All the King’s Bull Feather Merchants

Uber-journalist Bob Woodward is once again telling us exactly what we need to hear long after we needed to hear it. On Friday, Sept. 24, two days before its release, Woodward’s new book Obama’s Wars was Amazon’s number two best-selling book. It’s amazing how many people will line up to be among the first to consume information they mostly already know.

As in his other books on our woebegone wars in West Asia – The Commanders, Bush at War, State of Denial, and so on – Obama’s Wars appears to offer a degree of granularity to tales we seem to have heard before that no other Washington correspondent can match. Woodward is the uncontested king of crony journalism, the reporter who everyone else on the beat tries – and fails – to emulate. His Washington Post colleague Thomas E. Ricks would give his remaining baby-maker to have the kind of clout, fame, and success that Woodward has. (Ricks sacrificed his other one to become head hagiographer to Gen. David Petraeus.)

Senior Pentagon correspondent” Ricks no doubt reaches for his blood pressure pills every time he considers how decisively Woodward has clobbered him in his own métier. The Washington Post gave Ricks’s 2009 book The Gamble the Woodward treatment: several days’ worth of promoting the book with feature articles that, as paid advertising, would have eaten up Ricks’s royalties, movie options, advances on his next book, and at least a year’s worth of Ivy League tuition for any kids he may still have hanging around who need that sort of thing. But Ricks couldn’t buy his way into Woodward’s league if he hocked what’s left of his immortal soul, and neither could anyone else on the war beat.

Woodward’s edge over today’s crop of Ernie Pyle wannabes is partly a function of his solid-gold connections. He began constructing his network while on a Navy ROTC scholarship at Yale in the early Sixties, and expanded his circle as a junior naval officer by finagling duty assignments in the passageways of power that included a tour of duty at the Pentagon.

But it was Woodward’s investigative work on the Watergate scandal that set him apart from the run-of-the-mill D.C. pretty boys (Robert Redford played Woodward in the film version of All the President’s Men). Woodward and Carl Bernstein four-handedly saved the Constitution from the clutches of Richard Nixon and his henchmen – who included, ominously, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Gene Roberts, former managing editor of the New York Times, called Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate investigation “maybe the single greatest reporting effort of all time.” Former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee (played in the film by Jason Robards) said that Woodward is “surely the best of his generation at investigative reporting, the best I’ve ever seen.”

So when Bob tells Lord Acton’s corrupted great men that he wants to talk to them, they don’t tell him to go defecate in his broughams. They tell him to come on over, and they have the help put out a nice spread for him. That’s the key difference between Bob and just about everyone else who has been covering our unholy war on evil. Bob has access. The rest, including and especially Tom Ricks, have access poisoning.

Bob Woodward embodies the kind of power the press had when the Washington Post was the leading element of a genuine fourth estate in this country, acting as a check on our official branches of government. When Bob contacts you, you know he already has a story about you, and it’s a real good one or he wouldn’t have bothered to call. If you have any hope of getting your side of the story out, you better play ball with him.

The rest of the war pool, and the rest of the press in general, have been maneuvered into a position of needing to play ball with its sources, and lamentably that’s true of both the reporters and their outlets. That’s how Dick Cheney and his hooligans managed to bamboozle us into going along with their Iraq madness: by channeling unfiltered false propaganda through conduits like Judith Miller and Michael R. Gordon into the supposedly “liberal” New York Times. Miller and Gordon’s infamous Nigergate piece that fraudulently convinced the world that Saddam Hussein was acquiring uranium from Niger supported the claim with nearly 30 citations of unnamed “officials.”

To this day, when you see a story that cites numerous anonymous officials and supports an administration agenda, you can bet a shiny new Missouri quarter that you’re being hum-buggered. And don’t be fooled by one or two quotes from named sources that are already in the public domain. That’s a standard deception tactic. A variation on this look-over-there gimmick, one that Ricks used extensively in The Gamble, is to interview a whole bunch of people willing to go on record as being in favor of whatever scheme the journalist is supporting. Ricks and others who use this method typically throw in one or two counterpoint quotes for the sake of appearing (heh) fair and balanced.

