Swans Commentary » swans.com December 5, 2005  



Debunking Bob Woodward


by Louis Proyect





(Swans - December 5, 2005)   Bob Woodward was the first reporter to be informed that Valerie Plame was a CIA agent. While keeping that a secret, he tried to minimize the importance of Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation on television and in the pages of the Washington Post. This led many media analysts to wonder why one of America's premier investigative journalists would violate the principles that made him so famous. As this article will try to point out, Woodward was never the fearless muckraker popularized by Robert Redford's portrayal in All the President's Men. Moreover, the Washington Post was exactly the kind of paper that would recruit and promote somebody so willing to violate journalist ethics in the pursuit of advancing his own career and the larger goals of American foreign policy.

The story starts with Eugene Meyer who bought the paper in 1933 and turned it into a family fiefdom just as the Sulzbergers, another German-American Jewish family, had made the New York Times its own. Meyer was a financier who served in high government posts from WWI through the New Deal under both Democratic and Republican administrations -- just the sort of background that one would expect in a publisher of a major American daily.

During the 1930s, the children of ruling class families often veered to the left as a response to the social misery that stared them in the face and out of sympathy with the new radical movement that included many of the brightest members of their generation. Katherine Meyer was no exception to this rule. As a Vassar student, she took a bus to Albany with other students to protest a loyalty oath. In 1936, she wrote an article for a student newspaper complaining that Hollywood lacked the guts to make a "genuine Left wing" film. This was prompted by moves to censor a film based on Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here, a cautionary tale about the rise of American fascism. As a board member of the American Student Union, she took part in peace demonstrations, struggles to abolish ROTC on campus, efforts to promote desegregation, and fundraising for the Spanish Republic.

In 1940, Katherine married Philip Graham, a brilliant graduate of the Harvard Law School who would work in the Lend-Lease Administration and then enlist in the army where he worked in intelligence.

After the war, Philip Graham took a job as Eugene Meyer's assistant at the Washington Post where he would be groomed as his eventual successor. Katherine stayed in the background, serving as hostess at parties or salons to which Washington's top politicians and power brokers were invited.

With their growing wealth and political clout, Philip and Katherine Graham began to identify more and more with the Democratic Party elites, who were using the political capital acquired through the defeat of fascism against the newly discovered Communist "threat." Before long, the Washington Post would become a pillar of the Cold War. Phil Graham took to this new crusade with great relish, believing that the press should serve as a handmaiden to the anti-Communist cause.

Among the Grahams's guests at social functions were people like Frank Wisner, an OSS veteran who had become the director of Office of Policy Coordination in 1948, the covert operations arm of the CIA. Wisner had begun to recruit foreign students and infiltrate trade unions with an eye to defeating the reds. Philip Graham helped Wisner devise a plan called Operation Mockingbird that would recruit journalists to the cause.

Ben Bradlee would eventually become a regular at the Grahams's salons and then a top editor at the Post. In an appendix to Deborah Davis's Katherine the Great, we learn that Bradlee played a key role in a massive propaganda campaign against Julius and Ethel Rosenberg while attached as a press attaché to the American embassy in Paris in the early 1950s. In a document obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, Davis reveals that Bradlee had advised the assistant prosecutor in the Rosenberg case that he had been sent to Paris by Robert Thayer, who was head of the CIA in Paris. The prosecutor writes, "He [Bradlee] stated that he was supposed to have been met by a representative of the CIA at the airport but missed connections." Apparently, Operation Mockingbird was in full tilt. Versions of Bradlee's dispatches would appear in the pages of the three largest circulation French morning newspapers.

When Bradlee eventually showed up for a job interview with Katherine Graham, who had taken over the paper after her husband had killed himself (he was manic-depressive), she asked him how he planned to cover the Vietnam War. Bradlee said he didn't know, but that he'd hire no "son-of-a-bitch" reporter who was not a patriot.

One reporter whose patriotism could not be doubted was Bob Woodward.

Unlike his writing partner Carl Bernstein, who was the son of Communist parents and an early convert to the 1960s counterculture, Woodward came from a rock-ribbed Republican family in Wheaton, Illinois, a town that took its Christianity so seriously that alcohol sales were illegal. (This information and other biographical information that follows can be found in Adrian Havill's excellent Deep Truth, a joint biography of Woodward and Bernstein.)

After graduating from Yale, Woodward became a circuit control officer on the USS Wright, the result of having spent four years in ROTC, the very program that Katherine Graham had protested in the 1930s. The Wright was a National Emergency Command Ship, one of three that were designed to carry on nuclear warfare after initial strikes had taken place against Russia and Washington. Everybody on board would require a security clearance -- in Woodward's case this was a top secret "crypto" clearance.

Once back on land, Woodward took a job as communications watch officer at the Pentagon in 1970, which led him to act as a courier between the military and the White House. His work brought him into close contact with General Alexander Haig, who worked for the National Security Council and whom he frequently briefed. Operating in this environment had much more to do with his future evolution as a journalist than anything else, including his work on exposing Watergate.

Woodward's first reporting job was with the Montgomery County Sentinel, the leading suburban weekly outside of Washington. His editor there says, "He used to come in the newsroom and tell us some wild stories. He'd tell us that there was going to be a revolution in some banana republic in a week, and sure enough, there would be."

Despite his spookish connections, Woodward had become disenchanted with Richard Nixon, who he had voted for in the last election, and the war in Vietnam. In so doing, he was similar to people such as Richard Clarke or Joseph Wilson today. When a government refuses to pull out of a war that is no longer justified on a cost-benefit basis, there will always be elite figures who disassociate themselves from the policy while continuing to embrace the system that fosters it.

