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Woodward as Journalistic Hero: the Real State of Denial

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Bob Woodward is getting the journalistic hero treatment for "State of Denial," his self-revising reassessment of the Bush administration's handling of Iraq -- including a cover plug from Newsweek (which called him "the best excavator of inside stories in the nation's capital") and a laudatory lead story segment on "60 Minutes".

Talk about being in a state of denial: praising Woodward for his very-late-to-the-party Iraq pile-on is like a music critic writing a rave of "Let It Be" and getting credit for discovering The Beatles. Or, more fitting, having someone be the 100th -- or is 100,000th? -- person to call 911 to report a car crash and then getting credit for alerting the authorities.

Yet there was Mike Wallace gushing about how Woodward had "unearthed" a "secret" classified graph revealing that -- wait for it -- attacks on "US, Iraqi, and allied forces... have increased dramatically over the last three years." Wow. You don't say! What did Woodward have to do to "unearth" that one? Pick up a newspaper? Or log onto a blog or two -- or two hundred?

Then there was the revelation, breathlessly delivered by Wallace in his intro, that after two years and more than 200 interviews, including "most of the top officials in the administration," Woodward has come to "a damning conclusion: That for the last three years, the White House has not been honest with the American public." Stop the presses, hold the front page! And burn all the copies of "Fiasco," "Cobra II," "The One Percent Doctrine," "Hubris" -- plus 99.9 percent of the blog posts on Iraq that have appeared on HuffPost since we launched -- that have previously come to exactly the same "damning conclusion." Why fork over $30 for much-older-than-yesterday's news?

In her New York Times review of "State of Denial," Michiko Kakutani says that Woodward paints a portrait of President Bush as "a passive, impatient, sophomoric and intellectually incurious leader, presiding over a grossly dysfunctional war cabinet and given to an almost religious certainty that makes him disinclined to rethink or re-evaluate decisions he has made about the war."

To which I say: "Welcome to 2002, Bob." I can only hold my breath in anticipation of what headline grabbing insights "the best excavator of inside stories" will "unearth" for his next book: "Paris Hilton: Shallow Party Girl," or, perhaps, "Islamic Fundamentalism: Could be a Problem in the Future."

Sure, I suppose we should welcome the fact that Woodward has joined the rest of the sentient world in his appraisal of Bush. But without any expiation for -- and discussion of -- the role his earlier hagiographic renderings of the administration played in enabling all the behaviors he's now so aghast at, it's hard to take his Road to Damascus moment seriously. After all, if there's one thing you can say about Bush, it's that he is who he is.

Bush had that same religious certainty, lack of curiosity, impatience and disinclination to rethink things back in 2004, when Woodward published "Plan of Attack," or in 2002, when Woodward published "Bush at War."

But in those books, Woodward saw things a bit differently -- which would explain why "Plan of Attack" was given the top slot on the Bush/Cheney 2004 campaign website's recommended reading list (ranking even higher than Karen Hughes' Bush-adoring "Ten Minutes from Normal"). And why Woodward, even in the wake of Abu Ghraib, could be found on Jim Lehrer in the spring of 2004 mooning over Bush's "moral determination, which we've not seen in the White House maybe in 100 years" and announcing, sounding like a TV car pitchman, "People want a tough president, and this man is tough."

Let's hope that, unlike Mike Wallace, the other journalists interviewing Woodward on his PR blitz ask him to admit how wrong he was instead of allowing him to get away with making the laughable claim: "I found out new things, as is always the case when you re-plow old ground."

Without some accounting in the new book about how Woodward himself could have been in a state of denial for the first five years of the Bush presidency, it's hard not to reach the "damning conclusion" that Woodward didn't write "State of Denial" because he suddenly realized Iraq was going to hell. He wrote it because he realized his reputation was going to hell.

Woodward, the classic Washington weathervane, knows, with his unerring weathervane instinct, that it's now okay to criticize Bush -- and that, indeed, anyone who wants a seat at the Big Persons' table after Bush leaves has to now admit Iraq has been a disaster. And Woodward definitely doesn't want to give up his special seat at the Big Persons' table.

His view of sources is like someone's who chooses a $70 entrée because if it's that expensive, it must be good. Unlike his work uncovering Watergate, he now only orders up high-end sources. Which is why the most interesting thing about the new book is that it makes it clear the high-level crowd has turned on Bush. And, therefore, so has that crowd's official stenographer.

Tellingly, there was one high-end source that didn't speak to Woodward for this book: Bush himself. Why did Bob's biggest fan suddenly turn shy? According to Howard Kurtz:

"[Dan] Bartlett said yesterday that he and other officials, while cooperating, noticed 'a different tone and tenor to this project. . . . Some pretty hard conclusions had already formed in Bob's mind. So we made the judgment that the third time was not a charm.'"

"Pretty hard conclusions?" Given the disastrous state of Iraq -- and the projections that things are only going to get worse -- I'd say Woodward's new, thunderingly obvious and zeitgeist-friendly conclusions were pretty easy to unearth. And not the least bit heroic to deliver.