For starters, I propose to say the unthinkable: the unnamed coauthors with Bob Woodward of this book are President and Mrs. Clinton. All the inside stories dealing with the first 18 months of the Clinton administration, the reported dialogue, who said what to whom, and the secret memoranda were, I believe, handed to Mr. Woodward by the Clintons, by White House staff members, or by nonstaff advisors with Mr. Clinton’s approval. If I am right, then Mr. Woodward is to be honored with the title of Spinmeister-in-Chief.
I base my coauthorship theory on the following clues, which, added together, make my theory more than plausible:
One, all the stories in Mr. Woodward’s book are pro-Clinton. The chaos, the disorganization, the indecisiveness, the running around in all directions, the President’s fumbling of issues, begging congressmen for their individual votes, none of this behavior makes Mr. Clinton look bad. It does make Congress look bad, especially Senators Bob Kerry and David L. Boren, among others. I could not find a single example of anything that would hurt Mr. Clinton with the voters. In fact, most of the “inside” stuff shows him to be a fine leader learning how to get around the Beltway, a decent chap with a tendency (understandably) to flood his monologues with the f-word, smart and tolerant of human imperfections including his own, and, above all, a President who, while always in charge, is always willing to listen.
Two, I am prepared to swallow all doubts about the authenticity of Mr. Woodward’s revelations, something I was not prepared to do when he reported that he had actually interviewed the dying CIA director William J. Casey. In the present case, I am prepared to accept Mr. Woodward’s report because, while his Deep Throats are prepared to destroy each other, they are deeply protective of the President.
Three, the book’s story line shows Mr. Clinton to be a skillful politician who got his way with the budget, his economic plan, and other domestic matters against a recalcitrant Congress, although for a while there were “mounting political embarrassments” due to “side issues such as gays in the military.” In other words, his domestic agenda went well, as we saw most recently with the passage of the anticrime bill in August. Where the domestic agenda suffered, as with his attempt to install gays in the military, a wave of the wand and it all disappears. Most significantly, on foreign policy issues, where every day is a group-grope at the White House, there is not a word. In fact, the nine mentions of Warren Christopher have nothing at all to do with American foreign policy matters. Oh yes, the Secretary of State tells Senator Boren that a domestic defeat for Mr. Clinton would hurt the United States internationally. Obviously, a discussion of foreign policy issues would have reflected badly on Mr. Clinton. Mr. Woodward says that his purpose in writing this book was to report on domestic economic issues. Thus if things went badly, Congress could be blamed. But on Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti—who else but Mr. Clinton? It takes an extraordinary effort of will to avoid discussing the foreign policy of the world’s superpower Numero Uno, especially as that policy affects the domestic agenda that so concerns Mr. Woodward—balance of trade, overseas markets, the value of the American dollar, economic relations with Japan, and the G-7.
Four, so wary is Mr. Woodward about dealing with the administration’s foreign policy that there is not a single mention of Strobe Talbott, one of Mr. Clinton’s closest friends and advisors, whose house is an occasional home-away-from-home for Mr. Clinton. Is it conceivable that whenever the President and Mr. Talbott met, they only discussed problems in Checheniya?
Five, even more astonishing than Mr. Woodward’s shunning any discussion of foreign policy reverses and the minor role accorded Mr. Christopher is that there is virtually no mention of any of the scandals—Whitewater, bimbotics and liaisons, the White House travel office, Hillary’s personal stock investments, White House resignations—that have swirled around the White House for 18 months. There are four mentions of the Vincent Foster “suicide” but nothing a newspaper reader did not already know. There is no “inside story” here to explain the removal of Mr. Foster’s White House files the night of the tragedy. Mr. Woodward or his informants are curiously reticent about such matters. These events may not have been on Mr. Clinton’s agenda, but they surely were domestic.
Six, Mr. Woodward is the Washington Post‘s assistant managing editor for investigations. “Investigations” from a Woodwardian view means exposes about nasty doings in, say, the office of the Chief Executive or among his minions. That used to be the case during the Reagan and Bush administrations. Mr. Woodward has established a record as a policy prescriber, not merely as a muckraker. As Michael Ledeen has pointed out, Mr. Woodward’s past stories show him to be a policy pusher as well as a reporter. But where are those meaty “investigations” exposing nefarious crimes in the administration today, and where were they during the time of Mr. Clinton’s Arkansas fiefdom? In Agenda, the author is quite clearly for Mr. Clinton’s policies. Which is entirely understandable, because why, after all, would these 250 (Mr. Woodward’s figure) inside sources be talking with such candor to the enemy?
Seven, at a time when liberal journalists like Michael Kramer of Time magazine, Joe Klein and Jonathan Alter of Newsweek, and Michael Kelly of the New York Times (and now of the New Yorker) are dumping on the Clintons, Mr. Woodward has demonstrated something Joseph Schumpeter once said: “Selective information, if in itself correct, is an attempt to lie by speaking the truth.” He has shown us that Mr. Clinton is doing a great job against great odds. And by publishing the most intimate details of White House interactions, Mr. Woodward forces his colleagues to deal with the administration on his terms, not on theirs. Which is why I call him Spinmeister-in-Chief. Agenda will be regarded by historians as an essential archive in evaluating and writing about the Clinton administration.
Mr. Woodward has been attacked for his failure to provide footnotes. Well, now, when George Shultz, Don Regan, Ed Meese, and David Stockman published their memoirs, they included no footnotes to speak of. The authors themselves were the footnotes. Footnotes in and of themselves are no guarantee of authenticity or even accuracy, unless one is listing page numbers of a book. Mr. Woodward’s technique, technically speaking, is admirable. Ira Magaziner “rolled his eyes,” “Clinton began to take notes furiously,” “Grunwald snapped,” “Stephanopolous thought [Vice-President] Gore at times had a tin ear,” “Clinton leaned back and pulled his feet up on the bottom rung of the rocker,” and my favorite of all, “[Roger] Altman leaned down on a glass-topped table, palms down. When he stood up, two sweaty palm imprints were left on the table.” If there were an annual Artistic Verisimilitude Medal, Mr. Woodward would deserve it (sweaty) hands down.
Agenda is really a Beltway book. Unless you are part of the Washington scene or a political scientist, it is boring. Perhaps somebody ought to organize a “Beltway-Book-of-the-Month-Club” in which case Mr. Woodward would be, I am sure, a Main Selection. All he would have to worry about would be sharing his bountiful royalties with Hillary.
[The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House, by Bob Woodward (New York: Simon & Schuster) 352 pp., $24.00]