The D.C. Power-Brokers Journalist Bob Woodward Digs into Washington Decisionmaking

By Leonard Bushkoff. Leonard Bushkoff, a. freelance book reviewer, has worked of . | The Christian Science Monitor, May 22, 1991 | Go to article overview

The D.C. Power-Brokers Journalist Bob Woodward Digs into Washington Decisionmaking


Leonard Bushkoff. Leonard Bushkoff, a. freelance book reviewer, has worked of ., The Christian Science Monitor


ANOTHER Bob Woodward book - and, by luck, labor, and the adroit deployment of journalistic clout, it both marches with and contributes to the headlines.

As the chief investigative reporter for the Washington Post, and a man who helped demolish Richard Nixon, Woodward is the quintessential Washington insider and power-broker.

This book, "The Commanders," demonstrates how he squeezes that position dry, but it also hints at how an insider's view can be limited, unimaginative, and even self-serving.

His theme is top-level White House/Pentagon decisionmaking, first in the attack on Panama, and then in the 5 1/2 months of diplomatic and especially military maneuvering that preceded the war with Iraq; his account ends as the bombs begin falling.

The book consists essentially of selections from Woodward's notes of 400 anonymous interviews: Readers are expected to accept them unquestioningly, at face value, after the fashion of Kitty Kelley's denunciation of Nancy Reagan (also a Simon & Schuster publication). Of published sources there is no evidence - although Woodward says he "used hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles" - and there is nothing to suggest a firm grip on the military and diplomatic background.

Woodward focuses entirely on a few senior officials and military men, on who said what to whom, was supported or opposed by whom, and favored or criticized which policies.

There was unanimity regarding Panama, a feeling that Gen. Manuel Noriega was a nasty brute who must be squashed, but less so on Iraq, where the dangers seemed great.

Aside from brief attention to the Senate hearings conducted by Sam Nunn, Congress is virtually ignored. So are the news media and, indeed, everything beyond the Beltway. The only significant outsider is the Saudi ambassador, Prince Bandur, who is admired as a skillful power-broker and manipulator.

Some minor players do appear on the periphery: Paul Wolfowitz, the undersecretary of defense for policy; lieutenant generals Tom Kelly and Maxwell Thurman; Pete Williams, the senior Pentagon spokesperson; retired admiral William Crowe; and a few others. The key players are Jim Baker, Brent Scowcroft, Dick Cheney, and certainly Colin Powell, Woodward's hero. But the Reagan presidency is over: Bush makes his own decisions, often without thorough consultations - and his subordinates are constrained to acc ept his occasional impetuosity and emotionalism.

This is a problem for Woodward, whose seemingly rigorous but actually primitive definition of journalism pivots on "The Interview and little but the interview. And Bush was not (would not be?) interviewed. Hence, the only player who mattered largely slips through the cracks, aside from occasional paraphrases: "Cheney said that Bush wanted . …

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