feel I owe anybody an explanation.”
  • Bush: “As we think through Iraq , we may or may not attack. I have no idea, yet. But it will be for the objective of making the world more peaceful.”
  • Bush: “At some point,” he said, “we may be the only ones left. That’s okay with me. We are America .”

Four years later, in “State of Denial ,” that last quote of Bush’s has been refined to this: He won’t withdraw from Iraq even “if Laura and Barney are the only ones who support me.” Barney of course can’t live forever, and it turns out even Laura has been having her doubts about her Messianic husband, as when Andrew Card tried to have Rumsfeld removed: “Card tried again around Thanksgiving, 2005,” a Washington Post story summarized last week, “this time with the support of First Lady Laura Bush, who according to Woodward, felt that Rumsfeld's overbearing manner was damaging to her husband. Bush refused for a second time, and Card left the administration last March, convinced that Iraq would be compared to Vietnam and that history would record that no senior administration officials had raised their voices in opposition to the conduct of the war.” (Card, let’s not forget, is also the guy who whispered in Bush’s ear, that September 11 “Pet Goat” morning in a Florida school, that the nation was under attack, only to let his president sit there for the eternity that followed; so maybe Card had begun to learn a lesson that might have served his president better five years earlier. Or maybe, and more likely, the president was, as in that Pet Goat moment, as stubbornly clueless as he has always been. It’s not his handlers’ doing.)

But knowing all this from the earliest days of the Bush administration, what’s Woodward doing now in “State of Denial”? “I found out new things, as is always the case when you re-plow old ground,” Woodward told Howard Kurtz. “The bulk of them I discovered this year. I wish I'd had some of them for the earlier books, but I didn't.” Bunk. He had it all back then. You need only look at the few citations above to get to the heart of the uninformed arrogance that had taken over the White House. It could only go in one appalling direction. “State of Denial” retreads the very same story told in “Bush At War.” Giving the book trilogic heft by subtitling it "Bush At War III" only underscores its Rambo III-like quality, although Rambo III was a masterpiece of concision and intellectual honesty in comparison. The only difference between “I” and “III” is this: Four years ago he told the story as the awe-struck insider, as the acolyte, the approving page. Woodward wrote at a furious pace as if he was that poor shmuck Pheidippides running from Marathon to Athens to give the news of the Athenians’ defeat of Persia. He just changed a couple of details: Persia became Iraq, Miltiades became Bush, and the rest was history waiting to be made. If only it hadn’t turned out so catastrophically wrong (as anyone with a tenth of a brain and a smidgen of experience in the Middle East could have predicted). You might have expected a Bob Woodward, feller of deceiving presidents, to live up to his billing. He lived down to journalism’s worst kind of source-grubbing gad instead. So now he gives us, “State of Denial,” a “Bush at War” rewrite with Woodward as the wagging finger, as the Monday Morning moralist, the reconstructed realist, the born-again shmuck who knows he’s been had—and who knew all along that poor Pheidippides had never made that run from Marathon to Athens, and if he’d run at all it had been to Sparta to plead for reinforcements (a plea Bush heard often for Iraq, but never heeded in his so-called battle for democracy).

So what credibility has Woodward got? He is symbol and incarnation of the failed journalist who dominated Washington—not just in the prelude to war in Iraq, but in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, when everyone (save a few rare exceptions) surrendered to the Bush folly of war at any price (as long as Americans kept getting their tax cuts and Wal-Mart kept its midnight hours). “State of Denial” is irrelevant. It was passé four years ago when its first sophomoric draft was punched out as “Bush at War.” It’s a morbidly late catch-up job now, when it’s too late to matter. Let’s not forget this gem from the earlier book, when Woodward got Bush to give him one of his then-famous, now pathetic one-liners: “I’m the toxic Texan, right?” Right. But he’d never have gotten this far without the enabling detonators of Woodward and his cabal of Washington journalists.

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