In this highly political season, the meaning of Bob Woodward's new book, "Plan of Attack," is very much in the eye of the beholder. Woodward, Washington's preeminent investigative journalist, has produced a richly detailed, awesomely sourced, fly-on-the-wall account of the 16-month period leading up to the war against Iraq. The result is the most comprehensive report to date.
Some scan the book's 443 pages and see a president atuned to history's challenges, driven nobly to share the Creator's gift of freedom, untroubled by doubt, and filled with compassion. Others see a president who never fully draws on his advisers' wisdom, prizes loyalty above competence, misleads the press and Congress about his plans, and offers special White House access to oil-rich Saudi Arabia.
Given the blood and treasure now being expended by the United States in Iraq, it is not surprising that both major parties have their own spin on the book's widely publicized contents.
President Bush's communications director, Dan Bartlett, recently told the Washington Post, "We're urging people to buy the book," which he says shows a president "who is asking the right questions and showing prudence." John Kerry's communication's chief, Stephanie Cutter, meanwhile argues that the book "raises serious doubts about the president's planning for war with Iraq."
Both parties probably know that voters will agree with Woodward's contention that November 2001 to March 2003 "is probably the best window into understanding who George W. Bush is, how he operates, and what he cares about."
To open that window of understanding, Woodward relies heavily on a "just the facts, ma'am" approach leavened with what he calls "some interpretation and occasional analysis."
The appeal of Woodward's books is not their magisterial prose but rather rich sourcing that provides valuable context and provokes both envy and awe from the rest of us in the Washington press corps. The Bush White House notoriously controls access to key players.
By contrast, Woodward spent 3-1/2 hours with the president in the Oval Office and in the White House residence. He interviewed 75 key participants, including Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Secretary of State Colin Powell. The result is a granular record of the nation's march to war with Iraq, gleaned from interviews, memos, phone records, and Powerpoint presentations. The reader gets to peer into policy discussions and share in the creative obscenity by which General Tommy Franks referred to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Of course, a writer with special access may still not have the full story, a fact Woodward acknowledges.
Newspapers are the first draft of history. Woodward's book, and others like it, are the second draft - fuller but still incomplete. When President Bush, General Franks, and others write memoirs, we will have a more comprehensive view of a period that President Bush told Woodward "is the story of the 21st century."
It is also difficult to judge the wisdom of the president's actions until we know if Iraq is a promising step on a wider road to democracy in the Middle East or a tinderbox inflaming anti-American passions throughout the world.
When Woodward reminded the president that history gets measured by outcomes, Mr. Bush responded, "History. We won't know. We'll all be dead."