Bob Woodward Discusses 'State of Denial'

On the publication of "State of Denial," Bob Woodward spoke with NEWSWEEK's Jon Meacham about the new book, the perils of wartime leadership, and the lessons of history. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What surprised you the most in reporting the new book?

Bob Woodward: That there's a theme that goes back to the beginning, and theme is the element of denial. It runs not just from after the invasion to today, but it began prewar. There were people telling [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld in December 2002, four months before the war, that 'you're going to lose the election for George Bush if you don't get the postwar fixed because it's screwed up now.' So the warnings were emphatic and very, very specific and well before the war.

You have watched many of the people involved in the Bush administration for decades—Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Henry Kissinger. What do you think was in their minds as the past few years unfolded?

There is a lot of idealism driving this. It may be mismanaged; as I have always said in my books on Bush ["Bush at War" and "Plan of Attack"], it may turn out to be a triumph or a total catastrophe, or something in between, but idealism is driving it. I think one of the lessons is the limits of idealism and that idealism is insufficient to the task of managing a war. Managing a war is so much like anything else—you have to think about the tenth bounce, and figure out how to look around corners, and have alternative strategies. But idealism is such a central element of George W. Bush's character. In the first book, I said he had these grandiose ideas that he is going to fix things, that he is going to change not just the Middle East but the world, end tyranny, and it is sobering to see that something could seem to go so far off the tracks that we could now be at the point that we are in Iraq. But it should be noted that in Watergate and other situations, there probably wasn't any idealism.

In other words, you think this is being driven by the right motives, but is being poorly executed, which is, in a way, the essence of tragedy.

Yes, poor execution can be the essence of tragedy.

Has anything changed, in your view, from Richard Nixon to the second Bush in how presidents deal honestly with the American people?

Every president wants to be a big-time leader; presidential power is almost a narcotic. It's very hard. As Bush once told me, he was bubbled in after 9/11, and it's hard to work your way out of that bubble. It's not about process as much as it is about personality. You have to have strong personalities at all levels. One of the things my reporting shows is that the uniformed military has been too weak. The military is best when there are strong, sometimes difficult leaders in uniform—George Patton, Douglas MacArthur, even Dwight Eisenhower. Those were people who sometimes had to be put on shorter leashes. The point is you need someone who is going to get in your face. That doesn't mean defiance or breaking the law, that means just saying, 'Wait a minute,' and having evidence and knowing your business. Having the chairman of the Joint Chiefs as the principal military adviser to the president, the National Security Council and the secretary of Defense—which is what the Goldwater-Nichols Act requires—means that, by law, he must present independent advice, and the record shows that Rumsfeld bleached this out of the system. And in the end, President Bush, Rumsfeld, and certainly the public lost a great deal when that independent voice was shut down. Presidents cannot have yes-men and do their job well.

You know, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill both believed in being forthright with their nations about the difficulties of World War II. Why do you think President Bush has not followed their lesson in being more candid—more realistic—about the course and conduct of the war in Iraq?

He's an optimist. But after 9/11, his strength was being the voice of realism, and my view is that presidents are stronger when they are the voice of realism, because people want straight information. When things are bad, say so. He was right to come out after 9/11 and say that we are now in a war that won't be settled in our lifetimes, and people rallied around that. They appreciated getting the bad news from the top.

Does truth have to be the first casualty of war?

No. Sometimes when you are in a war, you have to employ the famous 'bodyguard of lies,' but in this case it has gone on for so long, and it is a struggle that does not immediately threaten the survival of the United States or even its homeland. As Ben Bradlee, the great former Post editor, says, the truth emerges, and it will set you free.