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A Bore Called Bob

I have tried unsuccessfully to read some of Woodward’s more recent books. I cannot get through them, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Maybe it is that, although they supposedly are books, they read like horrendously long, rather uncritical newspaper articles. Could one really get through an 80,000-word or 100,000-word or 120,000-word or however many word newspaper article? Much less one that is a puff piece for the heroes?

There is a long provenance, stretching back nearly 30 years, to the fact that Woodward’s books are a bore. A bit after his great success with Carl Bernstein in All The President’s Men, Woodward published his third book, called The Brethren (which he co-authored with Scott Armstrong). It was about the Supreme Court. In those days, several friends and I were greatly interested in the Supreme Court. We had imbibed this interest at fancy pants law schools that focused in varying degrees, sometimes extensively, on the work of that Court, as lawyers in the Department of Justice who consorted with Department (and other) lawyers who did work that was presented to the Court, and, in some instances, as writers of work that, after much alteration, was eventually presented to the Court by the Department.

So we looked forward to reading The Brethren. Imagine the horror when we–even we–found Woodward’s book to be a bore. One of my friends summed it up this way: “When I first started reading The Brethren, I thought it would be of interest to people all across the country. After reading it awhile, I thought it would be of interest only to people inside the Beltway. After reading it some more, I thought it would be of interest only to people located within a block of the Supreme Court.”

Woodward, this writer of boring books that in effect heroize the heroes, has, of course, become the paradigmatic Washington media man on the make in the last 30 years. Dull though he seems when one sees him on the tube, he has become wealthy and famous by parlaying articles, books, television appearances, expensive speeches and what not into much money and special treatment at The Post. Pushiness and immodesty are among his traits. His and Bernstein’s pushiness in the Watergate matter is the stuff of legend. Nor was it out of character when one read–after Mark Felt was revealed to be Deep Throat–that Woodward, as part of his long-term \ effort to get ahead, while still in the Navy, had (rather obnoxiously) pushed himself on Mark Felt, whom he did not know, when both were sitting and waiting in an antechamber outside the White House Situation Room. No surprise there. But what was a surprise was to recently learn the extent to which Woodward has become an immodest megalomaniac.

Of course (to be surprised by this, despite having lived for almost 20 years in Washington and knowing what people there are like, is necessarily a sign of stupidity and terminal naiveté. So be it. This writer was surprised, perhaps by the degree of megalomania as much as its mere existence.

This author was in Washington over the Thanksgiving holiday, and read a copy of The Washington Post of November 27. That issue of the paper carried a column by The Post’s ombudsman, Deborah Howell (shouldn’t it be ombudswoman?), on readers’ reactions to a previous column she had written on Woodward’s conduct in the Plame matter. “One of those readers,” Howell said, was Woodward, who “thinks that some of his critics have ‘pigeonholed’ him unfairly.” Then Howell quoted a comment by Woodward that has to rank as a classic of immodesty, even hubris: “‘For 34 years of reporting for The Post and 13 best-selling books, I have tried to focus on the reader and provide detailed, reliable, fair-minded accounts of the American presidency,’ he said. ‘My books are regularly quoted in newspapers and magazines, on television during the presidential debates, and by Democrats, Republicans, Bush supporters and Bush critics.'”

Breathtaking, huh? Imagine that: I’ve written 13 best-selling books, he brags. My books are regularly quoted in newspapers and magazines, he brags. My books are regularly quoted in presidential debates, he brags. They are quoted by Democrats and Republicans alike, he brags, and by both critics and supporters of Bush, he brags some more. Modesty this isn’t.

Woodward grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s in Wheaton, Illinois, a Midwestern town not far from Chicago, where this writer grew up in the 1940s and 1950s. In the Midwest in those days one was taught to be modest. It was one of the virtues (along with honesty and some other desirable, now largely lost, traits). One did not brag by saying I did this, and I did that, and I did the third, and my work was the best, and I am highly thought of by this important person and that one. That kind of stuff was infra dig.

Of course, as one got older and saw the world, or at least the eastern part of the United States, one increasingly realized that modesty, like honesty, has morphed into a crippling professional handicap in the last 30 or 35 years of the 20th Century. One learned that at least in the East –and one rather thinks more broadly than that–the palm goes to the boastful and the dishonest.

Fortunately for Woodward, though he grew up in the Midwest, he must either have never absorbed the lesson of modesty or has managed to overcome it–big time. One who grew up in the Midwest in mid-century and absorbed its ethos cannot imagine saying–cannot imagine saying it even if it is true–that I have written 13 best selling books, my books are regularly quoted in newspapers and magazines, my books are regularly quoted on television during presidential debates. Modesty would forbid it. Although for Woodward it didn’t. Woodward, that fortunate soul, has managed to replace modesty with megalomania. Or maybe he never had modesty and luckily managed to build up megalomania?

*This posting represents the personal views of Lawrence R. Velvel.

Lawrence R. Velvel is the Dean of Massachusetts School of Law. He can be reached at velvel@mslaw.edu.