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Consider the excerpt of The Choice that appeared in Monday’s Washington Post. Dole intimate Mari Will has gone up the mountain to help Dole sort out this nasty business of running for president:
It is hard for you, Will said, because in Kansas (where Dole was raised) people didn’t talk openly about personal matters. It’s like being asked to read poetry aloud or something that you have written yourself? Will asked.
“Yes,” Dole replied.
Talking about values was essential, she said. It was what the country wanted to hear, and he would have to do it.
Dole said he would do it.
At this point, your average fly on the wall would have fallen dead asleep and come crashing down on its noggin, but Woodward hung in for 18 months, matching Dole’s aimless mumbling with his now infamous voice from nowhere, which happens to be everywhere.
“I don’t know how he does it,” marveled one colleague. “Woodward’s style is that he has none. He has turned a complete lack of affect into an affect.”
History wasn’t this boring in 10th grade, but then again, if Woodward’s such a listless storyteller, why are we so riveted? It certainly isn’t news value: Hillary Clinton hypnotized by the dangling crystal of lefty mystics? Michael Lerner got there first. Bob Dole’s towering indecisiveness? Anybody who has seen a single press conference could write a book about it. Slick Willie’s willingness to occupy any available ethical wiggle room and then some? That’s been going on since he entered public life.
Like his other peeks beneath the blanket—The Agenda, The Man Who Would Be President, The Commanders, and all of the rest of the The… epics, Woodward is not telling us anything we don’t know, but we can’t look away. What are we to make of his ownership of the news agenda?
Woodward’s durability brings to mind another Bob. Like Dylan, Woodward came out of nowhere during a time of unparalleled tumult and changed the course of history with what he wrote. And like Dylan, Woodward has been hitting the same notes—and teaching us how absolute power corrupts—ever since, but we sit reverently and wait for the lightning bolt.
And we’ll keep waiting if the four excerpts from The Choice printed in the Post are any indication. All the book does is further the Reaganification of the Clintons (vacuous show monkey married to bitchy spiritualist) and the Nixon makeover of Dole (fear-driven golem tangled in his own syntax). Is it any wonder these guys are beginning to resemble each other when you remember that they all have had the same biographer of record? Woodward has been telling us who our leaders really are for two decades. If he says Hillary is tipping over into shamanism, who are we to dispute it? He was right about the damn tapes, wasn’t he?
Content aside—and it really is—Woodward’s latest attempt to commodify history before it cools is at least an epic from a marketing perspective. Two rollout stories above the fold in the Sunday Post were quickly followed by 12 pages of breathless retelling in Newsweek. (In the same week, Time took off the gloves by taking them off Elizabeth Dole and revealing a set of rapier nails and widespread malfeasance in her management of the blood supply.) Dan Balz’s Sunday annotation of his colleague’s book reported that Hillary Clinton’s cohort Jean Houston “conducted experiments with LSD. She refrained from such approaches in working with the first lady.” And Balz also faithfully described a Dole in search of a No. 2 imprisoned by a kind of numerical Tourette’s, which has him chanting about who is a “7” and who might be a “10” (maybe he’ll end up choosing Bo Derek).
It ain’t All the President’s Men, but Woodward is still a sui generis franchise who can move papers and accrue prestige faster than the next 10 biggest names in journalism. Post staffers will tell you that there really was no choice when it came to The Choice, Woodward’s vaguely stenographic (“Dialogue and quotations come from at least one participant”) retelling of the last 18 months of presidential politics. For many years now, when Woodward comes forth with one of his whoppers, his bosses just grab onto the back of his shirt and hang on. Who cares if it’s just reheated CW not particularly well told?
All of the corporate logrolling—let’s not forget Newsweek and the Post’s common ownership—is understandable. Woodward is so big that sovereign rulers quake when he calls, and when he gets ready to tell a story, editors become toreadors, opening their pages to his work with a cheerful “olé.”
This time around, Woodward could have used a little help from the Post’s venerable editors. After all, the paper’s first excerpt plugging Woodward’s epic on presidential politics focused on Hillary’s spiritual search, a juicy but inconsequential bit guaranteed to get a ride out of the tabs. The next day’s plain vanilla take on Dole’s hilariously creaky decision-making abilities has much more profound implications about the choice before the voters. Too bad that doesn’t quite parse like Hillary and Ouija boards.
“I thought it was curious when they were excerpting a book that was supposed to be about the campaign that they chose the Hillary new age stuff. I mean, is this stuff news?” said one colleague. But the colleague did not begrudge Woodward’s splashy play. While it may not be in the contract, it’s an article of faith that if a Postie gets a book together, he can depend on the Washington Post Magazine for an excerpt. (Woodward’s Choice was not the only Post-penned Simon and Schuster book vetted on Sunday. Main Justice, co-written by Post investigative reporter Jim McGee, held down the cover of the magazine. It was by far the better excerpt, but that’s another story.) At least four times in the last year, the Post Magazine has hosted house authors.
Every news person is a book author in abeyance, and many of the Post writers are at the top of their profession, so it’s only natural that they want to go long without some editor breathing down their necks. But the conflict with the goal of serving the reader is manifest. A reporter who competes with the Post framed it nicely.
“You have an assistant managing editor for news who knows stuff that he can’t put into the paper. And it’s in his interest to hold as much back for the book as he can. It’s a Faustian bargain. Woodward knew a long time before other people knew that Dole was going to quit the Senate, but you didn’t see that in their paper, did you?” the competitor observed.
Which might leave Post readers with one question about Woodward:
“What did he know, and when did he know it?”
Welcome Mat Michael Kelly might have thought Ruth Shalit was the only nasty business waiting for him when he arrives at the New Republic following the election, but Chairman Marty has a surprise for him. Martin Peretz issued a press release the other day announcing the debut of “The Hard Questions,” a “public philosophy” column that will rotate among four leading members of the professorati: Harvard’s Michael Sandel, Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago, Michael Walzer of the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton, and Ronald Steel of the University of Southern California. Peretz has a, well, fairly developed vision for the column.
“Public debate about pressing social, political and economic questions of the day seems trapped between the abstractions of the philosophers and the details of the wonks. Obviously, the debate requires critical articulation of ideas and principles; just as obviously, the God of policy is in the details. These important intellectuals will take up the challenge of addressing the raw realities of policy and bring their ideas into line with harsh requirements of government. Our hope is that the columnists would each week identify a problem they find philosophically interesting, offer a solution and then explain why they’ve chosen their particular solution.”
Edit that, Mr. Kelly.
Dingbats Washingtonpost.com has debuted on the Web. It is everything Digital Ink was not— gorgeous graphics with comprehensible architecture and tremendous utility. And, oh yeah, it works. Not all of the uses of the Web’s archival capabilities are particularly well thought through, though. Under the headline “Replay Your Favorite Moments in Sports,” Ripken gets the obligatory mention, but the Len Bias tragedy is listed second. In general, the page is some of the best evidence around that daily papers might be figuring out the Web. There’s even a section where you can talk back to managing editor Bob Kaiser. Look for Post staffers to avail themselves of the opportunity early and often.
Has anybody else noticed the 800-pound pencil following around Metropolitan Police Chief Larry Soulsby? 60 Minutes is on the case. No one can tell yet whether the show will focus on the hapless chief or his miserable Indians. —David Carr
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