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What About Bob?

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I can’t believe that it falls to me to explain Bob Woodward. I can’t believe it for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I don’t speak to Bob Woodward and Bob Woodward doesn’t speak to me. The reason for this is that when I was married to Carl Bernstein, Woodward’s former partner, Carl wasn’t speaking to Bob, so out of loyalty I wasn’t speaking to Bob either. Then Carl and I split up and I found myself in the odd position of not speaking to one person out of loyalty to a second person I also wasn’t speaking to. Then Carl and Bob became friends again, but I continue not to speak to Bob and vice versa.

But it’s hard to sit by and watch the man be unjustly attacked by people who don’t understand the most fundamental truths about him.

Truth #1: Bob is not a liar. This isn’t to say that he hasn’t told a lie or two in the course of his life (there was a big whopper during the Deep Throat saga), but fundamentally, you pretty much have to go with Bob’s version of events, at least where hard facts are concerned. Bob says, for instance, that he mentioned to the Washington Post’s Walter Pincus that he too had heard about Joe Wilson’s wife Valerie Plame, and I tend to believe it. One of the things investigative reporters like Pincus and Woodward do is to rub up against one another and say things like, “I had that story last week.” This is the sort of remark that is not so much informational as testosterone-driven, and it seems to me it could easily slip your mind.

Truth #2: Bob has always had trouble seeing the forest for the trees. That’s why people love to talk to him; he almost never puts the pieces together in a way that hurts his sources. And that’s also why he has so much access: his sources can count on him to convey their version of events. When Bob says that when he was first told about Valerie Plame, he didn’t think it was important, you’re seeing the perfect confluence of Truth #1 and Truth #2.

Truth #3: Bob is not to be confused with other reporters. The role he’s carved out for himself is interesting and enviable. You can see Howard Kurtz dancing around that envy in his takeout on Woodward in this morning’s Washington Post when he writes, “These days, a sizeable number of … reporters (including this one) also write books or appear regularly on TV …, but unlike Woodward, they also must produce regularly for their primary employers.” It’s to the Washington Post’s credit that it found a way to keep a talented journalist at the paper instead of losing him to publishing; inevitably an arrangement like that will hit a snag, and it’s remarkable how few there have been. But when people wonder why Bob doesn’t tell his editor Len Downie what he knows, I’m genuinely mystified. I mean, have you ever met Len Downie? But never mind that; think about this: Woodward spends most of his life reporting. He knows everything. What’s more, he has no idea what it adds up to. How could he possibly keep anyone, much less his editor, in the loop? It would take hours and hours of debriefing every week, hours that would undoubtedly be better spent reporting on the after-the-fact thoughts of people in power who are trying to justify the mistakes they’ve made.

Truth #4: If you don’t talk to Woodward, you’ll be sorry. I mention this not because it’s precisely true (look at me), but because it’s an operating truth in official Washington. What’s more, it’s the only explanation I can come up with for why Woodward was foolish enough to trash Fitzgerald’s investigation; I suspect that Fitzgerald is the only powerful figure in Washington who does not pour his heart out to Woodward on a weekly basis, and Woodward was telling him that he’d better get on the train.

But that’s just a theory.

Many years ago, a journalist named Theodore H. White revolutionized campaign reporting by writing a series of books called The Making of the President. He became an insider, and everyone on the campaign spilled their guts out to him. Woodward has essentially become our Theodore H. White. He’s so used to being told secrets that when he first heard Valerie Plame’s name from his still unnamed source, it probably did seem casual, informal and not particularly conspiratorial, as he said last week. But I can’t help but be reminded of what happened to Teddy White. By the time he wrote his fourth book, The Making of the President l972, he was so far inside that he managed to miss the major story of the campaign, which was Watergate. The reporters on it were, of course, Woodward and Bernstein. They were outsiders, and their lack of top-level access was probably their greatest asset.
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