By the time of the Iraq invasion, the Pentagon’s information warfare directorate was in place, and the embedded reporter strategy was up and running. Journalists who didn’t write what their hosts wanted to see soon found themselves covering the Palookaville Chamber of Commerce. Some of these reporters suffered from a form of Stockholm syndrome, where they so over-sympathized with their subjects that their objectivity vanished like a corporate pension fund.

I strongly suspect this was part of what seduced Tom Ricks into David Petraeus’s bedroll. Ricks likely also grew big eyes for the chance at Woodward-level journalistic stature, as well as a shot at becoming something of a latter-day Sir Julian Corbett, the British naval historian who became a renowned geostrategist and warfare theorist. That worked out for Ricks in a bush-league sort of way. His books on the Iraq war did pretty well, and NBC fops like Chris Matthews and David Gregory kissed up to him on camera. Ricks also got himself made a war-knowledge scholar with one of those start-up garage bands that call themselves national-security think-tanks. But at core Ricks will never be more than a once credible journalist who turned slut-puppy for the Long Warmongers.

And, lamentably, the vast majority of the younger military correspondents are attempting to emulate Ricks, most notably Dexter Filkins of the New York Times, who tried to become to Stanley McChrystal what Ricks is to Petraeus. The rest of the Pentagon pool is about as aggressive about getting at the truth as NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski, who has made a career out of repeating verbatim on camera whatever mantra the Pentagon’s bull feather merchants just fed him.

We live in one of the most interesting times of our Republic’s history. In an era when we need more than ever to hear the truth about matters of war and peace in real time, the best investigative journalist of his generation is playing historian. We’ve probably already seen some variation of nearly all the big revelations from Obama’s Wars in the excerpts that the Washington Post and the New York Times ran last week. So Joe Biden thinks Richard Holbrooke is an “egotistical bastard.” Petraeus thinks David Axelrod is a “spin doctor.” How very pot and kettle. But how surprising is it to hear that powerful men like Biden and Petraeus are blind to their own faults? Is this the kind of “news” you want to buy a book to find out?

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is unstable? We can’t trust Pakistan? National Security Adviser James Jones hates everybody and the feeling is mutual? Nobody in Obama’s camp trusts Hillary? Obama’s generals are rolling over him like a tank formation? Obama has exceeded his predecessor’s knack for executive overreach? Nine years after 9/11 Homeland Security isn’t prepared to deal with a nuclear terrorist attack? Afghanistan reminds everybody in the administration of Vietnam?

Get! Out! That’s pretty featherweight stuff coming from a star of Woodward’s magnitude.

Woodward does give us two bits of vital information that most likely nobody else could have delivered. First is that both Obama and Petraeus know the wars we’re fighting now can’t be won. Second, and even more crucial, is Woodward’s account of Petraeus saying:

“You have to recognize also that I don’t think you win this war. I think you keep fighting. … This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.”

Great Caesar’s Ghost, Bob! The morning after you heard that little tidbit from King David, this should have been screaming at us in Fire Alarm font from the front page of your once-great newspaper: “Top General Says We’ll Fight for Decades, Still Won’t Win.”

Bob, it’s time to start being a real reporter again. We need you. Put the books down, roll up your sleeves, and go back to fighting in your weight class.

Author: Jeff Huber

Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (retired), was a naval flight officer who commanded an aircraft squadron and was operations officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the carrier that fought the Kosovo War. Jeff earned a master of arts degree in post-modern imperialism at the U.S. Naval War College. His weekly satires on U.S. foreign policy high jinks are archived at his blog, Pen and Sword. Jeff's critically applauded novel Bathtub Admirals, a lampoon of America's rise to global dominance, is on sale now. Jeff lives with dogs in a house by the beach on Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, and in the summer he has a nice tan.