Noam Scheiber at The New Republic has a really good review of Bob Woodward’s new book, The Backscratcher—Bob Woodward’s Anti-Obama Bias. More than just a review of The Price of Politics, it is a good refresher on the debt ceiling debacle, which has made me rethink my harsh criticism of Obama. But mostly, the article is about Bob Woodward’s bias against President Obama.
Scheiber puts forward two aspects of Woodward that make the bias contradictory. First, Woodward is a typical elite boot-licker who “reflexively flatters the powerful.” There is no doubt about that! But Scheiber claims that Woodward is against the current most powerful man in the world because of a particular attitude of Woodward’s class:
But, in another sense, the book is perfectly in sync with Woodward’s oeuvre. There is a body of respectable Washington opinion that considers Obama unworthy of the presidency: he hadn’t put in his time before running, didn’t grasp the majesty of the office, evinced no respect for the way things were done. He not only won without courting the city’s elders, he had the bad manners to keep his distance even after winning. This is the view Woodward distills.
There is little doubt of this, but I have a different take that compliments it: Wordward follows public opinion.
This is base upon the “Bush at War” triology. The first, Bush at War made Bush out to be a great leader—Dwight Eisenhower or even George Washington. The next, Plan of Attack was slightly critical, but still mostly adulatory. And the third, State of Denial was quite critical. This just happens to have been the way that America felt about Bush.
I haven’t read much of Woodward’s books since All the President’s Men. What I have read—even his non-political writing such as the insipid Wired—has been standard, middlebrow fair. So of course what we get on the second half of Obama’s term is the typical upper middle class complaints that Obama is just sorta missing something; we don’t know quite what it is; but we’re sure it isn’t that he’s black. (Not that Woodward would ever go anywhere near the race question.)
I’ve long wondered about the comparisons that people naturally make between Woodward and Carl Bernstein. These arguments usually go something like, “Isn’t it amazing that Bernstein hasn’t had much of a career but Woodward has become a titan of political reporting.” I don’t accept this. It’s true that Woodward has this position. But it is because he panders to a particular class of Washington insider. He is the towering figure he is because he does not threatened the elite. Bernstein has had a respectable career with some minor successes that did ruffle feathers. Woodward is only willing to ruffle the feathers of dead birds like William Casey.
And so, it is not surprising that Woodward would go after Obama. And what will happen if Obama wins reelection and the economy recovers? Woodward will write a hagiography of Obama.