That Woodward Magic

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Wednesday, April 21, 2004; 10:18 AM

How does he do it?

That's one of the questions you hear a lot as Washington conversation continues to be consumed by Bob Woodward's new book about President Bush's march to war in Iraq.

How does Woodward get these tight-lipped Bush administration types (including Bush himself!) to talk to him in the first place -- and then to open up?

The Defense Department on Monday Web-published the transcripts of two on-the-record interviews Woodward conducted with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld late last year, offering up a revealing look at how Woodward works his sources.

But even more revelatory is the fact that someone over there deleted some of the most important bits! Apparently, part of the experience of being interviewed with Woodward is having some regrets afterward.

Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post today: "The Pentagon deleted from a public transcript a statement Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld made to author Bob Woodward suggesting that the administration gave Saudi Arabia a two-month heads-up that President Bush had decided to invade Iraq. . . .

"Woodward supplied his own transcript showing that Rumsfeld told him on Oct. 23, 2003: 'I remember meeting with the vice president and I think Dick Myers and I met with a foreign dignitary at one point and looked him in the eye and said you can count on this. In other words, at some point we had had enough of a signal from the president that we were able to look a foreign dignitary in the eye and say you can take that to the bank this is going to happen.' "

This is a big deal because one of the most eye-popping scenes in the book takes place in January 2003 in Vice President Cheney's West Wing office, where Rumsfeld and others show Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, a top-secret map showing how the war plan would unfold. "You can count on this," Woodward quotes Rumsfeld as saying, pointing to the map. "You can take that to the bank. This is going to happen."

That's about two months before the White House previously acknowledged it had decided to go to war and, according to Woodward's book, it's even before Secretary of State Colin L. Powell got the word from Bush.

The Post helpfully reprints, from Woodward's transcript of the on-the-record interview, some of the missing bits.

Here are the expurgated versions from the Defense Department Web site, of the September 20 and October 23 interviews.

White House: Generally Pleased

As Allen reports, "fallout from the book's many disclosures continued to dominate conversations throughout Washington" yesterday.

But by and large, the White House is actually delighted with the book -- and that's telling, too.

"Bush's closest aides, who typically resist efforts to pull back the Oval Office curtains, are actively promoting sales of the book," Allen writes.

" 'We're urging people to buy the book,' White House communications director Dan Bartlett said. 'What this book does is show a president who was asking the right questions and showing prudence as well as resolve during very difficult times. This book undermines a lot of the critics' charges.' "

Limbaugh: Fired Up

Rush Limbaugh writes in the Wall Street Journal today: "Frankly, I don't understand why the president or anyone else in the administration who supports the war against Iraq would give Mr. Woodward the time of day. Surely they had to know that his reporting methods, and his popularity with the 'beautiful people' inside the Beltway for whacking Republican after Republican, would result in the inevitable anti-Bush, antiwar screed."

Yet More of the Missing Bits

The Washington Post's Al Kamen, in his In the Loop column, helpfully reprints even more of the missing bits, including some banter in which Rumsfeld accuses Woodward of being a liar -- then recants.

The Woodward Way

Todd S. Purdum of the New York Times writes that "transcripts of interviews that Mr. Woodward conducted with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for 'Plan of Attack,' his latest blockbuster, about the Iraq war -- that the Pentagon released this week to coincide with the publication of the book -- provide some revealing clues. Because the transcripts show not only Mr. Rumsfeld's answers, but also Mr. Woodward's questions, they amount to a vicarious glimpse at a reporting style that blends flattery and silken intimidation with unparalleled access."

For instance, when Rumsfeld gets testy at one point, Woodward responds: "My overall goal in this, because I have a good relationship with President Bush, and he wants me to do this, I think, as you know."

And that's not to mention all the missing bits!

Softball Watch

Woodward isn't all hardballs. Sometimes he sails them slow and easy right over the center of the plate. From the September 20 interview, talking about Bush's approach to going to war:

"Woodward: And, of course, I mean, in a way, my point is it's an exercise in patience almost. Would you agree with that on his part?

