Plan of Attack

by Gabriel Sherman | June 17, 2009

In early May, White House Counsel Greg Craig circulated a memo inside the West Wing. Part of a series of memos on protocol, it explained how to deal with writers researching books and articles on the White House. (Craig's unsurprising instructions: Clear interview requests with the press office.) While the memo didn't mention any journalists by name--and while there are currently no fewer than half a dozen major reporters under contract to write books about the nascent Obama presidency and the 2008 campaign, any of whom could conceivably end up embarrassing the administration--there is one person in particular the White House is undoubtedly nervous about: Bob Woodward.

Since the inauguration, the Washington Post legend has been quietly reporting a new book on the Obama White House. "I'm in the preliminary stages of working on it," Woodward confirmed to me by phone recently. "I'm working on it and making progress."

Officially, the White House says it is not adopting a press strategy to respond to Woodward. Ben LaBolt, an Obama spokesman, wrote in an e-mail that the Craig memo "was not issued in relation to any inquiry related to a specific reporter or author." Still, there is reason to think that Woodward might make the administration particularly anxious. "Every White House is wary of Woodward, " says New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker, who worked alongside him at the Post. What's more, Obama's White House is known to hate process stories, exactly the sort of exhaustive, in-the-room descriptions of high-level debates at which Woodward excels. And, even worse, Woodward has some extra motivation to fill his next book with big scoops. His fourth and final Bush book, The War Within, sold just 159,000 copies, according to Nielsen BookScan, far below his third Bush installment, State of Denial, which sold more than half a million. "The last time I talked to him about books, earlier this year, he had been lamenting the fact his last Bush book didn't sell as well," one of Woodward's friends told me.

And an especially hungry Bob Woodward is especially bad news if you're one of the people being written about. "Good luck," another Woodward friend told me when I asked if the White House will succeed in keeping Woodward out. "If you want to hide things from Bob, it always comes out. It always does."

 

As former White House officials have made clear, Woodward can easily become a vexing problem at the highest reaches of an administration. In his 1999 memoir All Too Human, George Stephanopoulos detailed the fallout from Woodward's 1994 best-seller, The Agenda, which helped to define the Clinton presidency as freewheeling and dysfunctional. "His books invariably created embarrassing headlines for their subjects, but his sources were assumed to be the most important, connected, and knowledgeable people in Washington. I was wary of Woodward, but flattered and curious too," the former Clinton spokesman wrote about his decision to meet Woodward and grant an interview.

Stephanopoulos explains Woodward's reporting style: "He flashes a glimpse of what he knows, shaded in a largely negative light, with the hint of more to come, setting up a series of prisoner's dilemmas in which each prospective source faces a choice: Do you cooperate and elaborate in return (you hope) for learning more and earning a better portrayal--for your boss and yourself? Or do you call his bluff by walking away in the hope that your reticence will make the final product less authoritative and therefore less damaging? If no one talks, there is no book. But someone--then everyone--always talks."

Not only did Stephanopoulos end up talking, he also passed along a letter from Woodward to President Clinton, who himself sat for an interview. It was a decision the president came to regret. Stephanopoulos writes that the "repercussions were immediate" when Woodward's book was released. (Clinton fired his chief of staff, Mack McLarty, and brought on Leon Panetta.) The president was said to be furious at Woodward's portrayal of his administration.

From the outset, the Bush White House decided to cooperate with Woodward. "It was a different era when the first Woodward book came out," recalls former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. "President Bush was riding high, and events were going well." Fleischer says that Bush himself urged staffers to cooperate with Woodward, especially then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was reluctant to grant an interview (he did). "The message got down to everybody: 'Talk to him,'" Fleischer says. Bush sat for interviews for Woodward's first two installments, and, even though the president didn't personally cooperate with Woodward's third book, State of Denial, Fleischer says that "the White House tried to be helpful."

This time around, Woodward told me that, while he had heard about the Obama White House's effort to manage access for writers, he was not worried. "People make their individual choices about what they're going to do, even in the White House and in the government," he said. "Over my four decades of working on books, you find that some people will help, some people won't help, some will help at certain stages and not at others, some people won't help at the beginning but will help later on. That's reporting."

"What he does," one Woodward friend told me, "is he just turns on the vacuum cleaner and goes around Washington scooping up information until he gets a focus." That focus, of course, is subject to change. For his first book on Bush, Woodward told me he initially reported on the Bush tax cut, which dominated headlines in the languid summer of 2001, before September 11 jolted the White House onto its war footing. "In the case of Bush, after he was elected, I decided the center of gravity was his tax cut," Woodward said. "So I worked for nine months on his tax cut. I was doing the last interviews on the Hill on 9/11, and, of course, the center of gravity shifted to national security, so I shifted. I still have those boxes sitting in my office. It's a book about the Bush tax cut that was never written and probably never will be written."

One possibility, and a potentially worrisome one for this administration, is that Woodward will choose to focus on national security--the area where Obama has always seemed hypersensitive about being portrayed as weak and directionless. If he does, a likely source could be Obama's national security adviser, Jim Jones. A couple of years ago, Jones was a guest of Woodward at his wife Elsa Walsh's fiftieth birthday party held at Sally Quinn and Ben Bradlee's house. "He and Elsa were glued to Jones at the cocktail party before the dinner started," one attendee told me. Another source could be David Petraeus. A favorite Washington parlor game consists of trying to figure out whether various officials talk to Woodward based on how generously he depicts them. If that method is accurate, then it suggests that Petraeus, who was portrayed glowingly in The War Within, was a Woodward source--and perhaps will be again.

 

Of course, Woodward is not the only well-known author the White House has to worry about. Journalists writing books on Obama's presidency include Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter, New Yorker Washington correspondent (and former TNR staffer) Ryan Lizza, and TNR's Noam Scheiber; two campaign books--one by Haynes Johnson and Washington Post reporter Dan Balz, the other by New York magazine's John Heilemann and Time's Mark Halperin--are also in the works.

But Woodward isn't fazed. "As they say in the book business, you can't judge a book by the proposal," he told me. "There are a lot of people doing books with angles that may or may not pan out." Woodward, it seems, not only plays head games with his sources, but also with the competition.

Gabriel Sherman is a special correspondent for The New Republic. This article originally ran in the magazine in June 2009.

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