WASHINGTON -- While leading the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in the summer of 2003, David Kay received a phone call from ``Scooter'' Libby, Dick Cheney's chief of staff, who wanted a particular place searched: ``The vice president wants to know if you've looked at this area. We have indications -- and here are the geocoordinates -- that something's buried there.'' Kay and his experts located the area on the map. It was in the middle of Lebanon.
This story from Bob Woodward's ``State of Denial'' would be hilarious were it not about war. The vignette is dismaying because it seems symptomatic of a blinkering monomania that may have prevented obsessed persons from facing facts.
Some will regard ``State of Denial'' as Katrina between hard covers, a snapshot of dysfunctional government. But it is largely just a glimpse of (BEG ITAL)government, (END ITAL) disheartening as that fact may be to those who regard government as a glistening scalpel for administering social transformation.
Once, when President William Howard Taft was listening to an aide talk about ``the machinery of government,'' Taft murmured, ``The young man really thinks it's a machine.'' Actually, government is people, and not a random slice of the population. Those at government's pinnacle generally are strong-willed, ambitious, competitive, opinionated and have agendas about which they care deeply. (BEG ITAL)That is why they are there.(END ITAL) And why almost any administration, carefully scrutinized, looks much like a teaspoon of pond water viewed under a microscope -- a teeming, disorderly maelstrom of sometimes rival life forms. That is especially true of an administration staffed with such canny Washington survivors as Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell. A government of rookies or shrinking violets would be more harmonious. So, how much of a virtue is harmony?
``State of Denial'' will take a toll on government collegiality and the candor of its deliberations. It is based on astonishing indiscretions -- current and past officials making private memos and conversations public for motives that cannot be pure.
The book is hardly a revelation about supposed hidden chaos in Washington that produced the obvious chaos in Iraq. It does demonstrate that President Bush and others were shockingly slow to recognize Iraq's complexities and downward spiral. But we already knew that.