"Rumsfeld: There's no question, but that it was a long, long period and everyone was respectful of what he was trying to do. Within the government, there was a great respect for his recognition that a conflict was the last choice; there's just so much that's unpredictable in a conflict. . . .

"Woodward: The President is -- the President. Look, I'm neutral. I am an independent journalist. I have to be. Whether you like what the President did or don't like it, it is one of the gutsiest calls in history.

"Rumsfeld: It sure is."

Live Online

Woodward, the former Watergate reporter who is now an assistant managing editor at The Post, answered reader questions Live Online yesterday on

"This book, 'Plan of Attack,' is not a one-dimensional portrait of the president or the administration. People are going to read it very differently depending on what they bring to the book. I was surprised and frankly somewhat happy that both the Bush/Cheney campaign and the Kerry campaign have put the book on the recommended reading lists on their Web sites," Woodward wrote.

Indeed, the book is still on the top of the Bush/Cheney reading list at this writing. I can't find a list on the Kerry Web site, but, as Prince Bandar said on Larry King the other night, "I will never contradict Bob Woodward."

Speaking of Live Onlines, I will be answering your questions and listening to your comments today at 1 p.m. Eastern. So let me know what's on your mind.

Today's Installment

In today's Washington Post, the latest Woodward excerpt focuses on the relationship between Bush and his closest ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Woodward describes one meeting in September 2002, where Blair was typically resolute.

"After the meeting, Bush walked into the conference room where Alastair Campbell, the prime minister's communications director, and several other Blair aides were waiting.

" 'Your man has got cojones," the president said, using a colloquial Spanish term for courage.

"The president recalled, 'And of course these Brits don't know what cojones are.' He said he would call the Camp David session with Blair 'the cojones meeting.' "

That $700 Million Question

What's the most damaging, stickiest revelation in the book? Too soon to say. But here's one possibility.

Dan Morgan writes in The Washington Post: "Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz yesterday denied a report in a new book that the Pentagon in 2002 secretly diverted $700 million to a covert military construction program in Kuwait linked to a future war with Iraq without adequately informing Congress."

Carl Hulse of the New York Times writes: "Senator Robert C. Byrd, the senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said Tuesday that the administration might have broken the law by failing to inform Congressional leaders in mid-2002 of its use of emergency antiterror dollars to begin preparations for an invasion of Iraq."

Date Set for Bush-Cheney Interview

In other news, the much-anticipated day is only eight days away.

The New York Times reports that "President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney will appear together on April 29 before the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, an official said Tuesday."

Patriot Act

Adam Nagourney writes in the New York Times that yesterday, in Buffalo, "was the third time in just four days that Mr. Bush had publicly invoked the USA Patriot Act. And it reflected what aides said would be systematic references to it in his speeches and television advertisements through Election Day, as this signature statute of his administration becomes a crucial part of his campaign strategy. . . .

"[W]ith this evocatively titled law, Mr. Bush's aides argue, they have found a way to advance two of their chief lines of attack against Mr. Kerry: that Mr. Bush would be tougher than he in facing down terrorism and that the senator, who voted for the law and later came to criticize some of its provisions, is a 'flip-flopper,' as Republicans regularly describe him."

Here's the text of Bush's remarks in Buffalo, and the text of his remarks at fundraising lunch in New York City

New York: Not a Swing State

I have repeatedly noted how the president lately tends to travel almost exclusively to swing states. So I guess that makes it news when he travels to a state that he is generally considered to have no chance whatsoever of winning.

Richard Benedetto of USA Today certainly thinks it worth asking: "Why did Bush go to Buffalo?

"The White House says it was to highlight how the Patriot Act, which loosened rules against the FBI and CIA sharing information, helped crack the Lackawanna Six case of al-Qaeda supporters."

