Woodward's Attack: First Impressions

Bob Woodward’s new book, “Plan of Attack,” appears destined to become a blue-state classic. I say “appears” because the publisher hasn’t managed to get copies into the hands of people like me — only to friendly reviewers such as Mike Wallace and Matt Lauer.

Nevertheless, the early hype gives the impression that Woodward has attempted and failed to decode the mystery known as George W. Bush. Woodward notes with commingled bewilderment and contempt that the president 1) ordered up war plans for Iraq within 11 weeks of the September 11th slaughters, 2) did so by consulting his Secretary of Defense more often than his Secretary of State, 3) consulted in advance Arab allies, notably Saudi Arabia and 4) lifted up prayers to God, seeking humility and guidance.

If you have a red-state heart or zip code, none of these revelations seems stunning or even unusual. After all, who wouldn’t think of Iraq after the attacks on New York and Washington, and what sensible planner would rule out deposing a despot who had tried to assassinate the president’s own father, among others? And which commander-in-chief wouldn’t try to keep secret a war-planning exercise that at the time was purely speculative, and wouldn’t take special pains to withhold it from the leakiest and most gossipy of all cabinet departments, the Department of State? For that matter, wasn’t it smart of the president to give a heads up to a crucial regional ally? After all, if you want a war to proceed as smoothly as possible, you’re going to need help from nations that can supply such necessities as airstrips, air space, forward-staging areas, and intelligence.

Last but not least comes the matter of God. The president believes in God, but judging from Woodward’s colloquy with Mike Wallace on “60 Minutes,” the author not only disbelieves, but considers faith a sign of hayseed backwardness, on a par with Moonshine, possum fritters and incest. (It’s interesting to note that card-carrying Bush skeptics used to rhapsodize about Bill Clinton’s familiarity with scripture - not because they thought the 42nd president believed in Holy Writ, but because he didn’t; he managed to hoodwink believers with such subtlety and dash that even evangelicals and ministers considered him a Christian fellow-traveler.) The television interview portrayed religion as the opiate of the masses, not a product of divine inspiration.

But I digress. A couple of other noteworthy themes recur in the book-touting campaign. Colin Powell appears in this volume, as he does often in the pages of the Washington Post, as a victim of White House skullduggery - especially on the part of Vice President Dick Cheney. Powell is never quoted directly as questioning the war or his commander-in-chief. Although he concedes he did talk repeatedly to Woodward, most of the “grousing Powell” quotes appear as second- or third- or tenth-hand accounts.

Powell may have complained to others, but that hardly ensures a full or accurate accounting of the man’s views. Either way, the Powell-as-victim trope is getting old, and it’s insulting to the Secretary of State.

The other theme is that the president is “rash.” He didn’t wring his hands or fall victim to paralytic self-doubt before enunciating the Bush Doctrine. He acted. This has been interpreted as a sign of reflexive, emotional reaction — as compared to the dazzling and reflective Bill Clinton, who moved with ruthless dispatch against Newt Gingrich, but not against Usama bin Laden.

Of course, one man’s rashness is another man’s decisiveness; it all depends on what you think of his final goal. If you dislike it, you consider the man rash, if you do, he’s decisive and bold. (Writers use such labels to import their own opinions as tactfully and unobtrusively as possible.)

To conclude: I base these preliminary impressions not on the book itself, but on the thin excerpts printed by the Washington Post, and the even sketchier on-camera interviews of the author. If the early releases are any indicator, Woodward managed to get an impressive amount of face time with the president, and accumulated an astounding number of anecdotes, but he doesn’t seem to have gotten his mitts on any actual news. (That would be a rich irony, wouldn’t it? The “incurious,” “non-introspective” president gives hours and hours of precious access to the most revered investigative reporter in American history and the writer, not the president, is the one left panting and confused.)

I’ll let you know next week what I think about the book, which I will have read by then. By the way, Woodward’s publicists say they’ll make him available for an interview next week.