Bob Woodward: Enter the spinmeister of the White House revolving door

It is a tradition in Washington, as much a part of the fabric of this elegant old Southern whore of a town as inaugural balls, losing baseball teams, and the annual drag race across Dupont Circle. It is the release of Bob Woodward’s latest book and the resulting howls of pain from those whose sensitive ...

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It is a tradition in Washington, as much a part of the fabric of this elegant old Southern whore of a town as inaugural balls, losing baseball teams, and the annual drag race across Dupont Circle. It is the release of Bob Woodward's latest book and the resulting howls of pain from those whose sensitive parts got bound in between the pages of his unfolding expose.

This latest opus is called Obama's Wars and refers to at least two of the three wars tearing dominating the attention of Obama and his advisors -- the one in Iraq, the one in Afghanistan and the one between the advsiors themselves. (The Washington Post, for example, logically concludes from the fact that book devotes no attention to Iraq that the title does not actually refer to that particular war.) It, like Woodward's past works, is full of headline grabbing observations. Among the grabbiest of them:

Hamid Karzai is a manic depressive. Frankly, that's the best thing that's been said about him in Washington for months. Furthermore, being slightly deranged is hardly a disqualification to be a world leader. If it were, the United States would have considerably fewer allies than it does now. Particularly, in Europe. (Sapete chi siete. Or to put it another way, if only I could say "off his meds" in Italian...) Secretary of Defense Bob Gates asserts Tom Donilon would be a "disaster" as National Security Advisor. This may be news to the legions in the press corps and policy community that love the smart and capable Donilon, but former Deputy National Security Advisor, former CIA Director Gates is one of the most thoughtful students of the U.S. national security apparatus ever to also serve in several of its top positions. He is loved and respected by even more members of the press, policy and political communities. Therefore, even though he is known to be departing, his comment on Donilon won't be helpful to Donilon's chances to succeed Jim Jones (see below). Richard Holbrooke asserts the President's Afghanistan strategy "can't work." That would be correct. Vice President Joe Biden calls Holbrooke "the most egotistical bastard I have ever met." First reaction: he must not have been paying much attention during all those years in the Senate. Second reaction: after Hillary Clinton, Richard Holbrooke is still almost certainly the best all around talent that the Dems have on foreign policy. And if being egotistical were a disqualification for service in this administration, those Afghan policy discussions could have taken place in a phone booth. Petraeus assails Axelrod as "a complete spin doctor." To which Axelrod probably responded, "thank you very much." Jim Jones privately refered to Obama's political inner circle as "the water bugs" or "the Politburo." And in private they refer to him as "the soon-to-be former National Security Advisor Jim Jones."

It is a tradition in Washington, as much a part of the fabric of this elegant old Southern whore of a town as inaugural balls, losing baseball teams, and the annual drag race across Dupont Circle. It is the release of Bob Woodward’s latest book and the resulting howls of pain from those whose sensitive parts got bound in between the pages of his unfolding expose.

This latest opus is called Obama’s Wars and refers to at least two of the three wars tearing dominating the attention of Obama and his advisors — the one in Iraq, the one in Afghanistan and the one between the advsiors themselves. (The Washington Post, for example, logically concludes from the fact that book devotes no attention to Iraq that the title does not actually refer to that particular war.) It, like Woodward’s past works, is full of headline grabbing observations. Among the grabbiest of them:

  • Hamid Karzai is a manic depressive. Frankly, that’s the best thing that’s been said about him in Washington for months. Furthermore, being slightly deranged is hardly a disqualification to be a world leader. If it were, the United States would have considerably fewer allies than it does now. Particularly, in Europe. (Sapete chi siete. Or to put it another way, if only I could say "off his meds" in Italian…)
  • Secretary of Defense Bob Gates asserts Tom Donilon would be a "disaster" as National Security Advisor. This may be news to the legions in the press corps and policy community that love the smart and capable Donilon, but former Deputy National Security Advisor, former CIA Director Gates is one of the most thoughtful students of the U.S. national security apparatus ever to also serve in several of its top positions. He is loved and respected by even more members of the press, policy and political communities. Therefore, even though he is known to be departing, his comment on Donilon won’t be helpful to Donilon’s chances to succeed Jim Jones (see below).
  • Richard Holbrooke asserts the President’s Afghanistan strategy "can’t work." That would be correct.
  • Vice President Joe Biden calls Holbrooke "the most egotistical bastard I have ever met." First reaction: he must not have been paying much attention during all those years in the Senate. Second reaction: after Hillary Clinton, Richard Holbrooke is still almost certainly the best all around talent that the Dems have on foreign policy. And if being egotistical were a disqualification for service in this administration, those Afghan policy discussions could have taken place in a phone booth.
  • Petraeus assails Axelrod as "a complete spin doctor." To which Axelrod probably responded, "thank you very much."
  • Jim Jones privately refered to Obama’s political inner circle as "the water bugs" or "the Politburo." And in private they refer to him as "the soon-to-be former National Security Advisor Jim Jones."

You may call all this low gossip, but it is significantly closer to addressing important issues than, say, the games playing in the Senate yesterday over "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell." That said, Woodward’s book, according to reports goes much further and reveals that the discord and conflicts in the administration reflect real differences and frustrations regarding the formation of AfPak policy and a president who seems to be as divided on the policy as his team.

The surfacing of the unflattering history does beg one question, though. If this is what happens every time Bob Woodward talks to senior administration officials, why do senior administration officials continue to talk to him? In the answer lies a clue into the real nature of Washington today: even top officials are much more motivated by their narrow self-interests and thus their desire to ingratiate themselves to the guys who write the stories that become history than they are to their president and, in some cases, to the best interests of their country. Flattery, promises of protecting identities and a chance to even scores and elevate themselves always seem to do the trick and the result are terrific books, living history and political problems for one White House after another.

Of course, the Woodward book is just the tip of the iceberg. With the Obama White House revolving door about to start spinning faster than the rotor of the helicopter idling on the South Lawn, the book contracts will soon be doled out, the reporters will soon be taken into departing officials’ confidences and more secrets will slip out of the shadows of the Obamaverse. (It’s already happening…) 

Perhaps it was inevitable. But of course, as in many other areas, this administration was once thought to be different from those that came before and thus more examples of its dispiriting sameness are the last thing it needs. The famous discipline was a sham. Actually, the tough rules on speaking to the press were never going to work as long as the administration’s leadership failed to understand the only way to truly create discipline would be to earn genuine loyalty. 

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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