First Puppet, Now Scapegoat

Inigo Thomas

  • State of Denial: Bush at War by Bob Woodward
    Simon and Schuster, 560 pp, £18.99, October 2006, ISBN 0 7432 9566 8

Who is Bob Woodward? If his books had no jackets, if the prefaces and acknowledgments were ripped away; if you’d never watched American television or read the US papers; if all you had were the texts and you read them from cover to cover, would you know who Bob Woodward is? No, you wouldn’t, but if you read the jackets, acknowledgments and prefaces and followed the TV news, you still wouldn’t know that much about him. There’s nothing personal about Woodward, his books, journalism and public presentation, little that’s self-revealing. But then the people he writes about, usually men who dress, as Woodward does, in dark suits, plain ties and light blue shirts, the better to be observed on TV – they never reveal much of themselves.

What is known about Woodward? He’s a former navy man, who wrote several hundred articles on Watergate for the Washington Post with his colleague Carl Bernstein. The two then wrote famous books about the fall of Nixon, All the President’s Men and The Final Days, the first made into a well-known movie. Bernstein went to New York and wrote a book about the papacy, but he became a bit of a joke among journalist colleagues for taking his success too seriously.

Woodward turned to the comedian John Belushi and another kind of fall: tragic early death. He wrote books about the CIA and the Pentagon, on Clinton and Alan Greenspan, carrying on at the Post as well, making a name for himself as a reporter and author others wished to emulate. He’d brought down a president: journalistically, what can beat that? He’s now more famous and must be wealthier than any other newspaperman, every book a national bestseller, and so influential that his requests for interviews – whether they are granted or not – are treated as political considerations.

Which makes Woodward less journalist and more ambassador or courtier, more like Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia, royal diplomat, gossip, host, March Hare, who pops up throughout his trilogy on the Bush administration’s wars, of which this is the third volume.[*] Woodward is not only granted audiences: he interviews Donald Rumsfeld, and others, at his home, in his own kitchen, over supper. If you’re Nigella-ish, you’ll be disappointed by his non-disclosure of what there was to eat.

This hasn’t always been so. Woodward’s first Watergate article wasn’t about the scandal named after the huge, white, swirling 1960s complex beside the Potomac. It was about one of the building’s better-known residents, Martha Mitchell, wife of then US attorney general John Mitchell, soon to leave that post to become head of Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President, better remembered as Creep. The story doesn’t reveal much about Woodward – from the beginning he has in his writing been as shadowy about himself as Deep Throat – but the subject of the piece had something unforgettable to say about what happens when a small group of men become fixated with the preservation of their own power.

From her balcony, the Mouth of the South, as the very unrestrained Mitchell was known, saw palls of smoke rising each day from the centre of Washington. ‘Air pollution around here is perfectly terrible,’ she told Woodward in December 1971. ‘My husband sat here and saw this and said, “You get on the phone and do something about it”’ – advice John Mitchell probably regretted for ever. Martha, whose main aim in life after she arrived in the capital was to remove her husband from the ‘cops and robbers’ game of politics, made a habit of getting on the phone, often late at night, usually tipsy, and frequently with journalists with whom she shared her ranging views about Washington DC. ‘They don’t know what’s going on in the country,’ she once said of people in the White House. ‘They place themselves in a little box.’

The culprit ruining Mitchell’s air and view was, of course, the federal government. The smoke came from an oil-fuelled electricity generator that powered the White House and her husband’s Department of Justice. Thanks in part to Martha’s tip, the city launched an investigation and filed charges against the government for breaching clean-air regulations, which led to fines, and onwards, via Woodward’s researches on the legal documents in the case, back to where the story began: the Mouth of the South.

Martha Mitchell is, as far as I know, the only person whose Washington life has produced a concept in psychology. Politicians, lobbyists and journalists in DC conform to any number of psychological types, but many, knowingly or unknowingly, must also be familiar with the Martha Mitchell Effect, the condition where a subject’s apparent delusions are such that those who hear them fool themselves into thinking they are only delusions, not an approximation of what might actually be true. Mitchell was considered a bit deluded for saying, of the 1972 elections, that ‘politics is a dirty business.’ Flying to Washington from California on Air Force One, Martha passed the journalists’ section at the back of the plane and was asked what she thought of the Vietnam War. ‘It stinks,’ she said. Dangerously mad: no more presidential flights for her. Yet the people who began talking about ‘the Martha problem’ in the Oval Office in the summer of 1972, and who tried to silence her, were the same people who organised, paid for and covered up the break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters.

