- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 8, 2002

By Bob Woodward
Simon & Schuster, $28, 376 pages

This is, you could say, a Washington book for Washington people. Administration officials will be checking to see how many times they are mentioned in the text; aides will be looking up their bosses in the index and adjusting their career plans accordingly. The op-ed contributors, talking heads and think tank veterans whom Donald Rumsfeld describes as the "K Street pundits" will all draw their own conclusions.
Yet one of the most compelling vignettes in Bob Woodward's account of George W. Bush's 100 days after September 11 takes place far away from the marbled halls and strategy rooms. On Oct. 30, 2001 the president found himself preparing to stride out into Yankee Stadium to perform the ceremonial first pitch in the World Series. It would prove an important symbolic moment in the early stages of the War on Terror: a chief executive and ordinary guy bonding with the fans and the nation.
What the cameras missed, however, was a short exchange in the bullpen between the pitcher-in-chief and the Yankees' shortstop Derek Jeter. Having agreed to wear a bulletproof vest for the occasion, the president realized he would have problems freeing up his arm to throw the ball properly. So, when Mr. Jeter asked if he planned to pitch from the rubber, the highest point of the mound, or to throw the shorter distance from the base, his guest was, understandably, inclined to choose the safer option. No good, replied Mr. Jeter: "If you throw from the base of the mound, they are going to boo you."
The president was startled. Would they really boo him here, at a moment like this, in the middle of a war? "Yeah," confirms Mr. Jeter. "It's New York."
History records that the president stood atop the mound and threw a strike. New York duly roared its approval. But what would have happened if his throwing arm had let him down? Would we have been reminded of Jimmy Carter stumbling during a marathon, George Bush the elder disappearing beneath a Japanese dining table? In "Bush at War," Bob Woodward observes that political life in Washington is dominated by "the overwhelming power of perception."
The Yankee Stadium incident illustrates how, in the era of cable news and burgeoning multimedia, the same rule applies to the rest of the country. Is it possible for the leader of a democratic society to wage war effectively when his every move, every feint, is analyzed on the evening news, and when the nation's leading newspapers seem to have access to his latest battle plans? The challenge is daunting enough in times of conventional war. A war against a terror outfit and their sponsors throws up a thousand more complications. There are moments in this book when Mr. Bush does not bother to hide his frustration with second-guessing reporters and editors who demand instant results and instant accountability.
All this is compounded by the fact that, as Mr. Woodward puts it, September 11 was "the most photographed and filmed violent assault in history." An earlier generation had been haunted by the blurred images on the Zapruder tape. September 11 was played out in ultra-crisp, real-time video. The president, writes Mr. Woodward, "sensed that he was not going to be able to offer an equivalent spectacular event in response. Much of his war and his response would be invisible, and a long time in coming."
Would a traumatized public have the patience for such a conflict? The media did not always look like passing that particular test. These pages remind us how close some sections of the press as well as some officials came to panicking when the Afghan campaign appeared to be edging towards the dreaded Q-word - quagmire. One of the great merits of this book which is based on interviews with more than100 decision-makers is its aura of human fallibility, of policies being invented, amended and re-amended on the spur of the moment.
Although the official business of government is intricately choreographed at photo-calls and press conferences, Mr. Woodward captures the dissensions, large and small, among the Administration's inner circle. Officials who ponder the intricacies of HUMINT and SIGINT (human intelligence and signals intelligence) suddenly find themselves muttering about a much more down to earth acronymn: FUBAR (****ed up Beyond All Recognition).
How much has the book got right? Only the principals themselves and future historians can answer that one. Plenty of reviewers have already pointed out that those figures who gave Mr. Woodward ready access seem to come off best. That presumably explains the mildly unflattering view of both Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, who largely preferred to keep their innermost thoughts to themselves. Dick Cheney seems, literally and metaphorically, to have been in a different bunker when Mr. Woodward was digging away with his notebook.
Having seen the CIA's reputation tarnished in the early months of the war, George Tenet sets about rehabilitating himself and his agency. After the president, Colin Powell looms largest of all. One of Margaret Thatcher's ministers was once described, somewhat dismissively, as a semi-detached member of her government. Mr. Powell seems equally aloof at times. Flying back from Latin America on September 11, he is unable to get through to the White House because the phone lines and e-mail are down. For much of Mr. Woodward's account, in fact, the secretary of state still appears to be struggling to establish a meaningful dialogue with his boss.
The author is so intensely focused on chronicling day-to-day developments including a neatly sketched outline of the role of Special Forces in the field that broader foreign affairs issues receive minimal space. Tony Blair is granted only the smallest walk-on role, and even the Middle East seems almost incidental to the action.
That is a pity, because the one disappointment in the war against terror so far has been in terms of addressing America's image abroad. It may not have made a huge difference to the Afghan campaign, but in the world at large "the overwhelming power of perception" counts for just as much as it does in Washington.
It goes without saying that in the eyes of most western Europeans, Mr. Powell will emerge as the hero of this narrative, a steadying hand who keeps the unilateralists in check. According to this school of thought the conventional wisdom in London, Paris and Berlin George W. Bush is the simpleton who shelters behind the collective wisdom of his experienced team of advisors. Mr. Woodward lays that notion convincingly to rest here President Bush emerges as a rare blend of instinct and intelligence but I suspect that many Europeans will not pay all that much heed. Prejudices can sometimes be so much more comforting than facts.

Clive Davis writes for the London Times and Sunday Times.

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