Books

Bob Woodward And The 'Bush At War' Hagiography

He takes events of incredible significance and weighs them down with so much trivia drenched in naiveté that I found myself struggling to stay awake.

Bob Woodward And The 'Bush At War' Hagiography
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Bob Woodward's latest travelogue through the minds of the powerful, "Bush at War," has beenwidely praised as a compelling account of the Bush administration post-9/11.

The book is, in one sense, quite an accomplishment: Woodward manages to make the subject boring. He takesevents of incredible significance -- the 9/11 attack and the U.S. response to it -- and weighs them down withso much trivia drenched in naiveté that I found myself struggling to stay awake.

As I faded in and out of consciousness while reading, I imagined the following, rendered in Woodwardesqueprose:

Robert Jensen walked into the conference room with his dogeared copy of "Bush at War" and laid iton the mahogany table next to the manila folder that held the talking points he had rushed to finish beforethe meeting. He knew the revisions, made right up to the last second, had been hard on his staff, but this wasa meeting with the president, with all the principals. Everyone knew what was at stake.

Jensen knew the president would expect him to have answers, not just questions, about the importance of thebook by Bob Woodward, the Washington Post's star reporter.

But, Jensen pondered, was Woodward really just a reporter? Or had circumstances changed the once scrappyguy from the metro desk who had broken the Watergate story wide open? Was Woodward something more? Afirst-draft historian? A meta-journalist? Jensen knew the president would want an assessment, and he knew thathe would be on the spot.

Bush leaned forward in his chair; it was time for the meeting to start.

There was only one item on the agenda for this meeting: assessing this bestseller that was flying off thebookstore shelves across America. Bush wanted to know: What was the fallout for the war? Did the Americanpeople understand the task his administration faced? Was Woodward's book going to derail the strategy thepresident had approved? It was a good strategy, all the principals agreed. But where were the weak spots? Thepresident needed answers, and -- as always -- the president wanted them now. And he wanted a hamburger. Thesteward on duty was dispatched. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice suggested they get started.

Around the table were Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Director of CentralIntelligence George Tenet, and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card. And, of course, Condi. She had beennervous about the meeting, worrying that the attention being paid to "Bush at War" was distractingthe president. He was being pulled in different directions, and it was her job to keep him from being pulledapart.

After the last National Security Council meeting, her job was getting harder. Rumsfeld had proposed thatthe next phase of the war on terrorism should be a massive attack on Cuba to expand the U.S. base atGuantanamo Bay to the whole island -- a three-day air campaign followed by boots-on-the-ground. Cheney hadliked the plan, and Tenet had said his paramilitary teams were ready to work with the Special Forces unitsthat would take the lead.

Powell had been visibly shaken by the proposal. He had known Rumsfeld was itching to expand the warquickly, but he couldn't believe the secretary of defense would push for a strategy that rash. Powell had nodoubt Castro had links to al-Qaeda, but he thought the case needed to be nailed down. He didn't trust theHUMINT (human intelligence) coming from the CIA that suggested Castro and bin Laden had once ordered campinggear -- including, crucially, a two-burner propane stove -- from the same web site. Did they have the SIGINT(signals intelligence) to back it up? How could he take such sketchy evidence to foreign leaders? Sure, theBritish would buy it, but it would be a hard sell everywhere else. The French likely would block a SecurityCouncil resolution. Powell was putting out the fires in his mind before Rumsfeld could finish the proposal.Castro needed to go, but was this the way? Powell had been skeptical from the start.

Meanwhile, Bush had moved on: "Yes, we can do Cuba. And we should. Castro is evil. He has done evil.He is an evildoer. So let's do it. I want something on paper in three days. All options laid out, with minimalcivilian casualties. Remember, we do good, not evil."

Bush had ended that meeting by looking straight at Rice: "Now, what about Woodward's book?" Theprincipals weren't eager to take it on, but Rice knew the president wanted to confront it head on.