But, Benedetto writes, "Local Democrats say that is camouflage for an attempt to help re-elect three-term Republican Rep. Thomas Reynolds, who is facing a tough challenge from businessman Jack Davis."

No Money Troubles

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush added $3.75 million to the Republican Party till on a three-hour swing through this city Tuesday, as his campaign continued to set fundraising records with an announcement that it has now raised $184.4 million. . . . "

"Bush has ceased appearances at fundraisers for his reelection, his campaign said, but he continues to raise funds for the Republican Party, including Tuesday's luncheon on Manhattan's East Side. About 130 donors who contributed $25,000 apiece to the Republican National Committee's Victory 2004 fund were rewarded with a presidential handshake and a relatively intimate audience with Bush."

Glen Justice writes in the New York Times: "President Bush, who has already set a fund-raising record in this year's race, has now set a record for monthly spending as well, laying out almost $50 million in March."

Here's a breakdown from PoliticalMoneyLine.

Cheney Watch

Robin Toner writes in the New York Times that Vice President Cheney yesterday, interrupted repeatedly by applause, "hailed the National Right to Life Committee, which held an annual awards dinner here, as 'a great movement of conscience' that 'reflects the compassion of our country, and our commitment to equality and dignity for every life.' "

Today's Calendar

The president isn't traveling today. He will attend a teacher of the year event in the Rose Garden, then speak to the Newspaper Association of America convention at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, then he's back to the East room for a National Race for the Cure event.

Pool Follies

One of yesterday's reports from the print pool traveling with the president featured a very special guest pooler. Here's an excerpt from the report, signed by Angie C. Marek of U.S. News and Dana Milbank of The Washington Post:

"Because of the small size of the reception room at the River Club in New York, the pool was unusually small for the New York leg. Therefore your pooler sought help from unconventional places. The following is the first known pool report to be written by White House press secretary Scott McClellan:

" 'Along the motorcade route to the airport were many well-wishers and supporters and only a handful of protesters. Governor Pataki and Congressman Reynolds joined the President in the limo, and boarded Air Force One for the short flight to New York. Karl Rove was spotted wearing socks with no holes visible to your pooler. Air Force One was wheels up at 11:17 am EST and touched down at JFK at approximately 12 pm EST.

" 'The Italian meatball sub was more than enough to keep your poolers satisfied on an otherwise uneventful flight.' "

The real poolers note: "All in all, a fine effort, for a flak."

So what's with the comment about sock holes? Evidently, McClellan was struck by the line in Elisabeth Bumiller's piece in the New York Times Monday in which she described Karl Rove in the audience at Bush's press conference last week, "who, like Adlai Stevenson with a hole in his shoe, inexplicably turned up in the East Room with holes in the ankles of his socks."

Scripted Press Conferences?

The conspiracy-theory notion that the White House pre-screens questions for presidential press conferences got a boost recently from author Ron Suskind while on a panel at the Annenberg School for Communication.

Zach Fox writes in the USC paper, the Daily Trojan: "For each press conference, the White House press secretary asks the reporters for their questions, selects six or seven of the questions to answer and those reporters are the only ones called upon to ask their questions during the press conference, Suskind said."

Washington Monthly blogger Kevin Drum, formerly known as Calpundit, doesn't believe it for a minute -- but wait. An e-mail exchange between this other blogger and the New York Times' public editor leaves him scratching his head.

Talking Points Memo blogger Joshua Micah Marshall wonders about the issue, too.

As I wrote in my column on Monday, The New York Times's Elisabeth Bumiller addressed the issue directly in her weekly White House Letter, writing that reporters "do not submit questions to the White House beforehand, but administration officials have a good idea of what's coming from the questions reporters ask at the daily press briefings."

Funny Man

Richard Leiby reports in The Washington Post that "Jay Leno of 'The Tonight Show' will handle host duties at the White House Correspondents Dinner on May 1 at the Hilton Washington."

© 2004