How to read Woodward

The cover story of the new issue of the Weekly Standard is Andrew Ferguson’s piece on the new book by Bob Woodward, Plan of Attack: “Bob Woodward’s Washington.” Ferguson brings a writer’s flair and a gimlet eye to his account of the book, providing a highly entertaining lesson in how to read Woodward. Here are a two highlights, beginning with Ferguson’s puzzlement over the White House’s promotion of the book:

[T]he sight of a White House humping a Woodward book is an interesting development all by itself. I’m showing my age, but I remember when Republicans hated Bob Woodward. It all began with Watergate, of course, when Woodward and his partner Carl Bernstein dragged the bloodied body of Richard Nixon from the White House and martyred him on the front page of the Post. Hostilities intensified with a book about the Iran-contra scandal, Veil, in which Woodward claimed to have snagged a deathbed interview with William Casey, Ronald Reagan’s director of central intelligence. Though few people could translate Casey’s mumbles even when he was healthy, Woodward said he palavered with the old spook as he lay in a hospital room, wreathed in tubes and half-paralyzed from a stroke. By his account, Woodward asked Casey why he had orchestrated the scandal, and (said Woodward) Casey said: “I believed.”
Republicans didn’t. By the late 1980s, in that pitiless, binary ledger kept by Washington’s professional conservatives, Woodward was the enemy…
Woodward came of age, professionally, during the false spring of New Journalism, when gifted reporters and writers like Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese used storytelling techniques–dialogue, scene-setting, psychological detail–to turn their “saturation reporting” into compelling narratives. In the right hands (very few in number) the result can be exhilarating. Woodward is at once New Journalism’s most successful practitioner, commercially, and its most dubious, stylistically. Reading the books, with their clunky prose and indiscriminate wash of detail, or watching him moonlight as a TV talking head with Larry King or Tim Russert, repeating banalities plucked whole from that day’s conventional wisdom, you can’t help but conclude that he is a kind of idiot savant–a dim bulb with a single, very large gift.
The books, perhaps necessarily, are slapdash concoctions. In the transcript of an interview released last week by the Pentagon, Woodward is quoted telling Donald Rumsfeld, “I want to construct a narrative, because that’s the only way you can communicate to a large body of people what happened.” Grand, even operatic, narrative is his ambition, but he doesn’t write well enough to pull it off. He can’t set a scene to dramatic effect or assemble detail to round out a character. He is incapable of psychological penetration. As with most boomer journalists, his historical knowledge shows no sign of extending beyond the oeuvre of Doris Kearns Goodwin, Michael Beschloss, and the rest of the faculty at Charlie Rose Tech.

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