The Bob Woodward Effect

There are few journalists in Washington who can throw the White House off its stride: Bob Woodward is one of them. Woodward's new book, "State of Denial," paints a damning picture of White House policy in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion. After The New York Times printed excerpts of the book on Friday, the West Wing immediately went into full damage-control mode, as top aides tried to figure out how to respond. Woodward had delivered copies of the book to the White House on Friday morning—earlier than they expected because of the newspaper leak. The arrival of a Woodward Tome has become a kind of biennial ritual in Washington. The last two, which detailed the Afghan war and the successful early invasion of Iraq, were fairly kind to the president and his staff. But this was a different kind of book, and the administration was already bracing for a rougher ride.

The White House stayed quiet all morning, until the press briefing, which began unusually late. Soon after press secretary Tony Snow stepped up to the podium, it was clear the White House had settled on a time-tested strategy: deny, downplay and sidestep. Snow had a quip at the ready. "The book's certainly cotton candy—it kind of melts on contact."

The calculated ho-hum reaction is partly the result of having already responded to several critical books on Iraq in recent months—as well as public discontent with the war. Bush's aides believe they have already debated extensively the conflicting recommendations about troop levels, and consider that an old—and exhausted—dispute.

White House officials also think they can easily knock down Woodward's premise that Bush has misled the public about the level of attacks on troops in Iraq. Since late last year, Bush has spoken more openly and directly about the nature of the enemy in Iraq and the scale of the challenge in building a peaceful and democratic nation. Snow himself quoted Bush at length at a press conference in Chicago in July saying, "We've lost obviously a lot of lives here in the homeland, and we lost lives overseas." Snow added that Bush had been telling the American people that "it's a war that's going to outlive his presidency."

The harder material for the White House to dispute concerns Donald Rumsfeld—including harsh assessments of the Defense Secretary from Pentagon brass. According to the book, General Jim Jones, the NATO commander, told his friend Peter Pace, then in line to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to steer clear of the job. "Military advice is being influenced on a political level," he said. The JCS had improperly "surrendered" to Rumsfeld. "You shoul not be the parrot on the secretary's shoulder," Jones said.

Administration officials prefer to either dismiss those stories as "gossip" (as Snow did on Friday) or sidestep them altogether. According to Woodward, former Chief of Staff Andy Card recommended that Rumsfeld should be fired. Instead of disputing that, Snow dodged the question altogether with an admirably confusing non sequiter. "Anybody who knows Andy Card knows that there's not a bitter bone in his body."

Bush's aides concede that they can't dispute the book's direct quotes from Card about his desire to see Rumsfeld leave. Instead, they focused their denials elsewhere. They rejected outright Woodward's contention that First Lady Laura Bush dislikes Rumsfeld. But the Bush team cannot easily dismiss Woodward's reporting skills outright. In his earlier two books—Bush At War and Plan of Attack—Woodward gained extensive cooperation from the White House, and Bush officials openly praised the quality of his reporting. This time around, neither Bush nor Dick Cheney agreed to be interviewed. That doesn't mean the White House froze Woodward out, merely that he was kept at the same distance as most journalists in Washington. As the president now knows, Woodward isn't fond of the view from the cheap seats.