Monday, October 02, 2006

As Bob Woodward morphs into Kitty Kelly, Vietnam's shadow hovers over us all

Bob Woodward has done an about-face from the relatively Bush-approving stance of his last two books on the administration. The present one, State of Denial, is by all accounts a description of a quarrelsome and conflict-ridden administration, with Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Kissinger as the main sources of trouble.

Woodward, of course, had his glory hour during Watergate, when he and Carl Bernstein slayed the Nixonian dragon, if not quite single-handedly or even quadruple-handedly. With the help of long-anonymous informant Deep Throat (recently revealed to be the FBI's Mark Felt), Woodward and Bernstein not only were instrumental in publicizing and explaining the Watergate scandal, but became heroes of a movie, in which their roles were played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.

It turns out that informer Felt had an agenda. But then, who doesn't?

That's the problem with this sort of journalism, both then and now. It requires scrupulous fact-checking and source-checking by the authors, to make sure what they are printing is the truth, because the reader lacks even the usual ability to do so afforded by knowing the name and exact position of the source.

Even history-writing is difficult to get right; witness the David Irving trial (and see this post of mine for a discussion of some of the issues involved in the writing of accurate history). Historians use sources and documents that are named and ordinarily available to other scholars for cross-checking, and even then there are arguments. But a book that relies on secret sources for nearly all of its information--as Woodward's apparently does--is especially suspect. And this is true whether it supports some point of view I happen to agree with, or not.

So, what do you do when all of the people Woodward is talking about say he's--to put it rather more kindly than one otherwise might--talking out of his hat? If the picture Woodward paints of the Bush White House is one that's copasetic with yours, you might be likely to say "Of course they're saying he's lying; they're all liars anyway, and they're trying to protect Bush and themselves." If you're on the other side, you might be more inclined to wonder if Woodward's sources have gotten things a tad wrong, for one reason or another.

At least when Laura Bush and General Abizaid deny Woodward's allegations that they asked for Rumsfeld's resignation, we know who they are, and we can try to evaluate what they're saying and why. Not so for Woodward's sources; we simply have to trust him and evaluate him.

That's just not possible, I'm afraid. Not just for Woodward, but for anyone who relies on this "reliable-but-unnamed-sources-tell-all" method. Whether the author be Woodward, Sy Hersh, or Kitty Kelly, it's a titillating but ultimately unsatisfying experience.

As for Woodward, who knows? But he does have his own history, biases, and motivations. As a member of the increasingly tiresome boomer generation in which I must plead inclusion myself, his formative political experience was Vietnam and Watergate. As a major player in the latter, his investment is particularly keen, and the tendency to compare (or even equate) Iraq with the former and the Bush administration with the latter might be hard to resist.

When I read this recent Washington Post article, the following passage leapt out at me:

Woodward also tells Wallace that aged Republican war-horse Henry Kissinger is closely advising Bush, telling him there is no exit strategy other than victory.

"Woodward adds. 'This is so fascinating. Kissinger's fighting the Vietnam War again because, in his view, the problem in Vietnam was we lost our will.' . . .

There were many problems in Vietnam, and I think analogies to the Iraq war are facile and mostly incorrect. However, there are certain general principles that apply to both, and surely "losing our will" is one. It's a danger of all such conflicts--especially with much of the press doing its utmost to make sure that happens. I've written before about Vietnam, and at great length (see this, for example), and there is a decent argument to be made for the fact that Vietnamization was working far better than we knew in the early seventies, and loss of will caused Congress to abandon the ARVN when it actually had some chance of winning.

Is Kissinger still fighting Vietnam? Or is he simply standing for a basic principle of winning wars against insurgencies and terrorists?

There's no doubt that many people in this country are still fighting the Vietnam war--just take a look at the enormous number of comments on my "A mind is a difficult thing to change" posts about Vietnam, for starters.

And it would be foolish to think that Woodward isn't still fighting the Vietnam War, as well.

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