It’s been an intriguing few days watching the self-immolation of formerly respected investigative journalist Bob Woodward. Slate’s Matt Yglesias – who, for what it’s worth, is not shy about criticizing the Obama Administration – explains:
It started with Woodward’s odd weekend assertion that the White House is trying “to move the goalposts” by replacing sequestration with a deficit reduction package that includes tax hikes. The idea of sequestration was always that it was something elected officials were going to want to replace with alternative deficit reduction. Republicans have been trying tio replace it with a package of cuts targeted at income support programs for the poor. Obama’s been trying to replace it with a mixture of spending cuts and tax hikes. Either everyone’s moving the goalposts (which I think is tendentious but even-handed) or no one is moving them. But it really intensified Wednesday morning when Woodward went on Morning Joe to suggest it’s crazy of Obama to be applying the law as written to the military, instead of simply ignoring it.
Things moved into the absurd last night when it was revealed that National Economic Council director Gene Sperling had concluded an email disagreement with Woodward with the observation that in Sperling’s view Woodward would come to regret clinging so tenaciously to an untenable position.
As if determined to prove Sperling right, Woodward chose to start talking around town about how Sperling had threatened him—a ridiculous interpretation that the ridiculous conservative media has been running with—rather than sticking with the obvious interpretation that Woodward's reputation among journalists is going to suffer from flagrant wrongness. It would be interesting to see Woodward try to hash this out with, say, fellow Post-ie Ezra Klein but instead he’s going the full wingnut and will be appearing on Sean Hannity’s show tonight to advance the agitprop agenda.
Over at my blogging home-away-from home, Angry Black Lady Chronicles, Zandar surveys the damage: The media, left, right, and center, picked up on Woodward’s Annoying Peasant routine and ran with it. Quelle surprise.
But what really struck me about the Woodward dustup was this: People still listen to Bob Woodward?
I know, I know. He was of half the Washington Post team that broke the Watergate story and took down Pres. Nixon. Kudos to Bob. That was forty years ago.
Since Watergate, Bob Woodward’s career has been … how shall I put this delicately? … less than consistent. Of course, he was feted on the left when he skewered the Bush Administration in his Bush at War series, but he’d already lost me by then.
The chief source of my frustration with Bob Woodward was his 1987 work, Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981-1987. Veil should have been one of the most important books of the 1980s, but instead it became a source of distraction, and, ultimately, an opportunity missed for Woodward as a writer and for the country as a whole.
A little backstory is in order. I’m certainly not the only person to have observed that the seeds of our most significant 21st Century problems, including 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, and the ill-advised “war on terror,” were sewn in days of Pres. Reagan. When Reagan came into office, his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, had made significant progress towards peace in the Middle East, but had badly misread the tealeaves in Iran. Reagan effectively halted Carter’s efforts to forge a real peace between Israel, the Palestinians, and Israel’s Arab neighbors, cheering from the sidelines as Israel invaded southern Lebanon in 1982. The subsequent massacres at the Palestinian refugee camps in Sabra and Shatila, carried out by Lebanese Phalangist militiamen but tacitly encouraged by Israel, still haunt the region and fuel extremism.
Reagan also exacerbated Carter’s mishandling of Iran, further isolating that country and pushing its nascent revolution further in the direction of theocracy and despotism. Ultimately, Reagan supported Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the horrific war between Iran and Iraq, a war that cost more than 1,000,000 lives, and, in the process, helped to provide Hussein’s regime with chemical and biological weapons. We all know where that led.
And then there was Afghanistan. While it’s understandable that the U.S. provided aid to the Afghan people in response to the Soviet Union’s unprovoked invasion, Reagan saw Afghanistan, and, for that matter, all of Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa, not as countries inhabited by actual human beings but as squares on a massive chessboard. Consequently, his support for the Mujahidin had less to do with promoting the national aspirations of the Afghan people than it did with fighting a surrogate war against the Soviets. And so, wittingly or not, Reagan helped to arm and, perhaps more importantly, to burnish the credentials of a young Osama bin Laden.
All of this is the backdrop of Woodward’s book, Veil. Imagine how important it would have been not only to expose the hidden, likely illegal goings-on in the CIA on Reagan’s watch, but to focus the country’s attention on the terrible foreign policy mistakes of the Reagan Administration in the Middle East and beyond. Had Woodward accomplished that, our country might have greeted the misadventures of both Presidents Bush – and Pres. Clinton, too – with much greater skepticism.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, Veil became not merely controversial, but openly mocked. Why? Because of Woodward’s penchant for lurid, and sometimes questionable, details, most notably his supposed deathbed interview with Regan’s CIA Director, William Casey. A 1987 review in the Chicago Tribune goes relatively easy on Woodward:
The value of “Veil” also is obscured by the controversy over Woodward’s “deathbed” interview with Casey. Woodward said he talked to Casey at a Washington hospital while the former CIA director was recovering from brain surgery. Woodward said Casey acknowledged that he knew funds from arms sales to Iran were diverted illegally to the Nicaraguan resistance. But Casey’s widow says the interview never occurred.
It is difficult to understand how Woodward could write a book about Casey’s constantly misleading Congress and almost everyone else in Washington, yet believe a comment uttered by the CIA director when he was recovering from brain surgery and probably under medication.
Doubts about the accuracy of the Casey interview dogged Woodward for years after. In 2010, Woodward’s own Washington Post reported:
Kevin Shipp, a member of Casey’s security detail at Georgetown University hospital while he fought a brain tumor in 1987, asserts in a forthcoming, self-published memoir that, “None of the agents allowed Mr. Woodward into the room.”
“Indeed, Woodward did try to enter the hospital room, but was interdicted by the agent in the hot seat [outside Casey’s door] and gracefully shown to the exit,” Shipp recounts in “In from the Shadows: CIA Secrecy and Operations,” the first published account of the controversy by a member of Casey's security detail.
Woodward, of course, has always maintained that the interview occurred exactly as he related it in the book, but because Casey died in May 1987, no one knew for sure. So the doubt that surrounded the story – and the ghoulish nature of the interview itself – completely overshadowed the hugely important issues the book should have explored. Meanwhile, Woodward paraded from one talk show to another, reveling in the controversy (and selling a lot of books), as the media and the public were consumed not with Reagan’s misdeeds but with a celebrity journalist and his outsized ego.
Woodward’s latest foray into the public arena – claiming to have been threatened by an apologetic, non-threatening email – borders on Alex Jones territory, to be sure, but that’s nothing compared to the opportunities he squandered after Watergate.
[Cross-posted at Angry Black Lady Chronicles]