When Woodward and Bernstein’s first articles about the burglary appeared in the Washington Post in June 1972, Mitchell, staying at a hotel in California, was furious to learn about the break-in from the paper, not from her husband. She told her FBI bodyguard that her husband, now head of Creep, had bugged every Democrat in Washington and that she was going to call the press. Then she rang her husband, but got through to his deputy, Fred LaRue, one of the men who handled the famous slush fund that had paid for the Watergate burglary a few weeks earlier. This Martha tale appears in the published White House diary of Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman. LaRue rang the agent stationed with Martha and told him to break into her hotel room and remove the phone. When that happened, Martha blew her stack, went about a violent rearrangement of the furniture, and didn’t calm down until a doctor arrived and injected her with a tranquilliser. James McCord, head of the plumbers, the White House unit which broke into the DNC Watergate offices, who had been a bodyguard to the Mitchells, later said that she’d been kidnapped.

In Haldeman’s diary, Martha in the summer of 1972 was as big a problem for the Nixon White House as Watergate itself. The president asked national saviour Billy Graham to intervene and see what he could do to help John to get Martha to shut up. ‘It’s going to create a major national problem,’ Haldeman wrote: Nixon ‘seems more concerned about that than the Watergate caper’. So it was inevitable that John Mitchell, who, as head of Creep, was paymaster-general to the burglary, now resigned from Nixon’s campaign to spend a lot more time with his wife, only to be yelled at by Martha, who, as Woodward and Bernstein report in All the President’s Men, told him ‘all day long that he ought to take every damn one of them down, including Nixon’.

Woodward says he considered Martha Mitchell the ‘Greek chorus’ of Watergate. He meant its Cassandra, and like others dismissed as mad by those with reason to be worried by what they say, she went further off the rails. Woodward interviewed her at the front door of her apartment in New York just before the 1972 election; she told him that Nixon would win the election with ‘99.9 per cent’ of the vote. The Mitchells separated the following year. She died poor in 1976, having made some money autographing clothes at a boutique. Someone sent a wreath to her funeral with a card that said: ‘Martha Was Right.’ ‘Liberals are Commies,’ she once remarked, one of her less perceptive observations: she was hardly right about everything. In an obituary, Helen Thomas, a journalist Mitchell liked to ring, said: ‘She was a personal victim of the political war of Watergate, and one of its very few heroines.’ Five years after the Watergate break-in, Nixon said: ‘If it hadn’t been for Martha Mitchell, there’d have been no Watergate.’ The former president was still suffering from the Martha Mitchell Effect: he had no one but himself to blame for Watergate.

There are no heroes and no heroines in Woodward’s three books about the Bush White House, but in the first two volumes of the trilogy he portrays the people who took the US to war in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003 as mildly heroic. There’s no Greek chorus, no Cassandra either, but readers of these books, not knowing Washington as well as Woodward does, would find it hard to avoid the conclusion that there’s more wrong with the capital than he lets on. These books are about how another small group of men and one woman took the world’s most powerful and wealthiest country to war and entrenched it in a conflict that its leader says is without end, and which appears the more endless because the Democrats, despite their mid-term election victories, are themselves uncertain about how to end it. What will there be to pick up when George Bush leaves office in two years’ time? If he lasts that long.

Conclusions and opinions aren’t Woodward’s strongest suit. He offers no general summations to his three books, no views on the people he interviews. He allows his subjects to speak for themselves, and to coo about their own victories, big or petty, and some people he quotes say exactly the same thing in each volume. He also allows people to talk and gossip about other people, and this cocktail banter, this semi-disguised hatchet work, gives Woodward’s volumes their scoopy, vicious, political feel. They are grim books, State of Denial grimmer than the first two as Woodward churns out all the bad stories he’s accumulated about the administration’s leaders from those who now consider themselves sold out or let down.

