A timely tome darkens the White House door

Woodward's latest: packed with inside-the-Beltway detail and in bookstores just in time for midterm elections.

Looking for the juicy bits in Bob Woodward's latest book, most commentators have focused on such things as its assertion that Henry Kissinger still visits the White House, or that many, many people have tried to get Don Rumsfeld fired.

But the story I liked best was the one about the colonel who writes haiku.

Army Col. Steve Rotkoff was a military intelligence officer, bookish, and one of the top officials assigned to track down Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, or WMD. First in the United States, then in the Iraqi theater of operations, he kept a diary laced with Japanese-style poems that expressed his growing frustration with the unfolding events.

At the start, Mr. Rumsfeld wouldn't provide enough troops. Next, the expected WMD didn't turn up. Finally, an unexpected insurgency threatened to unravel the whole effort.

"We knew how to fight/ Not so; building a NATION/ We may lose the PEACE," read the final diary haiku, as recounted by Woodward.

There you have it: the theme of State of Denial, in three lines. In this volume, his third on the Bush presidency, America's preeminent print reporter tells in numbing detail how, in his view, the Bush administration mismanaged the aftermath of the Iraq war, and then avoided admitting that fact, both to the public and even to itself. (More on the "numbing" part later.)

First off, there's a reason why Bob Woodward remains a brand name of news more than 30 years after Watergate. The man's a reporting machine. His reputation is such that he can talk to almost anyone he wants to – so he does. And then he asks them for all their e-mails and their diaries and that interesting-looking report on their desk that he can see is marked "SECRET" even though he's reading it upside down.

The result is that he's got great stuff to illustrate his points. To show the effects of Rumsfeld's allegedly harsh management style on the Pentagon, he tells how Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Richard Myers lays his head down on his desk when asked how to decode the mercurial Defense secretary.

To show the breakdown in services in Iraq, he tells about Margaret Tutwiler, GOP communication specialist extraordinaire, whom the White House dispatches to Baghdad to help promote a positive message. She finds conditions there appalling. Proconsul Jay Garner personally shows her how to eat military MREs, meals ready to eat. (Chicken tortellini turned out to be her favorite.)

Then there's White House micromanagement, symbolized by the anecdote about Vice President Dick Cheney phoning the WMD search team in Iraq with coordinates of sites he wants them to check.

To be fair, some of those described have questioned the way they and events are interpreted. For instance, the White House sent reporters an e-mail titled "Five Key Myths in Bob Woodward's Book."

As to Woodward's charge that the White House has knowingly misled the public about trends in insurgent violence, the White House missive had this to say: "FACT: President Bush Knows We Are In A Tough, Critical Struggle And Consistently Reminds the American People Of This....")

But given the volume of material here tracing the interagency process of the US government, and how it struggled after 2003 with the challenge of governing a ruined country as an insurgency grew by the day, it's hard not to be affected by this book.

Actually reading it is another matter. As most of Woodward's authorial efforts, it often seems like a gazillion-word Sunday story from The Washington Post – the kind you get one-third of the way through, then quit when your eyes go numb.

As an investigative reporter, Woodward spends lots of time on things that only advance his story incrementally. And to some extent he's a captive of his sources. For instance, Mr. Garner, the first US civilian chief in Iraq, obviously provided Woodward with plenty of access. The bureaucratic enemies of the secretary of Defense were also apparently eager to talk, with the result that at times the book seems like the precis for a new sitcom, "Everybody Hates Rumsfeld."

And remember, the main subject here is Washington policymaking. That means it's about well-dressed people arguing over pieces of paper prior to going out to lunch. There are lots of acronyms and references to "the inter-agency process" and such.

Typical is this chapter-ending bit of heart- thumping action, describing a meeting of top officials: "Rumsfeld didn't respond, but charts and diagrams were only so much abstraction. Under the president's directive, NSPD-24, he was in charge."

Stand back Condi! He's got an NSPD-24, and he's not afraid to use it.

Still, you've got to admire a reporter who can get the inside scoop on why a top official won't talk. By the end of "State of Denial," the national security adviser to the president, Stephen Hadley, has stopped cooperating. According to Woodward, Hadley tells a friend that the book's release in late 2006 will only inflame debate about Iraq at a crucial moment, just prior to the midterm elections.

If that's true, Hadley was prescient.

Peter Grier is a Monitor staff writer.

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