The publication of Fear: Trump in the White House pits America’s commander in chief against Washington’s chronicler in chief. The credibility contest is key.
I wonder how many journalists have arrived in Washington over the years dreaming of becoming the next Bob Woodward. Hoping that they’ll be invited to descend into some subterranean car park, where a high-ranking contact, another “Deep Throat, mutters cryptic, and not-so cryptic instructions: “follow the money”. Perhaps they’ve imagined being played in a movie by a Robert Redford or his female equivalent. Perhaps they have fantasised about bringing down a president.
Working alongside Carl Bernstein – who came to be played, of course, by Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men – Bob Woodward set the journalistic bar that high. His shoe leather reporting following the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex in June 1972 was a principal reason for the fall of Richard Nixon.
Carl Bernstein went on to become a celebrity journalist: a black-tie regular on the New York cocktail circuit, a summer fixture in the Hamptons, an object of fascination for the Big Apple tabloid gossip columns.
But one of the reasons why Bob Woodward has achieved such stature in the forty years since Nixon flashed that bizarre victory salute from the South Lawn of the White House as he exited the presidency is that he never sought to become Robert Redford, but remained avowedly Bob Woodward.
Though his books are often sensational, he is the opposite of sensationalist. He’s diligent, rigorous, fastidious about the facts, and studiously ethical. There’s something almost monastic about his method. Indeed, a criticism of his books is that the prose can be flat and lifeless, a reflection of his steady state emotion.
The topics of Woodward’s presidential studies can also sometimes be dry. His book on Bill Clinton focussed not on the drama of Monica Lewinsky or impeachment but rather discussions on the budget deficit, welfare reform and healthcare. With Obama, it wasn’t the romance of America’s Black Camelot, but the handling of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the quest for fiscal rectitude. One of the reasons he’s taken so seriously is that he covers the serious work of government.
Nor has his focus solely been the West Wing. After All the President’s Men and The Final Days, his Nixonian bestsellers, came The Brethren, which studied the Supreme Court. Veil, published in 1987, looked at the secret wars of the CIA. The Commanders focused on the Pentagon during the first Gulf War. Maestro, his biography of Alan Greenspan, probed the recondite world of The Federal Reserve.
Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Robert Redford alongside the reporter he portrayed in the film All The President’s Men
Though Woodward is a consummate Washington insider, there’s also a sense of detachment about his work. He rarely troubles himself with the day-to-day. He doesn’t become consumed by the controversy of the hour. His Twitter account registers just 93 tweets since he joined the social media platform in 2013. He tries assiduously to remain above the fray. And at a time when commentary has become so overblown, when the language of Washington debate has become so hysterical and extreme, this seventy-five year old has remained the straight man.
The most vivid passages of his books usually come from the quotes of his high-level sources. That’s certainly true of Fear. It’s John Kelly the chief of staff, who describes the Trump White House as “Crazytown”. It’s James Mattis who apparently mocks the president as a 5th or 6th grader – a ten year old. Mattis has denied saying those things. Kelly says he didn’t call the president an “idiot”. But try winning a credibility contest against Bob Woodward, one of America’s most trusted journalists.
So detailed are his studies – and so well-sourced – that they’ve become part of the historical record. His trilogy of books on George W Bush – Bush at War, Plan of Attack and State of Denial – have not yet been bettered. The Commanders remains a classic.
Long before the presidential libraries undertake their own oral history projects, chronicling the reflections, grudges and grievances of former administration officials, the key players have usually shared their thoughts with Bob Woodward. Christopher Hitchens once derided him as “the stenographer of the rich and the powerful” but it’s his access that explains why the Woodward effect is so impactful; why the publication of his books become news events in their own right.
The fact that newsrooms in Washington are populated by so many would-be Woodwards has a downside. The desire to topple presidents can lead to journalistic over-reach. B- and c-grade scandals are elevated and exaggerated. Whitewater during the Clinton years is a prime example of that. The “gate” suffix has become a dreary cliché, overused and under-thought. Since Watergate, a lot of political coverage has been predicated on the strong suspicion that presidents have surely committed illegal acts or are abusing their power. It’s become a recurring line of attack in successive presidencies, and Washington has become more toxic and mistrustful as a result.
But Woodward himself has not gone down that path. When it comes to bringing down a president, he’s been there, done that and even been portrayed in the movie. This history-making journalist has become the Beltway’s resident journalist/historian. Bob Woodward has become an institution. He’s Washington’s chronicler in chief.