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Bob and Dubya (continued)

NOT THAT Plan of Attack is an entirely positive portrayal of the Bush White House. Bush himself comes off better than might have been expected. But he is almost alone in that regard.

Woodward’s treatment of Secretary of State Colin Powell has already been widely reported. Powell — the most prominent member of the Cabinet, and certainly the administration’s most prestigious opponent of the war — apparently attempted to portray himself in the most flattering light possible by cooperating with Woodward, only to see it blow up in his face. By being so concerned with making it appear that he was right all along (and perhaps he was), he unavoidably comes off as weak — unable to persuade the president to do anything more than open up a diplomatic track alongside his war planning, cut out of the loop on the final decision to go to war, and then unwilling to bring himself to resign or speak out.

Powell’s deputy, Richard Armitage, actually comes off much better. Powell, after all, remains loyal to a president whom he thinks is wrong on matters of life and death. Armitage reserves his loyalty for his best friend, a man whom he greatly admires — that is, Powell. Toward the end of Plan of Attack, Woodward writes, "A close friend of Armitage’s from Congress told him that he and Powell had really failed. They had become the enablers, providing cover and an appearance of reasonableness so Cheney and Rumsfeld worked their will. Armitage didn’t think his friend from Congress was wrong." Assuming, as seems likely, that Armitage was the source of that particular nugget, it bespeaks more introspective honesty than Powell is able to muster through pages and pages of rationalizations and self-justifications.

But if Powell comes off as weak, others are portrayed in a considerably harsher light. Woodward’s method is deceptively simple: he doesn’t tell, he shows, in meticulous detail. There is a sickening scene from January 2003, when Vice-President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld assure — promise — Prince Bandar that war will indeed be waged. Cheney goes so far as to tell Bandar that Saddam Hussein is "toast." Afterward, Bandar still wants a guarantee from Bush. The president gives it to him, which in turn leads National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to remind Bush that, uh, well, Bandar now knows more than Powell, and that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to tip off your secretary of state.

Later, with the war seeming to be winding down (if only), Cheney and his wife, Lynne, as well as Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Cheney chief-of-staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby, and leading neocon strategist Ken Adelman, gather for a grotesque victory dinner at which they toast the president and trash Powell. The only saving grace is that they come off not as iron-fisted imperialists but as misty-eyed idealists, genuinely dedicated to bringing freedom and democracy to the long-suffering Iraqi people. That they were not evil, but, rather, just mind-bogglingly wrong does not ameliorate the horror of what they wrought. (A minor but irresistible tidbit: at one point General Tommy Franks refers to another of this band of dreamers, Rumsfeld aide Douglas Feith, as "the fucking stupidest guy on the face of the earth.")

It’s impossible to tell whether Woodward intended it or not, but he also delivers a devastating blow to Bush himself, and he does it while portraying Bush as being at his most energetic and engaged. It was during a meeting in the Oval Office on December 21, 2002. CIA director George Tenet and deputy director John McLaughlin had just finished their presentation on WMD. Woodward describes Bush as unimpressed, telling the men, "Nice try. I don’t think this is quite — it’s not something that Joe Public would understand or would gain a lot of confidence from." And: "I’ve been told all this intelligence about having WMD and this is the best we’ve got?"

As has been widely reported, Woodward writes that Tenet assured Bush, "It’s a slam-dunk case!" When Bush pressed him, asking, "George, how confident are you?", Tenet — apparently running short of macho-sounding clichés — repeated, "Don’t worry, it’s a slam-dunk!"

Trouble is, Bush drew precisely the right conclusion from Tenet and McLaughlin’s dog-and-pony show, but failed to follow through. Woodward notes that the CIA’s reports on Iraq’s WMD capabilities had always been tenuous. Finally, Bush himself was forced to confront how thin the case for Iraq’s weapons capabilities really was. But rather than slow down the march to war — rather than listen to Colin Powell, rather than give weapons inspectors the time and resources they were seeking — he kept claiming in public that Iraq represented a "grave and gathering danger," as he put it in his September 2002 speech before the United Nations.

