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Bob Woodward’s latest travelogue through the minds of the powerful, “Bush at War,” has been widely praised as a compelling account of the Bush administration post-9/11.
The book is, in one sense, quite an accomplishment: Woodward manages to make the subject boring. He takes events of incredible significance — the 9/11 attack and the U.S. response to it — and weighs them down with so much trivia drenched in naivet? that I found myself struggling to stay awake.
As I faded in and out of consciousness while reading, I imagined the following, rendered in Woodwardesque prose:
ROBERT JENSEN walked into the conference room with his dogeared copy of “Bush at War” and laid it on the mahogany table next to the manila folder that held the talking points he had rushed to finish before the meeting. He knew the revisions, made right up to the last second, had been hard on his staff, but this was a meeting with the president, with all the principals. Everyone knew what was at stake.
Jensen knew the president would expect him to have answers, not just questions, about the importance of the book by Bob Woodward, the Washington Post’s star reporter.
But, Jensen pondered, was Woodward really just a reporter? Or had circumstances changed the once scrappy guy from the metro desk who had broken the Watergate story wide open? Was Woodward something more? A first-draft historian? A meta-journalist? Jensen knew the president would want an assessment, and he knew that he would be on the spot.
Bush leaned forward in his chair; it was time for the meeting to start.
There was only one item on the agenda for this meeting: assessing this bestseller that was flying off the bookstore shelves across America. Bush wanted to know: What was the fallout for the war? Did the American people understand the task his administration faced? Was Woodward’s book going to derail the strategy the president had approved? It was a good strategy, all the principals agreed. But where were the weak spots? The president needed answers, and — as always — the president wanted them now. And he wanted a hamburger. The steward on duty was dispatched. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice suggested they get started.
Around the table were Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card. And, of course, Condi. She had been nervous about the meeting, worrying that the attention being paid to “Bush at War” was distracting the president. He was being pulled in different directions, and it was her job to keep him from being pulled apart.
After the last National Security Council meeting, her job was getting harder. Rumsfeld had proposed that the next phase of the war on terrorism should be a massive attack on Cuba to expand the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay to the whole island — a three-day air campaign followed by boots-on-the-ground. Cheney had liked the plan, and Tenet had said his paramilitary teams were ready to work with the Special Forces units that would take the lead.
Powell had been visibly shaken by the proposal. He had known Rumsfeld was itching to expand the war quickly, but he couldn’t believe the secretary of defense would push for a strategy that rash. Powell had no doubt Castro had links to al-Qaeda, but he thought the case needed to be nailed down. He didn’t trust the HUMINT (human intelligence) coming from the CIA that suggested Castro and bin Laden had once ordered camping gear — including, crucially, a two-burner propane stove — from the same web site. Did they have the SIGINT (signals intelligence) to back it up? How could he take such sketchy evidence to foreign leaders? Sure, the British would buy it, but it would be a hard sell everywhere else. The French likely would block a Security Council resolution. Powell was putting out the fires in his mind before Rumsfeld could finish the proposal. Castro needed to go, but was this the way? Powell had been skeptical from the start.
Meanwhile, Bush had moved on: “Yes, we can do Cuba. And we should. Castro is evil. He has done evil. He is an evildoer. So let’s do it. I want something on paper in three days. All options laid out, with minimal civilian casualties. Remember, we do good, not evil.”
Bush had ended that meeting by looking straight at Rice: “Now, what about Woodward’s book?” The principals weren’t eager to take it on, but Rice knew the president wanted to confront it head on.
That’s where Jensen came in. He came into this without connections to any of the principals. He could lay out the case and let the others react. Rice knew it would be touchy, but she had to take the chance. She scheduled Jensen for the next NSC meeting.
Now Rice was impatient to get it over with. “Professor Jensen, please begin,” she said.
Jensen explained that much of the furor over the book had been about the access Woodward had been given — to notes from NSC meetings and to the thinking of the principals. Had important intelligence sources been compromised? Jensen told the president not to worry. There was virtually nothing of interest about policy or strategy in the book. For all the breathless prose suggesting that Woodward was revealing the real truth about the planning for the war in Afghanistan, the book was empty. It simply regurgitated the same claims about the war that the administration had offered to the public at the time, only with the pretense that Woodward had tapped into the real thinking of the leadership.
Jensen assured the president that Woodward seemed to believe that all the administration officials were basically telling the truth. When they said the attack on Afghanistan was about ending terrorism, Woodward apparently believed them. There was no indication in the book that Woodward understood the war was part of an imperial project to extend and deepen the dominance of the United States, around the world and in the crucial resource-rich arenas of the Middle East and Central Asia.
Jensen knew that wasn’t the president’s only concern. What about Woodward’s revelations of tensions among key advisers, and the possibility some of those advisers had cooperated with Woodward to gain political advantage? Had Woodward punished Rumsfeld and rewarded Powell based on how much information each had given? Was the book fair to Cheney? Jensen again assured the president that Woodward was such a sycophant that even the treatment of Rumsfeld, who was portrayed somewhat less sympathetically, gave the impression that the secretary of defense was working 24/7 for justice and freedom. Jensen cut to the chase.
“It’s a slam dunk,” he told the president, remembering that Rice had told him that Bush preferred sports metaphors. “The underlying message of “Bush at War” is that your administration is made up of decent, hard-working folks who — no matter what their differences in personality, ideology or strategy — in the end do what is best for the country and the suffering people of the world.”
Bush looked relieved, but there was another question hanging in the air. Jensen knew the president wouldn’t ask it, but he knew it was his job to answer it.
“I know it doesn’t matter to you, Mr. President, but with your permission I would like to assess the effect of the book on your approval ratings,” Jensen said.
Bush winced ever so slightly. He was, of course, curious, and before 9/11 it might have been one of his central questions. But 9/11 had changed the president, changed the man. He knew political considerations mattered if he were to succeed in pushing through his domestic agenda. But he also knew that he couldn’t think politically the way he once had. He was the president in a new age, and he couldn’t look back.
“Go ahead,” Bush said. “But make it quick. We have a war against terrorism to win.”
Jensen wasted no words. “You come out looking like a leader. A gut player who can think on his feet. A man not afraid to push his subordinates but also willing to trust their judgment. A man who, when the pressure is on, isn’t afraid to take chances, but who knows when to be cautious when lives are at stake. A man who grew into the job but never lost his Texas instincts.”
And, Jensen said, “A man not afraid to ask for a hamburger when he’s hungry.”
Bush smiled. “Where I come from, a man’s not a man if he’s afraid to ask for a hamburger when he’s hungry.”
That instantly changed the mood of the meeting. Powell looked over at Rumsfeld, and the two laughed. Powell quickly wrote on a note card — “Let’s get (Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul) Wolfowitz and (Deputy Secretary of State Richard) Armitage and go get a burger tonight” — and pushed it to Rumsfeld, who flashed a thumbs-up. Cheney, reading their minds, said, “Put me down for take-out. I have to get back to my undisclosed location.” They all laughed until they stopped.
Rice breathed a sigh of relief. Let the boys go out for burgers — they need to blow off some steam, she thought. She was already sketching her evening: a salad and brief walk to clear her head, and then back to work on Cuba. She still had to nail down the number of fuel cylinders Castro had ordered for the camp stove, and there were some disturbing reports out of Prague that the Cubans had found a way to synthesize plutonium from propane.
ROBERT JENSEN is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, a member of the Nowar Collective, and author of the book Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream and the pamphlet “Citizens of the Empire.” He can be reached at email@example.com.