Two very useful assessments of Bob Woodward’s mega-best-selling Fear, officially published today, are this one by Isaac Chotiner, in Slate, and this one by Andrew Prokop, in Vox. They both make one of the enduring points about Woodward’s long-running inside-Washington saga: how easy it is to guess at least some of the people who have talked with him.
Partly that is because these figures are presented with ongoing interior monologues: “Powell wondered: was Cheney pushing the WMD evidence too hard? Might they regret the step they were about to take? Was he being hung out to dry?” “Petraeus thought as he left the meeting, Maybe this time, at long last, Obama would finally act.” Or in the latest book, “Cohn realized, this could mean economic war. If only there were some way to head it off.” None of these is a real quote, but any of them could be.
Back in 1976, Art Levine published in The Washington Monthly a famous parody of how Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s treatment of Richard Nixon’s resignation, in The Final Days, might have applied in the final days of Naziism. Only two books into the Woodward oeuvre, Levine highlighted the source-conscious tone. His piece began:
This was an extraordinary mission. Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler, the Gestapo chief, settled in for the two-hour train trip to Berchtesgaden. The two sensitive and brilliant aides were leaving behind a hot, sunny Munich. It was September 15, 1943. Ahead of them lay the mountains and lakes of western Germany and Austria. The sun poured in at a forty-seven-degree angle through the windows. For most of the travelers, the trip was an occasion for relaxation, a brief respite from the war. Yet these two public servants were not in a holiday mood.
Goering and Himmler had heard rumors that the Fuhrer was anti-Semitic. It was all hearsay, innuendo, but still, the two men were troubled.
Another clue is that these figures come off so much better in the books. Precisely because of the interior monologues, they’re more rounded, they’re more aware of the trade-offs in public choices, they’re conscience-stricken, they’re trying to do the right thing. Thus, as both Chotiner and Prokop point out, the figures who show up in Fear as struggling hardest to save the country from Trump rank high on the probably-talked-with-Woodward list. (Of course there must have been many others—including some whom Woodward could cannily have concealed by not given them the “Mattis was worried...” treatment.)
But there’s a second ongoing point about Woodward’s books, which is: no matter how he obtained them, Woodward’s anecdotes, allegations, and narratives have to a remarkable degree stood up.
This is a point acknowledged even by the very harshest overall assessment of Woodward’s books, Joan Didion’s essay back in the 1990s in the New York Review of Books. Specific parts of Woodward’s reportage have been challenged — including by John Cassidy in The New Yorker, who questioned an allegation concerning early-Obama-era economic policy. But over millions of words, and thousands of quotes and anecdotes, in 20-some books, the vast majority of what Woodward has reported has either stood unchallenged, or been acknowledged long after the fact as having been correct.
This is of course the very opposite of President Trump’s track record and reputation when it comes to verifiable fact. And even people who haven’t followed every twist and turn of Woodward’s journalistic output have probably been aware of him long enough, on the national scene—and over the past decade, as a more-conservative-than-liberal figure on cable news shows. This is why Trump’s “Woodward is a liar” campaign, while consistent with his standard response to any criticism in the press, seems unlikely to pay off.
There isn’t, and can’t be, any modern counterpart to the mainstream consciousness-of-the-nation role that Walter Cronkite played through the 1960s and 1970s, as anchor of the CBS Evening News. But Bob Woodward occupies at least a distant-cousin version of that information-world niche. He has been around forever; he has seen everything; he has a track record that has generally stood up; and he features a just-the-plain-facts / “that’s the way it is” retro affect.
Historians still argue over whether it really made any difference in mainstream support for the Vietnam War, when Walter Cronkite announced on his broadcast, after a trip to Vietnam in 1968, that he considered it a lost cause. (“To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, if unsatisfactory conclusion…. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”) But it seemed at the time that it mattered.
Maybe historians will argue 50 years from now whether Bob Woodward’s catalogue of incompetence, madness, and deceit made any difference in reckoning with the gravity of our current governing emergency. Let us hope that those future historians will say that Americans with influence “did the best they could.”