Shortly after graduating to the Washington Post, for which the Sentinel served as a kind of farm team, Woodward's editors discovered that he had "connections" in the government. At first the source was referred to as his "friend" or "Mister X." This would serve him well after teaming up with Carl Bernstein in the investigation made famous by the book All the President's Men and the film based on the book starring Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein and Robert Redford as Woodward. It now appears that much of the melodrama found in both the book and film was the result of fictional embroidery. For example, it would be virtually impossible for Woodward's contact, now revealed as W. Mark Felt, to have relied on the presence of a flowerpot on his sixth-floor balcony. In reality the balcony was not visible from the alley in which "Deep Throat" would be looking for the rendezvous signal. This cloak-and-dagger touch was supplied to make the book more suspenseful and hence sell more copies. In other words, Woodward and Bernstein were interested in money.

Now that we know the identity of "Deep Throat," it is even more obvious that Woodward was functioning as an insider with "connections" more than as a combative investigative journalist. FBI deputy director W. Mark Felt had first met Woodward, then a US Navy courier, outside the White House Situation Room in 1970. Felt's willingness to speak to Woodward seems to have had more to do with resentment at being passed over for a promotion rather than anger over civil liberties violations, especially in light of his role in approving nine black-bag jobs at the New York homes of Weather Underground sympathizers in early 1973. In keeping with Woodward's seemingly unquenchable desire for book sales and the money they generate, he and Felt had a falling out over a possible joint book deal.

As Woodward's career advanced, many of the techniques employed in All the President's Men would be deployed on behalf of less worthy political goals. The use of anonymous sources and semi-fictional "new journalism" flourishes would serve the interests of US foreign policy rather than removing a dictatorial figure from office.

One must assume that Woodward's proclivity for anonymous sources and journalistic license might explain his trust in Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke, the Jayson Blair of her time. Cooke, an ambitious African-American reporter who reported to Woodward and who was under pressure to deliver sensational stories about the "black experience," began reporting on a black eight-year-old heroin addict in 1980 she only called "Jimmy." These stories would eventually win her the Pulitzer Prize. Woodward didn't press her for his identity, nor did her other editors. Ben Bradlee thought it was a "helluva job." Unfortunately, it was totally fabricated. Cooke was forced to return the Pulitzer Prize and has since left journalism, as did Blair and Stephen Glass. For the first time in his career, Woodward was knocked a little bit off his pedestal. A joke began making the rounds: "I know where Jimmy lives, next door to Deep Throat."

In 1987, Woodward wrote Veil: the Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987, a book that had all the trappings of investigative journalism -- especially the title. It was based on the career of William Casey, the CIA director who was a key figure in Reagan's illegal wars. Although the book was filled with all sorts of lurid revelations (Casey thought Reagan was lazy, the King of Saudi Arabia was a drunk, etc.), it really didn't get to the heart of why these wars took place and, more importantly, how to stop them.

The book generated some controversy that must have been a painful reminder of the Janet Cooke fiasco. An interview with the dying William Casey, who supposedly "confessed" all his contra-arms dealings to Woodward, was filled with so many inconsistencies and vagueness that the book was widely discredited. In addition, Woodward was accused of withholding important information just as he has done more recently. In Congressional hearings, Lt. Col. Oliver North testified that Casey was in on the diversion of funds from the beginning. If Woodward had Casey's confession months before North testified, it would have been a major scoop for the Post had he come forward as well as a powerful blow against the illegal conspiracies being hatched during the Reagan presidency. But he held back in order to coincide with the publication date of his book.

Whatever its flaws, at least it can be said that Veiled was directed against government abuse of power. As Woodward's power and influence grew, he would subtly transform himself into an "impartial" defender of such abuses.

This became apparent with the publication of The Commanders in 1991, a book about the first Gulf War that set a pattern for his more recent books about the intrepid George W. Bush's war on terror. Relying on a plethora of anonymous sources, Woodward weaves a sympathetic tale of men in high places who are in a high stakes game with enemies of the U.S. Undoubtedly, this strikes a chord with a mass audience that gets the same sort of titillation one would get in a Tom Clancy novel.

The book garnered attention mainly for its "revelation" that Colin Powell was reluctant to go to war under George H. W. Bush, just as he was under George W. Bush. As journalism, the book took even greater liberties than in the past. Characters spoke without quotation marks and when quotation marks were used, they were designed to recreate conversations that Woodward assumed took place or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

James J. Kilpatrick was a bit skeptical about this approach as indicated from his May 15, 1991 article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Woodward sought "to re-create as closely as possible the way the discussion flowed." The author says that his book "falls somewhere between newspaper journalism and history."

Is that where this book falls? Who knows? None of us can check his secondary sources. We don't know who they are. Woodward's readers must trust Woodward, and those who recall Woodward's purported deathbed interview with CIA Director William Casey -- an interview that Bill Casey's widow says never happened -- may wish to read verbatim conversations with a skeptical eye.

One example: Woodward "re-creates" a talk between Gen. Colin Powell and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi Arabian ambassador, on Aug. 3 of last year. Powell says the United States is prepared to send a large force.

"How many are you talking about?' Bandar asked.

"Powell said 100,000 to 200,000.

"Bandar let his breath out audibly. Well, at least this shows you're serious.'"

Was this exactly what was said? At one point, "Bandar felt his hair stand up."

Really? How high did Bandar's hair stand up? Vass you dere, Bobby?

When Bob Woodward was at Yale, he spent his years there working on a novel that publishers politely declined. It would seem that Woodward has finally found his niche in writing fiction, but not in the way he originally expected.

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Internal Resources

America the 'beautiful'

Patterns which Connect on Swans


About the Author

Louis Proyect on Swans (with bio).



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Published December 5, 2005