Roger L. Simon

Woodward's "thoughts"

UPDATE: In some respects, I think the following post may be too unfair to Woodward. Rethinking here… although not about the general concept of ascribing “thoughts” to others in journalism.

Bob Woodward embodies the kind of vieux media self-importance that now seems to come from a distant era. His style of writing – which combines novelistic flourishes of a second-rate sort with a journalistic voice that fairly screams “I am Woodward – this is history!” – is as fake as it is fusty. A good example of this faux Flaubert (or perhaps more accurately Jacqueline Suzanne) technique is his frequent attempt to inform us of what people are thinking. Never mind the obvious that these “thoughts” are often a direct conduit for someone who is leaking unsubstantiated information – in situations of crisis, few of us really know what we are thinking anway, even assuming we could remember. Our thoughts are a confused jumble of the rational and the emotional, with a heavy emphasis on the latter. Anyone reporting in hindsight what someone “thought” is only taking a wild guess or serving somebody or a point of view.

But this doesn’t stop Bob. From Bloomberg‘s Carlos Torres:

George Tenet, then director of the Central Intelligence Agency, warned Condoleezza Rice of a mounting threat by al-Qaeda two months before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to Bob Woodward’s new book.

In a July 10, 2001, meeting with then national security adviser Rice and J. Cofer Black, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, Tenet warned that intercepted messages among al-Qaeda operatives and a mass of other intelligence pointed to an imminent threat, according to the book. Tenet and Black hoped Rice would convey the urgency of the situation to President George W. Bush.

“Rice could have gotten through to Bush on the threat, Tenet thought, but she just didn’t get it in time,” says the book, titled “State of Denial,” which went on sale yesterday. “He felt she was not organized and did not push people, as he tried to do at the CIA.”

Woodward has become a form of business institution that goes beyond the brand name status that most authors seek. He is The Authority. He has become a repository for a first draft of history (leaked to him exclusively) that is then ratified by Larry King for the public. But is it even faintly reliable? Who knows? This reminds me of the childhood game in which one kid in a line whispers a word like “alligator” in the next one’s ear and it comes out “Alabama” on the far end. I don’t know about the rest of you, but, when it comes to living history, I find it spooky tht one man’s version is so easily accepted.