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Being Bob Woodward

By Bob Woodward *

"Who the hell am I," thought Marc Ambinder, "to criticize Bob Woodward for anything? I'm a chump. He's won Pulitzer Prizes. ZES. Plural. He gets people to photocopy classified documents and send them to him, violating Title 18 of federal law. I can't get anyone to tell me what the National Missions Force actually is."

Ambinder was sitting in his cold office, thinking about the rugged mountains of North Waziristan thousands of miles away. A never-before-revealed unit of the U.S. military, codenamed STEVEJOBS, was operating a sensitive new NSA technology codenamed ZUCKERBERG, to track militants in the region.

Ambinder had genuine respect for Woodward and envied his access. But Ambinder knew he had to speak out. Woodward had this weird habit of speculating about American politics in a way that departed significantly from the subject matter of his books. And he just didn't seem to know what he was talking about. But because he was Woodward, everyone listened to him.

"He could say Pete Rouse actually loved dogs, and frigging Reuters would print it," Ambinder told one colleague.

Over a cup of tepid water, Ambinder recalled how Woodward, as he promoted his final book on the Bush administration, predicted on television that Dick Cheney might run for president in 2008, something that Ambinder knew the former vice president had never even contemplated.

And here again, having just released his latest tome, Obama's Wars, Woodward did it again. "Damn it," Ambinder said, pounding the table.

Woodward had told a CNN interviewer that Barack Obama might replace Joe Biden with HIllary Clinton as his running mate in 2012. It was "on the table," Woodward had said.

Ambinder was speechless. He did, however, send a message using a new, top secret technology called TWITTER to express his feelings on the story.

"I can't believe Woodward would say something like that," Ambinder told his editor, Bob Cohn, over coffee in Cohn's Watergate office the next day. "It suggests that he knows next to nothing about the president's actual relationship with his vice president and secretary of state ... or that he has done no reporting on the question at all. Which is absurd, because Woodward is a reporter's reporter."

Then again, Ambinder thought privately, one of the senior policy makers who played a starring role in Woodward's latest book had characterized its conclusions as "60 percent right, 40 percent completely wrong." And that was from a policy maker who came across favorably in the book.

Maybe, Ambinder fretted, Woodward had access to a compartmented piece of intelligence that he did not. Maybe the on-the-record denials from White House staffers -- "bullshit" was the way David Axelrod had phrased it -- were a cover story for an elaborate plan.

Ambinder knew that Biden fully expected to remain on the ticket, and that he had already been involved in some early discussions about the scope of the re-election campaign. He knew that while the relationship between Clinton and Obama was solid and had measurably improved, Obama had no intention of bringing her directly into the White House.

Perhaps Obama let it slip in his own conversation with Woodward, but Ambinder thought that was unlikely, seeing as how Obama seemed to go out of his way not to reveal anything of substance to the great man.

Still, Ambinder could not shake the belief that by criticizing a legendary journalist in print, he was committing a sin that would stain him forever.

But he couldn't help himself.

Colleagues noted that Ambinder was exuberant and often undisciplined. His latest tangent, they suspected, was just another manifestation of that anxious energy.


* As imagined by Marc Ambinder