From the keyboard of Surly 1, with assistance from Contrary
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Originally published on the Doomstead Diner on January 15, 2014
Discuss this article here in the Diner Forum.
Bob Woodward was January’s featured speaker at the Norfolk Forum. The Norfolk Forum has for 41 years brought a variety of well-known and lesser-known speakers to Chrysler Hall in Norfolk, presumably to educate the great unwashed in this Navy town. Contrary and I have season tickets, so off we went.
We were having a pre-event dinner at a local restaurant, discussing what it is we might expect from this particular speaker. “I don’t expect much,” I offered. Contrary shook her head ruefully and returned to her dumplings. Over the space of 40 years we have seen celebrity journalist Woodward turn from eager young reporter hot on the trail of the story of the century to consummate DC insider apparatchik. His four– count them–four–hagiographies of the Bush administration the depth of the sellout. At least in my eyes.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of the Norfolk speakers is that after the speaker presents his talk, they offer a question and answer session with the audience. Over dinner, Contrary observed that perhaps I should prepare a question or two: “What would you ask him?” she asked. So I spun off a couple: “Bob, when exactly did you sell out your soul, and do you ever miss your integrity?” For a follow-up, I added, “What is it like to have gone from muckraking journalist to soulless tool?” Contrary looked up from her pizza: “You know, they will never let you ask those questions. Two neckless guards will hit you with 50,000 watts worth of Taser and drag you off shuddering like a dog trying to pass a peach pit.”
As it happened, she was right. Bob’s handlers were not about to allow the unwashed access to a live microphone, as was past practice with Malcolm Gladwell in an earlier talk in October. No, all questions were to be submitted via Facebook or Twitter, carefully vetted, disemboweled and sanitized for Bob’s delectation. No potential embarrassment here.
Better minds than mine have called Woodward’s reporting into question. In a 1996 essay in the New York review of Books, Joan Didion observed, “the books are notable for “a scrupulous passivity, an agreement to cover the story not as it is occurring but as it is presented, which is to say as it is manufactured.” [Italics mine.] She ridicules “fairness” as “a familiar newsroom piety, the excuse in practice for a good deal of autopilot reporting and lazy thinking.” All this focus on what people said and thought—their “decent intentions”—circumscribes “possible discussion or speculation,” resulting in what she called “political pornography.”
So after dessert we entered Norfolk’s beautiful Chrysler Hall and awaited the presence of the Great Man himself. Here’s how the Forum billed the event:
Since 1971, Bob Woodward has worked for The Washington Post where he is currently an associate editor. He and Carl Bernstein were the main reporters on the Watergate scandal for which The Post won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973. They co-authored two books about Watergate: All the President’s Men (1974) and The Final Days (1976). Woodward was the lead reporter for The Post’s articles on the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks that won the National Affairs Pulitzer Prize in 2002. His book, Bush at War (2002), provides a view of what happened inside the White House in the months following 9-11. Woodward has authored or co-authored 17 books, all of which have been national non-fiction best sellers covering diverse topics including the Supreme Court, the life of John Belushi and the drug culture of Hollywood, the CIA and the Presidencies of Clinton, Bush and Obama. Bob Schieffer of CBS News said, “Woodward has established himself as the best reporter of our time. He may be the best reporter of all time.”
Of course, Schieffer’s last real reporting gig was as a correspondent in the Franco-Prussian War, so what does he know?
The Great Man held forth: “Obama seems uncomfortable wearing the mantle of power.” While he has no trouble embracing a senator’s Chief of Staff, Woodward complains that Obama lacks that “common touch” last seen in the late lamented Bush the lesser, and clearly so prized among the right sorts of people. Somehow, the problem with Obama is “he’s not able to connect” with people on the Hill. (Of course those of us in the cheap seats are expected to forget that, on the very evening Obama was being inaugurated as President for his first term, across town Republican leaders were plotting how they were going to obfuscate, delay, and ruin his presidency through political scorched earth tactics unseen in this century.
Seemed a bit of an omission, yes? Contrary and I exchanged a look. It was clear that decades of the DC social scene have taken their toll on Bob. He told a story about a time when John Boehner was invited to the White House. Supposedly while Boehner had a glass of Merlot and smoked a cigarette, Obama sipped iced tea and chewed Nicorette. For Bob this illustrated the problem with Obama (!) The black man had failed to sufficiently imitate the matters of the white man, leading Bob to conclude the black man lacked the necessaries to lead, and this offended Bob. Are you fucking kidding me?
