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The D.C. Power-Brokers

Journalist Bob Woodward digs into Washington decisionmaking

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.

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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 ac c

ept his occasional impetuosity and emotionalism.

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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 .... " Or: "Scowcroft reported that the president.... "

This is like trying to stage Hamlet without casting the prince himself.

An example: In one of the rare insightful remarks that Woodward reports, he suggests that Bush is much more than an amiable preppy. Cheney warns Admiral Crowe, "The president has got a long history of vindictive political actions." Cross Bush and you pay, Cheney says. A trifle, you say; but another writer - more alert? more imaginative? - would probe deeper; Woodward, caring little about what makes people tick, doesn't.

Woodward's technique nevertheless fits the needs of a highly publicized, mass-market audience.

Tell the story straightforwardly, nonjudgmentally, and very simply, with bland, unemotional language and brisk declarative sentences that a 10-year-old can grasp. Ignore history and context, analysis, and perspective: They slow the narrative. Offer no moral or political opinions; stand with neither left nor right, but merely as a dispassionate, apolitical observer, reporting only what you're told.

Downplay the big ideological/moral questions, with all their complexities and ambiguities. And present the results casually, lightly, without the scholarly paraphernalia of footnotes and sources - who cares anyway? - but with plenty of brisk action, the written equivalent of television sound bites.

And try to find a hero, a well-informed insider who will talk and who will be portrayed attractively in return. So it was with William Greider and David Stockman in Greider's famous (notorious?) article in The Atlantic on Stockman. So it was again with Strobe Talbott and Paul Nitze in Talbott's books on the disarmament negotiations.

And so it is now with Woodward and Colin Powell, who stands at the book's core, as a classic American hero - honest, kindly, virtuous, hard-working, and deeply concerned about casualties among the troops. Hence, his - and Wolfowitz's - readiness to give sanctions a chance, even as Bush was heading toward battle from mid-September onward. All this may well be true. It also constitutes a virtual campaign biography, should Powell go the political route.

Woodward's bent is toward success and power. Ignoring options, alternatives, and the road not taken, he is fascinated by victory. It is easy to assume that investigative reporters are, by definition, social critics, even radicals. This may be true of Carl Bernstein or Seymour Hersh, but not of Bob Woodward, who, like many top Washingtonians, has prospered by taking the world of power very much as he finds it.

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