That's where Jensen came in. He came into this without connections to any of the principals. He could layout the case and let the others react. Rice knew it would be touchy, but she had to take the chance. Shescheduled Jensen for the next NSC meeting.

Now Rice was impatient to get it over with. "Professor Jensen, please begin," she said.

Jensen explained that much of the furor over the book had been about the access Woodward had been given --to notes from NSC meetings and to the thinking of the principals. Had important intelligence sources beencompromised? Jensen told the president not to worry. There was virtually nothing of interest about policy orstrategy in the book. For all the breathless prose suggesting that Woodward was revealing the real truth aboutthe planning for the war in Afghanistan, the book was empty. It simply regurgitated the same claims about thewar that the administration had offered to the public at the time, only with the pretense that Woodward hadtapped into the real thinking of the leadership.

Jensen assured the president that Woodward seemed to believe that all the administration officials werebasically telling the truth. When they said the attack on Afghanistan was about ending terrorism, Woodwardapparently believed them. There was no indication in the book that Woodward understood the war was part of animperial project to extend and deepen the dominance of the United States, around the world and in the crucialresource-rich arenas of the Middle East and Central Asia.

Jensen knew that wasn't the president's only concern. What about Woodward's revelations of tensions amongkey advisers, and the possibility some of those advisers had cooperated with Woodward to gain politicaladvantage? Had Woodward punished Rumsfeld and rewarded Powell based on how much information each had given?Was the book fair to Cheney? Jensen again assured the president that Woodward was such a sycophant that eventhe treatment of Rumsfeld, who was portrayed somewhat less sympathetically, gave the impression that thesecretary of defense was working 24/7 for justice and freedom. Jensen cut to the chase.

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"It's a slam dunk," he told the president, remembering that Rice had told him that Bush preferredsports metaphors. "The underlying message of "Bush at War" is that your administration is madeup of decent, hard-working folks who -- no matter what their differences in personality, ideology or strategy-- in the end do what is best for the country and the suffering people of the world."

Bush looked relieved, but there was another question hanging in the air. Jensen knew the president wouldn'task it, but he knew it was his job to answer it.

"I know it doesn't matter to you, Mr. President, but with your permission I would like to assess theeffect of the book on your approval ratings," Jensen said.

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Bush winced ever so slightly. He was, of course, curious, and before 9/11 it might have been one of hiscentral questions. But 9/11 had changed the president, changed the man. He knew political considerationsmattered if he were to succeed in pushing through his domestic agenda. But he also knew that he couldn't thinkpolitically the way he once had. He was the president in a new age, and he couldn't look back.

"Go ahead," Bush said. "But make it quick. We have a war against terrorism to win."

Jensen wasted no words. "You come out looking like a leader. A gut player who can think on his feet. Aman not afraid to push his subordinates but also willing to trust their judgment. A man who, when the pressureis on, isn't afraid to take chances, but who knows when to be cautious when lives are at stake. A man who grewinto the job but never lost his Texas instincts."

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And, Jensen said, "A man not afraid to ask for a hamburger when he's hungry."

Bush smiled. "Where I come from, a man's not a man if he's afraid to ask for a hamburger when he'shungry."

That instantly changed the mood of the meeting. Powell looked over at Rumsfeld, and the two laughed. Powellquickly wrote on a note card -- "Let's get (Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul) Wolfowitz and (DeputySecretary of State Richard) Armitage and go get a burger tonight" -- and pushed it to Rumsfeld, whoflashed a thumbs-up. Cheney, reading their minds, said, "Put me down for take-out. I have to get back tomy undisclosed location." They all laughed until they stopped.

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Rice breathed a sigh of relief. Let the boys go out for burgers -- they need to blow off some steam, shethought. She was already sketching her evening: a salad and brief walk to clear her head, and then back towork on Cuba. She still had to nail down the number of fuel cylinders Castro had ordered for the camp stove,and there were some disturbing reports out of Prague that the Cubans had found a way to synthesize plutoniumfrom propane.

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