At one point, Woodward reports that with the war under way, Bush told Spain’s then–prime minister, José María Aznar, that he still expected to find WMD. "There’s a massive amount of tunnels and caves," he said. "We have to control expectations on that. It’s going to take a while to dig out the rubble and find where he stored the stuff." It appears that Bush was more impressed by Tenet’s enthusiasm than by his actual presentation. Which befits someone who claims to pay a considerable amount of attention to "body language."

IN A RECENT op-ed piece for Newsday, Susan Moeller, a media and international-affairs professor at the University of Maryland, reported on a study she and her colleagues recently conducted on media coverage of WMD during the pre-war period. Moeller wrote that "in 2002 and 2003 many stories stenographically reported the administration’s perspective and gave too little critical examination of the way officials framed events, issues, threats and policy options." In a very real sense, books such as Woodward’s — and Clarke’s, Dean’s, and Suskind’s — are a valuable corrective to the supine stance taken by much of the media before the shooting started in March 2003. "The books are filling a journalistic void," Moeller told me. "They’re dealing with events that still have some legs, still have some currency."

Danny Schechter, executive editor of MediaChannel.org, says of the popularity of these recent political books: "The administration has been so closed about everything, and the reporting has been so deferential about everything, and suddenly somebody comes along and says something. People go into shock because they’ve never heard it before and you just realize how much we don’t know." Adds Brant Houston, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, "In the ramping up to the war, there was not only some weak journalism that went on, but even the strong journalism was stymied by a very tight administration policy of giving out information. I think there’s a real hunger for understanding the workings of an administration that’s so tight-lipped."

But the fact that these books are selling doesn’t mean they’re going to change minds. The Suskind, Clarke, and Dean accounts, in particular, have been devastating about the Bush White House, alleging that the president is a disengaged cipher, and that Cheney — the real power — had been pushing for war in Iraq from the first days of the administration. In a moment of high drama that his publisher must have loved, Clarke actually apologized to the families of the victims when he testified before the 9/11 commission. (Book sales presumably went through the roof in the 24 hours after that apology, but an Amazon.com spokeswoman told me that was proprietary information.) Yet public-opinion polls show that the country remains more or less evenly divided between Bush and Kerry. Bush’s poll numbers have actually gone up a bit during the past few weeks, evidence that his $50 million negative-advertising campaign against Kerry has had more of an effect than the bad news coming out of Iraq.

Michael Cader, creator of the New York–based industry newsletter "Publishers Lunch" and its associated Web site, PublishersMarketplace.com, goes so far as to question whether any more than a handful of buyers even intends to read these books. "Books have become like voting," he says, calling it "almost fandom, expressing support: ‘Go, Michael Moore, go.’ ‘Go, Bill O’Reilly, go.’" And though he concedes that the more recent books are a good deal more substantive than those by Moore and O’Reilly, he professes to be unsurprised by their popularity, given the current media environment.

"I don’t find that as odd as other people do," Cader told me. "Nonfiction books, in particular, are launched ever more like other products and events in today’s media-crazed world. Anything that can produce headlines and make for good TV tape and fit the news cycle and the entertainment cycle well will get more attention than ever before, and get more repetition than ever before, and that tends to produce intense reactions at bookstores."

Nor is the tide expected to recede any time soon. This Friday, Carroll & Graf is scheduled to release Joseph Wilson’s The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity. Bill Clinton’s memoirs are scheduled for June. And this September, just in time for the election, tell-all diva Kitty Kelley is supposed to come out with a book that will do for the Bush family what other Kelley books did for Frank Sinatra and the Reagans.

Do they matter? To the extent that they’re able to shed light on the dark corners of Washington, absolutely. But if you’re looking for something that could change the outcome of the election — well, keep looking. Tobe Berkovitz, associate dean of Boston University’s College of Communication, puts it this way: "I think by November, they will be totally overshadowed by other big breaking stories or a big event that occurs."

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his daily Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.

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Issue Date: April 30 - May 6, 2004
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