As the American primary season continues to lumber towards us like a slow-moving monstrosity, with Bush vs. Clinton 2.0 as the pre-ordained conclusion, the apologias for the atrocity of the Iraq War continue to pour forth like a leaky faucet, an annoying and repetitive series of sounds that, if things were in working order, should not be in existence at all. Now comes the final swan dive of a journalist who began his career undermining the aspirations of one Republican President only to spend his final days offering platitudes for another, a veritable scion of the very Watergate generation he upended.
On May 24, Bob Woodward appeared on the loathsome Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace as a commentator, offering the following testimonial for state-sponsored terror:
Iraq is a symbol. You can make a persuasive argument there was a mistake. But there is a kinda line going on that Bush and the other people lied about this. I spent 18 months looking at how Bush decided to invade Iraq. Lots of mistakes, but it was Bush telling George Tenet the CIA director, don’t let anyone stretch the case on WMD. He was the one who was skeptical. If you try to summarize why we went into Iraq, it was momentum. The war plan kept getting better and easier, and finally at the end, people were saying, ‘Hey, look, it will only take a week or two.’ Early on it looked like it was going to take a year or 18 months, so Bush pulled the trigger. A mistake certainly can be argued, and there is an abundance of evidence. But there was no lie in this that I could find.
From exposing the lies of Tricky Dick to the cover-up for the colossal con of this young century, how the mighty have fallen. From this writer’s vantage point, I can hear the late Ben Bradlee rolling in his grave, epileptic in shame.
Of course, this is certainly not the first nor richest dissection of what will be remembered as the lesser half of ‘Woodstein’, that moniker applied by Bradlee to those two young rascals who dared topple the mighty Dick. However, what seems fitting is a brief stroll through the bibliography of Bob to better understand where he went wrong.
Of course, his first book, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, co-written with Carl Bernstein, will go down in the annals as an essential volume of investigative journalism. While some may still quibble over who Deep Throat was, whether Mark Felt was the only source or if the character was a composite of several rats fleeing the sinking Nixon ship, it is simply an astonishing read, a clear successor to Capote’s IN COLD BLOOD that remains thrilling more than four decades after the original break-in occurred.
After a follow-up volume with Bernstein, THE FINAL DAYS, his next book was co-written with Scott Armstrong, THE BRETHREN: INSIDE THE SUPREME COURT. A survey of the Burger Court from 1969 to 1975, the book profiles some of the cases that remain staples of the Culture War, including rulings on abortion and school bus desegregation programs. But as George Mason University School of Law Professor Ross E. Davies makes clear in his paper A TALL TALE OF THE BRETHREN, it seems like the authors went out of their way to sully the legacy of Justice Blackmun via a silly anecdote about baseball while making unrepentant segregationist Justice Rehnquist seem admirable.
After this, Woodward ventured out on his own and wrote his first solo book, a tome so reviled that none other than Dan Aykroyd said of the film adaptation “I have witches working now to jinx the thing.” WIRED: THE SHORT LIFE AND FAST TIMES OF JOHN BELUSHI has gone down in the history of Saturday Night Live as the disaster of disasters. At first glance, it seemed like a perfect match, as if the stars had aligned to bring Belushi and Woodward together. Both were from the same town in Illinois, they shared friends even, and the family had personally reached out to the author because the late comedian was a fan of the Watergate exposé. But instead, Woodward produced a tabloid trash collection of skewed anecdotes and misrepresentations. Now-Senator Al Franken, who was one of the original SNL writers, offered this sharp critique to Tanner Colby, who later both co-wrote a biography of Belushi with John’s widow and wrote this piece up at Slate.com :
Tom Davis said the best thing about WIRED… He said it’s as if someone wrote a book about your college years and called it PUKED. And all it was about was who puked, when they puked, what they ate before they puked and what they puked up. No one read Dostoevsky, no one studied math, no one fell in love, and nothing happened but people puking.
As Colby makes clear, this book is unique in the Woodward corpus because, after the hate he endured from Belushi’s survivors, he decided to return to the Beltway gossip circuit, offering up twelve more volumes of hearsay and spin. But it is also a unique insight into what Woodward thought of the greater masses of Baby Boomers and how he really thinks of the anti-Vietnam War movement.
Belushi was a man with troubles, certainly, but he was one of the brightest-burning examples of the generation that successfully ended an imperialist war being led by the most powerful military machines in known history up to that point. He was a protestor, a man against the establishment, a dead giveaway for Joe Cocker, belting a spoof of the singer’s rendition of WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS at that ultimate celebration of the counter-culture, Woodstock. Woodward has no problem heaping praises on the drunken coke-snorting draft-dodger George W. Bush, a man who perhaps enjoyed far more debauchery than Belushi ever did, because Junior is the son of the Company Man, a team player. What Woodward did, not just to Belushi but the entire anti-war movement, was defame, revile, and desecrate the achievement of ending the Vietnam War.
Belushi was not just a stand-up, he was a stand-in, and by turning a life that was shaped in part by the counter-culture into a bacchanal, Woodward was able to make that entire generation seem like a bunch of addicts and bums. And admittedly, he succeeded where pundits like William F. Buckley Jr. could not. Today John Belushi’s life remains not a story of a short but vibrant career, instead he is one of many cautionary tales. This also holds true of the entire cultural history of the 1960’s. The music remains popular and ‘the hippie’ has become a best-selling Halloween costume, but nary a Jimi Hendrix fan today under fifty can tell you who Tom Hayden, Stokely Carmichael, or Angela Davis were for that era. Instead, the anti-war movement is misrepresented as ‘the drug culture’. Woodward says ‘Iraq is a symbol’, but the real symbol is Belushi, and he symbolizes that democratic popular impetus in society that refuses to accede to the military behemoth, one which Woodward has worked hard to impugn with his endless epistles of aspersions.
Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and independent journalist who lives outside Providence. His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.