Why every White House talks to Bob Woodward
In journalism, the coin of the realm is access - and the wealthiest journalist in Washington, by far, is Bob Woodward.
He has a desk on the coveted north wall of the Washington Post newsroom, but is, colleagues say, seldom there. Though still best known for his role in breaking the Watergate scandal of the Nixon years, for two decades Mr. Woodward has been busy writing book after book on the inner workings of Washington - from the supposedly impenetrable Supreme Court and Federal Reserve to successive occupants of the Oval Office.
Now Woodward's name is again on all lips and his face on TV talk shows, as his book "Plan of Attack" soars up best-seller lists. This book, about the buildup to the Iraq war, may not be enough to inspire a second generation of college students to take up their pens for the Fourth Estate, as Watergate did, but it does cement Woodward's reputation as the Detective Columbo of journalism - unassuming, a bit bumbling perhaps, but a guy who always, always lands his source.
"His access has snowballed over the years. Originally he had none, but now he is a mammoth of journalistic access," says Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "He is the New York Yankees of access, while the rest of us are in the press room playing the role of the Montreal Expos."
While most White House correspondents count their blessings if Karl Rove's secretary returns their phone calls, and The New York Times waits to score an interview with President Bush, Woodward interviewed more than 75 officials and staff from the White House, State Department, Defense Department, and CIA for "Plan of Attack." Secretary of State Colin Powell is widely believed to have been a key source, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld went on record in a three-hour interview, and Mr. Bush gave him 3-1/2 hours, over the course of two days.
How does Woodward do it?
By long hours working his way up the information chain, just like any other journalist, insists Woodward. "I started at the low level," he recounted in a Fox interview last week, "... trying to figure out exactly what would happen, get documents and notes, working up through the mid level." Eventually, he said, explaining how he put together "Plan of Attack," he compiled a 21-page memo outlining what he had found, sent it to the White House, and asked to talk. "They realized I was going to write the book anyway," he said.
But hard work and long-time connections are only part of the story. It's clear that doors were opened to Woodward as he did his research. Sidney Blumenthal, a former senior adviser to President Clinton, argues that, flattered by Woodward's last book, "Bush at War," which portrayed the president in a positive light, Bush gave Woodward enormous access and encouraged others to do so.
"Woodward has never had such access as to the Bush White House. Period," says Mr. Blumenthal. "They believed this was going to be extremely positive. They were expecting an almost official book which would depict Bush as a strong leader at war. and they wanted to get it 'just right.' "
Of course, this White House is not the first to work with Woodward. Over the years, talking to Woodward has become common practice for high-ranking officials. David Gergen, who served as director of communications for President Reagan and held positions in the Nixon, Ford, and Clinton administrations, tells of being "astonished" when Clinton's staff encouraged him to talk to Woodward. "They told me," he said on NPR last week, "this is sort of de rigueur within the administration that you talk to Bob Woodward every week."
One reason for this openness could be Woodward's style. First, he's no "gotcha" journalist. He is not after scoops, or headlines, but is, he often insists, trying to present the facts and understand what happened.
"Journalistically speaking, he is not doing his job, which is to get the news out to his readers, instead of saving it up and charging $28 for it eight months later," says Fellings. "But on the other hand, I am sure it helps interviewees relax and confide in him."
Also, those who know Woodward or have been interviewed by him talk of a "rock star quality" and a "power of seduction" that makes a person feel privileged to be interviewed by him at all. "You feel you can talk to him and say things to him that perhaps you would not say to anybody else - maybe to a priest in a confessional, maybe to your psychiatrist in the quiet of his study," Mr. Gergen told NPR.
And, the more people talk to him, the more others feel they would be missing out not to. Felling calls this "implicit muscle," and compares Woodward to Tony Soprano, the character on the popular TV show. He does not look frightening, says Felling, but he wields great power and everyone knows it.
Edward Luttwak of the Center for Strategic and International Studies calls it intimidation. "If you don't talk to him, you get slammed," he says. "If you talk, you get your perspective in." Mr. Luttwak recalls consulting to the CIA during the tenure of director William Casey, a key source for Woodward's book on the Iran-contra scandal of the Reagan years.
"Woodward did a whitewash in that book - everyone was guilty except Casey," Luttwak says. "In fact, Casey was guilty.... But because he talked to Woodward, he got his point of view in." Word about this sort of thing gets around fast, concludes Luttwak, and soon enough, in this town of power and perception, "everyone wants to talk to Woodward."