Woodward's access

Bruce Bartlett
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Posted: Apr 26, 2004 12:00 AM

Once again, Bob Woodward is in the news with yet another best-selling book, "Plan of Attack," which covers the Iraq war from inside the White House. Although the Bush people profess to be pleased with how the president is portrayed -- it is even recommended on his campaign web site -- liberals have found much in the Woodward book to support their view that the war was launched recklessly.

        Many conservatives are scratching their heads, wondering why a Republican White House would open itself up to someone like Woodward, who, after all, became famous for bringing down a Republican president. Rush Limbaugh spoke for many when he wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "Frankly, I don't understand why the president or anyone else in the administration who supports the war against Iraq would give Mr. Woodward the time of day."

 I have a little bit of insight on this issue because Woodward spent a good deal of time around the Treasury Department in late 1992. He was planning a book about the elder Bush's economic policy, and I was deputy assistant secretary for economic policy at Treasury.

 I didn't have any direct contact with Woodward, but I had a lot of concerns about what would come out of cooperating with him. I talked to those who were working with him, both to raise red flags and to understand why they were doing it. The best answer I got is that Woodward gets paid the big bucks for a reason. He is the very best there is at what he does.

        Those who talked to Woodward for this earlier book all reported that he is extremely charming and it flattered their egos to think that he was interested in their views. He made all of the Treasury people feel that he was genuinely their friend, and so they opened up to him.

        Keep in mind also that when Bob Woodward comes to call, he is not just an author of best-selling books. He is also assistant managing editor of the Washington Post. That gives him access in many cases that would be denied to him if he were merely a writer of books.

        Moreover, when someone like Woodward comes to you for an interview, you really don't have much choice except to talk to him. He is going to write whatever he is going to write with you or without you. At least if you talk to him directly, you can let him hear your side of the story directly. And if you are lucky, perhaps you can even convince him to put you in a favorable light.

 In the case of the Treasury people I was working with, they all knew that Richard Darman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, was working closely with Woodward for his book. Since Treasury was institutionally at war with OMB on a variety of issues, we feared looking like the bad guys on everything if Darman were Woodward's only source.

        One trick Woodward used to get people to open up was to tell them that he was working on a book that would not appear until well after the election. Hence, they thought that nothing they said would affect the election. Many also thought they would be long gone from the administration by the time Woodward's book appeared.

        The problem is that Woodward never promised that he wouldn't use any of his research before the election. People simply took him at his word when he said he was only interested in doing a book.

        Unfortunately, what happened is that Woodward changed his mind, perhaps because Bush started to look like he would lose in 1992, and gave up on the book project. But rather than waste his research, he wrote it all up in the Post. In a long, four-part series that ran from October 4 through October 7, 1992, Woodward essentially double-crossed everyone he interviewed. They all looked bad except Darman, and the series confirmed Bill Clinton's charge that the first Bush administration was out of touch on economic policy.

        In his book, "White House Daze" (1993), Bush White House official Charles Kolb wrote that the Woodward series had a "devastating impact" on the Bush campaign. But as Bush White House speechwriter John Podhoretz wrote in his book, "Hell of a Ride" (1993), most of the anger about it was directed at Darman, for being its principal source, rather than at Woodward.

        As a reward, Bill Clinton granted Bob Woodward intimate White House access for his book, "The Agenda" (1994), which focused on Clinton's economic policy. In comparison to the portrayal of fecklessness by the Bush people in his Post series, Clinton people like Rob Rubin came across as statesmen concerned only with doing what is right.