Woodward seems offended by what he perceives to be Obama’s lack of leadership. Never mind the obfuscatory tactics, nevermind the attempted extortion of Boehner to hold the country hostage to the debt ceiling, an act of political terrorism not seen in this country since the Stamp Act. No matter. Woodward says, “Obama is the CEO. He’s supposed to fix this. He supposed to get things done, and find a way to reach common ground.” Guess Bob forgot that Obama can actually negotiate a deal with the Iranians, but he somehow can’t negotiate with the Taliban in the House of Representatives. Still the black guy’s fault.
[I hasten to add that I am no “Obot.” Contrary and I’ve had plenty of noisy and unpleasant battles about what I perceive to be the failures of this President. My criticism of Obama comes from the left, and from opportunities missed while he spent the first six years of his Presidency attempting to negotiate with ideologues in our own House and Senate. There’s also the matter of piss poor economic policy favoring the banks and the one percent, but that’s another issue for another time.]
At one point in the evening, Woodward referred to Obama’s apparent amazement at how a person from a background such as his own had risen to such an office and said that “Obama suffered from a great sense of humility.” At other times, he described Obama as “arrogant.” At this point, I had to restrain Contrary from jumping out of her seat. She stared bullets at me and mouthed the words “uppity?” After the talk, she asked me rhetorically, “Which is it Bob? Arrogant, or suffering from a bad case of humility? Inquiring minds want to know.” Really, the leaps of logic were that evident. But his recent books were available for sale in the lobby…
Bob’s main thesis was that things are just so complicated that we don’t really know anything. Sent as the messenger from Olympus to those toiling in the vineyards, his story was that we need to trust the people in power because they are the only people that have enough information to know.
To drive this last point home , Woodward posed a question to the audience: “How many people in the audience feel that their rights have been trampled upon and would like their privacy back? A few of us raised our hands, Contrary and I being two of them. “Looks like about eight people,” Bob chortled. Then he posed another: “And how many people would trade those rights for the security of knowing that we had not been hit by terrorists since 9/11.” For that question, perhaps a third to half of the crowd raised their hands. It’s a Navy town… See, Bob knows, the implication being, from a trusted interlocutor who has spent 40 years on the ground, who knows all the right people, has all the right contacts, and can get his calls returned by anyone, even the Pope, and you don’t, you fucking chumps.
Bob Woodward is very pleased with himself, and he wants you to be as pleased with him as he is. He spins sophisticated anecdotes of conversations, and parties, and interviews, and being intrepid enough to knock on the door of a general he needed for a story at 8:15 PM on a Tuesday at the General’s home. The point of this exercise was, and I quote, “To make sure that the person being interviewed realized he was as important to the story as I thought he was.” And this is a guy who calls Obama arrogant.
Contrary observed that Woodward hadn’t had a conversation since the 70s in which he failed to mention the Robert Redford played him in the movie. And there was the inevitable mention, and obligatory question about the suffix “–gate” being applied to every brewing scandal. “Bridge-gate” was the topic du jour, but that will fade as soon as our paid media can float another story about Kim Kardashian’s ass.
More anecdotes from the Great Man as Witness to History. Woodward tells the story about how, during an interview with George W. Bush, he asked Bush he thought history would remember him. Bush supposedly replied: “it doesn’t matter–in the long run, we’ll all be dead.” Woodward went on to explain that supposedly Hillary Clinton, upon reading this replied “That’s not presidential. Washington wouldn’t say that, Jefferson wouldn’t say that, Bill wouldn’t say that.” When he asked Hillary what history would say about Bill, supposedly she replied “I’ll write it,” the implication being that Hillary would rewrite history on her own.
Bob was not amused, because apparently that’s Bob’s job. He retold the story of Ford’s pardon of Nixon. Woodward went to interview Ford, who he described as being particularly forthcoming and transparent. Supposedly Ford said, “Okay I’ll tell you what happened. Alexander Haig came to me with a deal, a resignation for a pardon. I refused it outright. I knew I was going to be president, that Nixon’s crimes had gone too far, it was only a matter of time until he would either leave the scene of his own accord or be convicted. So there was no deal. What I found was that Watergate would continue to play on and on in the papers and in the courts for several years, and I wanted my own presidency. The country needed a post-Watergate period.. So I pardoned Nixon for the good of the country.”
So if you like your history rewritten, best to get it from an expert. I just wonder what the NSA has on Woodward.
One questioner posed the question to Woodward whether he felt as if he might, through his reporting and books, have played a role in the widespread cynicism and mistrust surrounding our view of government. “No, no I don’t ,”came the reply. Ironies abound.