Former Washington Post senior political writer Thomas Edsall on Bob Woodward and his new book.
HH: Now let me go on to Woodward, because we’re going to run out of time.
HH: Have you read State of Denial yet?
TE: Not in its entirety. I’ve only read the excerpts.
HH: Okay. Do you believe everything Bob Woodward writes?
HH: Do you believe he saw Bill Casey at the hospital bed scene in Veil?
TE: I have real problems with that.
HH: What’s the mean, real problems? You don’t believe him?
TE: I know the doctor who was treating Bill Casey, and the doctor who is someone who I think is very credible told me that Bill Casey was dead by all standards, except burial. And for him to have said anything cognizant at that time just was incredible to him. And this doctor is a liberal Democrat.
HH: Have you ever published that?
HH: Does that not go to undermine Woodward’s credibility, far beyond that one account?
TE: To some extent. You know, I have a theory of what happened in Veil.
HH: But I’m going to the fact that you obviously don’t believe that Woodward thing, as do a lot of people just think it’s crap, including Michael Ledeen, who published a reason why. A lot of people know that. Doesn’t that go to Woodward’s credibility in everything that he does?
TE: Yeah, but I’ll tell you what I think may have happened, because I’ve talked to people…
HH: Yeah, but let me be a reporter, though, Thomas Edsall. Does it go to his credibility?
TE: Yeah, but let me explain…say something. I think Bob Woodward may well have gone into the hotel room. He leans over the bed to try to say something to this body that’s there. He leans on the chest as he asked this question of whatever it was. And when a body is like that, out comes air. and he goes (groan). And when Woodward hears that, because that’s what he wants to hear, as the quote that he puts into Casey’s mouth, and he may well be convinced that what he wrote is true.
HH: Do you think that’s plausible, Thomas Edsall?
TE: That’s my theory.
HH: That’s your theory. It’s a lot better theory than he just makes stuff up, given The Final Days, isn’t it?
TE: That’s another theory.
HH: Yeah. And so…
TE: I’m not sure that Bob Woodward makes things up. That’s…I’m…
HH: Is it possible for people to infer that, based upon both the Final Days and Veil?
TE: Well, you can always infer.
HH: Is it a reasonable inference?
TE: It’s a possible inference. I wouldn’t say…
HH: But you know…
TE: But certainly, it’s not something that a jury would conclude as conclusive evidence.
HH: No, but as a reader of books that purport to tell stories out of school, there’s clearly some true stuff in State of Denial, and I think there’s clearly some made up stuff. In fact, one of the generals that he’s quoted in a meeting with Abizaid, or asserts as in a meeting with Abizaid, has come out and contradicted it already. How do you evaluate a work of…basically, it’s a gossip column length book, or a book length gossip column, given the backdrop of Woodward’s credibility deficiencies?
TE: Well, I mean, the reality is, though, that one of the big news stories to come out of his book was this Condi Rice meeting that George Tenet sought. Condi Rice denied it every occurred at first, then they go to the record, and it turns out that meeting did happen. Now it may not have happened as Woodward quotes Tenet and his top aide, whatever his name was, as saying, but it did happen after White House denials. So Woodward turns out to have been on the mark in that case.
HH: Well, sure. It’s a 500 page book. He’s going to have some scoops. He’s Bob Woodward.
HH: But my question is, is Woodwardism good for journalism, Tom Edsall?
TE: I think that the problems Woodward poses as a journalist are significant. I think, though, that his contributions…
HH: What are those problems.
TE: …have also been significant. It’s a mixed bag.
HH: I agree, but what are the problems?
TE: One is what you sight, credibility. I think a much more serious problem is his dependence on sources, which makes him, to a certain extent, a sucker for those who talk to him, and a hostile adversary to those who do not talk to him.
HH: I think that’s absolutely right. Now…
TE: And that’s not…if that colors the reporting, that’s a serious problem. I think that a lot of what he cites in this current book is stuff that happened way back when he was writing the first two books about the book Going To War.
HH: But when you’re a sucker…
TE: He could have known them back then…at any rate, it’s a…now, when the war gets messy and people are against it, he’s coming out with a critical book, after taking some grief for having been kind of a sucker beforehand.
HH: Do you think this is an attempt by him to get back after the Plame affair embarrassment, and after left wing criticism of him, an attempt to win back some good graces from the journalism establishment?
TE: I think it might be. I don’t want to say that I know his motives, but I think certainly, those are factors that would go into anyone’s thinking.
HH: Do you like him?
TE: I have mixed feelings for him. He’s kind of a cold fish.
HH: And is he trustworthy?
TE: Yeah, I mean, I played poker with him for many years, and he’s totally trustworthy there.
HH: Well, that’s just because you can’t see underneath the deck, Thomas Edsall (laughing).
TE: No, no. He’s never…
HH: When you say he’s a sucker for people who talk to him, and hostile to those who don’t, doesn’t that completely undermine the idea that this book matters?
TE: No, because I think that’s true of almost everybody in the whole, wide world, that you tend to like people who talk to you, and become informants for you, in any field. And you tend to be source dependent in that sense. That happens to everybody.
HH: All right. But how much salt…
TE: I think the problem is that Woodward allows it to go too far, and it becomes evident in his books. Richard Darman was clearly a source in one of his books about Herbert Walker Bush. He comes out golden, and Herbert Walker comes out looking terrible. Darman should have been fired by any legitimate administration right after that, but he’s making millions of dollars now.
HH: But given everything you’ve just said, that he shades towards his sources, he punishes those who don’t work, he’s not credible in Veil, and the Final Days, doesn’t that really undermine the idea that this guy should be listened to? It seems like you’ve got a very wart-filled primadonna who by virtue of his early work at the Post, has inherited a lot of credibility which he simply doesn’t deserve?
TE: I think that there are significant problems in Bob’s reporting techniques, and the product that he produces, that every reader of his work should be aware of. But I don’t think you can dismiss what he writes, and just disregard it, because he does get a lot of information that no one else does.
HH: Okay, last question. Does the press push him in any way like they should push him? Or do they lay down for him, because it’s Bob Woodward?
TE: If it’s an either/or question, they lay down for him.
HH: It was. Thomas Edsall, are you back in D.C? Or are you up at CJR, Columbia School of Journalism for much longer?
TE: I’m at the Columbia School of Journalism for 8 years.
HH: Oh, great. I will see you in December then.
TE: That’s right.
HH: And I hope to talk to you before then.
TE: Okay. I look forward to it.
HH: Thomas Edsall, author of Building Red America, thank you very much. We’ll talk to you again soon.
TE: Thank you.
End of interview.