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Bob and Dubya
Woodward’s Plan of Attack is kinder and gentler than not to Bush. But while Plan and other political titles are hot, few voters’ minds are likely to be changed.

ALREADY RANKED the number-one bestseller on Amazon.com, Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack enters a book market remarkably top-heavy with political screeds and exposés. The first four books on this week’s New York Times bestseller list: Against All Enemies, by former White House counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke; Ten Minutes from Normal, by long-time George W. Bush aide Karen Hughes; Worse Than Watergate, by Nixon-administration official and Watergate felon John Dean; and Deliver Us from Evil, by right-wing talk-show host Sean Hannity.

And those are merely the hottest of the hot. Also populating the top 15 are Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, by Al Franken (#9); House of Bush, House of Saud, by Craig Unger (#10); American Dynasty, Kevin Phillips’s critical biography of the Bush family (#11); and The Price of Loyalty, by Ron Suskind, an account of Paul O’Neill’s bitterly disillusioning experience as Bush’s first treasury secretary (#13).

But there’s little doubt that Woodward’s book — an insider’s account of the Bush administration’s march to war in Iraq — will turn out to be the biggest of them all. According to the trade magazine Publishers Weekly, Woodward’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, ordered a first printing of 750,000, more than double the 300,000 copies that Free Press initially printed of Against All Enemies. Woodward, like Clarke, launched his publicity tour on CBS’s 60 Minutes. In the past week and a half, Woodward has also appeared on virtually every major network, cable-news, and public-radio program, including such prestigious outlets as NPR’s Fresh Air and PBS’s The Charlie Rose Show. His book has been excerpted in the newspaper for which he works, the Washington Post, and in Newsweek, which is owned by the Washington Post Company.

"It’s an election year during a time in which the country is truly divided. There is a fight going on for the middle, and passion at both ends of the political spectrum. And these books are speaking to those people in a pronounced way," says Jonathan Karp, editorial director of Random House, who has acquired and edited politically oriented books by the likes of John McCain, Gary Hart, Christopher Buckley, Molly Ivins, and the late Paul Wellstone. ("I tried to sign up Richard Clarke. I was late, and I am kicking myself," Karp says.)

And whereas books by, say, Karen Hughes or Al Franken appeal only to one side of the political spectrum, Karp observes that Woodward’s appeal is uniquely cross-ideological. "Woodward is the premier inside reporter of the doings of administrations in Washington," Karp says. "He has tremendous access, he has a brilliant method of reporting, and he gets what no one else can get. I don’t think that the decision-makers in this country talk to other journalists to the extent that they talk with Bob Woodward. President Bush is not sitting down for hours with any other reporter."

Indeed, last week, even as Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry was charging that Woodward’s book showed there may have been a "secret pledge" from Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, to lower oil prices before the November election, the Web site for the Bush-Cheney campaign was making Plan of Attack its top recommended book.

IT’S NOT DIFFICULT to understand why the Bushies have embraced Plan of Attack. This past Monday, New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller wrote that the Bush campaign made a cagey tactical decision, embracing a book that doesn’t make the White House look good in order to divert attention from the harmful news contained therein. Bumiller said that "the campaign is taking a cherry bomb and making cherries jubilee, or engaging in some classic political disinformation."

A careful reading of Plan of Attack, though, suggests that the opposite is the case. As Bumiller acknowledges, George W. Bush himself comes off rather well in Woodward’s account. If he is not quite the heroic commander-in-chief of Woodward’s last book, Bush at War, about the run-up to the war in Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he nevertheless comes across as smart, engaged, reasonably well-informed on broad issues if not on policy minutiae, and highly moral — as we see in Bush’s agitation over whether women and children might be present in the bunker where he launched an intended "decapitation strike" against Saddam Hussein and his sons at the start of the war. (Then again, that any of this would be a revelation is a sign of our low expectations for this particular president.)

In fact, if anyone is being disingenuous about Plan of Attack, it is not the White House, but Woodward himself. This is not a negative book on which the Bush campaign has attempted to place a positive spin. It is, rather, a positive book, conceived and largely reported when Bush was riding high in the polls, now being spun negatively by Woodward himself as he attempts to tap into the wave of anti-Bush sentiment that has lifted books such as Richard Clarke’s, John Dean’s, and Ron Suskind’s.

Take, for instance, what Woodward told Tim Russert this past Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press about the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. "It was the key rationale for war, and we have not found it," Woodward said. "My sense, the country is in shock about it. We went to war over something that didn’t exist." Now, there is much in Plan of Attack that calls into question the White House’s WMD claims, especially in the post-war epilogue. But there is nothing remotely as stark and blunt as this.

Or consider what Woodward has said on the matter of some $700 million in Pentagon money that the White House, without congressional authorization, shifted over to Iraq-war planning in the spring and summer of 2002. Woodward describes this rather mildly in his book, writing, "Some of the funding would come from the supplemental appropriations bill being worked out in Congress for the Afghanistan war and the general war on terrorism. The rest would come from old appropriations.... Congress, which is supposed to control the purse strings, had no real knowledge or involvement, had not even been notified that the Pentagon wanted to reprogram the money." Okay, not good, but hardly the stuff of high drama. Yet on 60 Minutes, Woodward portrayed the matter as just short of a separation-of-powers crisis, saying, "Some people are going to look at a document called the Constitution, which says that no money will be drawn from the Treasury unless appropriated by Congress. Congress was totally in the dark on this."

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, sees Woodward’s book-tour negativity as a shrewd publicity move. "Remember, when he started this, the odds looked good that Bush would be steamrolling toward a landslide, or at least a solid win," Sabato told me. "By the time his book comes out, he sees Dick Clarke and others making a fortune going after Bush. Well, that’s his market. He adjusts, as all good capitalists do."

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Issue Date: April 30 - May 6, 2004
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