Open University

A Lack Of Cerebral Activity


by David Greenberg
Over at our sister blog, The Plank, Michael Crowley writes of stumbling across Joan Didion's resentment-filled 1996 putdown of Bob Woodward--her gibe that his are "books in which measurable cerebral activity is virtually absent"--inserted in a new copy of State of Denial. Didion's gratuitous insult, though apparently new to Mike, has in fact been parroted for years by people on the left whenever Woodward's reporting doesn't reach the politicized conclusions they would like it to. However horrendous as a president, George W. Bush isn't Richard Nixon, and mad people seem to hold Woodward responsible for not making him so.

The irony--if I may engage in some gratuitous insulting myself--is that it is Joan Didion whose books display a near-complete absence of cerebral activity. I refer readers to a devastating critique by TNR's Leon Wieseltier from 2004. Leon shows that Didion is simply out of her depth when writing about politics. Attitude, assertion, and peevishness in her work masquerade as insight. Yet her above-it-all pose, her assumption that the proper conclusion about politics are beyond argument, render her own commentary superfluous. I attribute the admiration she enjoys to the reputation she earned in 1968 from Slouching Toward Bethlehem--meaning she has been coasting even longer than her ilk snipe that Woodward has.

Some readers may know that, between stints at TNR in the 1990s, I worked as an assistant to Woodward on The Agenda, and I have argued for the indispensability of Woodward's reporting--and against the criticisms of him by many of my usual ideological brethren--in this piece for The Boston Globe. There I pointed out that those who damn Woodward's books for a lack of analysis nonetheless find themselves thumbing through his books for evidence to bolster their views about Bush--such as the fact that the president's confession to Woodward (in Bush at War) that he "was not on point" and "didn't feel that sense of urgency" about terrorism before September 11; or his decision to have Tommy Franks plan to invade Iraq as early as 2001 (in Plan of Attack)

Recently there appeared a long piece in the New York Review of Books about Dick Cheney. It involved no original reporting at all, but rather drew on the findings of others to reach what one suspects were conclusions the author held before setting pen to paper. At one point the writer compares the vice president to "the ninth-grade bully in the junior high lunchroom, the one sprawled in the letter jacket so the seventh-graders must step over his feet." For evidence it notes that Cheney, by September 2002, had decided that invading Iraq was a must and shot down Colin Powell's objections:

Powell attempted to summarize the consequences of unilateral action.... He added a new dimension, saying that the international reaction would be so negative that he would have to close American embassies around the world if we went to war alone.

That is not the issue, Cheney said. Saddam and the clear threat is the issue.

Maybe it would not turn out as the vice president thinks, Powell said. War could trigger all kinds of unanticipated and unintended consequences....

Not the issue, Cheney said.

The source for this evidence: Bob Woodward.

The author who relied on it: Joan Didion.

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