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Sunday, May 27, 2007

To quote myself...

Catching up on my New Yorkers...

Even several weeks later, I keep going back to Jeffrey Goldberg's article about Bob Woodward's May 6 Washington Post review of George Tenet's At the Center of the Storm. The number of possessives in that summary sentence illuminates the weirdness of the article. When I read it the first time, it didn't seem like much of an article: it's quote-heavy and relies on a repeated structure of casting Tenet against Woodward, or Tenet against another critic on all sides of the debates (Douglas Feith, Maureen Dowd, and so on). But the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that it's a fascinating example of how an author's decisions about quotation, whether from a book or from an interview, frame how the argument works well or less well.

In the article, Goldberg quotes Tenet and Woodward at length as they defend their positions in the disagreement about whether Tenet ever called the case for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq a "slam dunk." Tenet disputes Woodward's description (in State of Attack, 2004) of his excited leap from an Oval Office couch to make a basketball analogy; Woodward insists that multiple people can back him up on the story. Goldberg makes this dispute the center of the New Yorker story:
Tenet acknowledges in his book that he has helped Woodward, and the two were known to be friendly. In fact, Tenet met with Woodward before writing his memoir, in order to seek Woodward's advice. In the book review section of the Post on May 6th, Wododward called Tenet's account a 'remarkable, important and often unintentionally damning book.' He accused Tenet of being 'all over the lot' in his explanations of the slam-dunk comment, and, more significant, chastised Tenet for misunderstanding the relationship between CIA directors and Presidents they serve. Tenet, Woodward wrote, was 'hampered by a bureaucrat's view of the world, hobbled by the traditional chain of command, convinced that the CIA director's "most important relationship with any administration official is generally with the national security adviser."' Woodward then wrote, in a distinctly parental tone, 'No. Your most important relationship is with the president.'

I bolded that section of Goldberg's quotation of Woodward's criticism of Tenet's writing (see, the possessives and the quotations of quotations are difficult to keep track of!) because it seems like that's probably a pretty good description of the limitations of Woodward's review of the book. Goldberg cites Sydney Schanburg's wry assessment of the review: "it’s not really a review of the Tenet book; it’s more like an explanation of how Tenet could have been a better intelligence chief and written a better memoir if only he had listened to Bob Woodward." Goldberg's choice of what to include from his interviews with Woodward underscores this point. He devotes a long section to how Woodward cites his own experience at the Washington Post to show how Tenet should have relayed information straight to the president. From an interview with Woodward:
'I would argue that Tenet's job was to boil the President's blood. That's why you show up on the President's doorstep. I'm raised in a culture where you don't observe the chain of command, you go around. Read "All the President's Men." Who was my "action officer"? Ben Bradlee'--then the execuitve editor of the Post. 'If something is important you go to your action officer.'

At that point, Woodward read to me a dramatic passage from "All the President's Men..." [which Goldberg then quotes in a block]:

They got into Woodward's car. They decided not to talk in the car, either. Several blocks from Bradlee's house, they called him from a pay phoen. He says come over, Berstein said.

The reporters had never been to Bradlee's house, and they wondered how the boss lived. The streetlights created a half-dark atmosphere. As they approached the porch, a barking dog charged out. A man stepped out of the dim shadows. It was Bradlee, his hair combed, his voice and eyes sleepy.

Woodward then paused and said, "Sometimes there come points in your life when you have to make a decision about what you're going to do and they don't tell you in the morning that this is the day that one of those decisions is giogn to come. Do you break down the doors, do you break out of the system? This is the issue of courage."

Bradlee, who retired in 1991, said, 'Oh, Jesus, I remember that. We were really one-on-one throughout that story. He called me up and said he had to see me in the middle of the fucking night--Bernstein, too--and they made me come outside because they thought he house was bugged. I was in my jammies, for Chrissake.' I asked Bradlee if he agreed with Woodward that Tenet had abdicated his responsibilities on July 10, 2001. 'It seems to me elementary that if you've go the story that's going to dominate history that you might as well go right to the President,' Bradlee said.

The awkwardness of Woodward opening up All the President's Men to quote himself reminds me in the most absurd way of the arguments between Jay Bennett and Jeff Tweedy in I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, when Bennett tries to defend himself and insists, "To quote myself..." It's such a cringe-worthy moment (wherever one falls on those arguments in the movie, which seem even pettier now); I remember thinking, Please let me never, ever get to that point of self-regard in an argument. I'm fond of quoting conversations and comments when I'm talking to people or writing, and sometimes I even have to stop and pause to work out the difficulty of moving between what was said previously and what I'm saying in the present. I don't think I do it as often in argument situations, or in such formal language as Woodward (or Bennett) uses.

The other thing that long block quotation reminded me of is how awkwardly the double-author narration works in All the President's Men, as in this passage early in the book:
It appeared that Wood ward was also working on the story. That figured, Berstein thought. Bob Woodward was a prima donna who played heavily at office politics. Yale. A veteran of the Navy officer corps. Lawns, greensward, staterooms and grass tennis courts, Bernstein guessed, but probably not enough pavement for him to be good at investigative reporting. Bernstein knew that Woodward couldn't write very well. One office rumor had it that English was not Woodward's native language.

I don't remember this narration problem showing up after the characters are established and they start to tell the story. That's in part because casting two people against each other produces a kind of formulaic narration that they use over and over again in the book--to good effect most of the time. I opened up the book at random to find this example:
Clark Mollenhoff, six foot four inches and 230 pounds, Washington bureau chief of the Des Moines Register and Tribune Syndicate, rose, his face contorted in anger. Mollenhoff, a Pulitzer Prize-wining investigative reporter, had briefly served at the White House as resident ombudsman charged with keeping things honest. [Director of Nixon's re-election campaign Clark] MacGregor and Mollenhoff looked like two giants getting ready to lay clubs on each other.

It's a compelling formula for most of the book because the x vs. y structure is clear-cut (reporters against various members of the administration). It's confusing in the first passage I quoted because the two narrators are set against each other.

The x vs. y formula gets repeated again and again in Goldberg's article, "Woodward vs. Tenet." It yields long quotations from the different players to state their cases and defend themselves, but it doesn't yield as much on a more difficult point: Tenet's failures are numerous and systemic. They're not reducible to a single bad decision to the approach the wrong person with intelligence information if decision-making processes in the White House were circular or tended to confirm only the things people wanted to believe. The subtitle of Goldberg's article is "the new intelligence war," but the huge scale of the problem of ignored intelligence, bad claims, and misinformation isn't suited to collapsing it to an x vs. y (whether Woodward vs. Tenet, or Larry Johnson vs. Tenet) formula. That formula simply reproduces old claims and quotations of oneself--literally in Tenet's insistence that he didn't say the WMD case was a slam dunk, or in Woodward's case when he quotes his books. That is, the structure looks compelling because we're used to casting people against one another, but the problems to be discussed may be larger than the structure can accomodate.

On that note, this is one of the many reasons I've tired of Maureen Dowd: her comic renderings of these interactions do about a third of the work of satire in that they expose the power-hungriness and failures of everyone involved, but they don't do much beyond that. She gets so wrapped up in writing the scenes that I'm always left thinking about the labor it takes to write the satires (and some of them are pretty belabored), not the situation that she's trying to illuminate.