You’d have no better understanding of neo-conservatism were you to read Woodward’s books: he never explains the ideas he hears people talk about. When Rumsfeld formulated the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war in May 2002, Woodward reports that the secretary of defense heard from a friend that the notion of pre-emptive war ‘went back centuries’ and that Sir Thomas More had written about pre-emption in Utopia. This is true: More did write about the Utopians’ offensive wars. These were campaigns launched against tyrannies that repressed merchants, yet nothing, for the Utopians, was ‘more inglorious than that glory that is gained by war’. But the US as Utopia, Rumsfeld as utopian? In his account of Utopian magistrates, More describes the lengths the Utopians went to to prevent themselves from acting rashly, so that they wouldn’t, ‘in the heat of discourse, engage themselves too soon, which might bias them so much that, instead of consulting the good of the public, they might rather study to support their first opinions, and by a perverse and preposterous sort of shame, hazard their country rather than endanger their own reputation.’ Woodward’s books and others portray a White House and a Washington that is anything but Utopia.

For Woodward, what matters are meetings, and the apex of political experience is access, his own included: what was said by whom and when and where; who attended this meeting or was excluded from it; who led it and how, via secure video-link or in person, with visual aids or without. Washington politics, as presented by Woodward, is office politics on a different scale, although it is his unspoken understanding that American politics has a tendency to veer toward disintegration and chaos, regardless of the intentions of those who arrive in Washington at the beginning of an administration and promise renewal or reform.

Woodward isn’t unaware of his own importance. When he says that he went to Crawford, Texas to interview George Bush, or that the retired general Jay Garner, briefly the head of Iraq’s post-invasion government, came over for breakfast at his place, he is emphasising his intimacy with those who talk to him. But in Plan of Attack he introduces himself in another way. He says that he regretted not pushing a Post story he wrote with a colleague in February 2003, just before the invasion of Iraq. The piece quoted anonymous sources questioning White House estimates of Iraq’s WMD and thus Bush’s reason for going to war. ‘In light of subsequent events,’ Woodward says, ‘I should have pushed for a front-page story, even on the eve of war’: it’s as if this article – as if Woodward himself – was that close to changing the whole course of history.

This isn’t the Martha Mitchell Effect, by the way, but the delusion that people who work closely with power often have: that they’re more powerful than they think. It’s also about covering your ass. I don’t know of a better expression than this for the practice that more than any other defines Washington politics, though Thomas More’s description is not too bad: the perverse and preposterous sort of shame whereby men hazard their country rather than endanger their own reputations. Without people wanting to protect their reputations, making themselves look good at other people’s expense, making others look bad to make themselves look better, hiding something under their own ass or another’s, preserving themselves while making the US government look perfectly dreadful, Woodward wouldn’t have a book. It’s why people give him interviews: to present their version of events, knowing that their enemies have already talked to him, or are about to do so.

No one in Washington has indulged in this form of shame more fiercely than Rumsfeld, except Dick Cheney. In Bush at War, Rumsfeld is presented as a grouchy, beguiling politician. ‘In some respects,’ Woodward writes, he ‘was a walking example of what novelist Wallace Stegner calls “resilience under disappointment”, the persistence of drive, hard work and even stubbornness when ambition has not been fully realised’. In State of Denial, he’s a monster.

When Jay Garner returned to Washington in the summer of 2003 – having been sacked by Rumsfeld and replaced with Paul Bremer – he was taken to the White House. Informed by Rumsfeld that Bush had ordered his ousting, he was now going to be thanked by the president for his work. It had not been easy; he’d been constantly overruled by the Pentagon; he had been denied advisers considered by Douglas Feith to be too Clintonian. His view that the Pentagon’s de-Baathification programme would be a disaster was waved away. He had many reasons to consider himself let down. At the White House, Bush was jovial; first, some talk about ‘kissing the asses’ of congressmen. Then others entered the Oval Office, Condoleezza Rice among them. There was a conversation about Iraq. As the meeting drew to a close, Garner said to Bush: ‘The one thing I’ll tell you, I’ve had three weeks to work with Ambassador Bremer and he’s one of the hardest working men I’ve ever seen. He’s a very bright guy. He’s articulate and he’ll get the job done. You made a good choice.’ ‘I didn’t choose him,’ Bush replied. ‘Rumsfeld chose him just like he chose you.’ According to Woodward, ‘Garner looked over at Rumsfeld. The secretary of defense had told him explicitly in late April that Bush had selected Bremer … But now Rumsfeld didn’t say a word.’ Nothing happened, of course. Rumsfeld understood Garner well enough to know that the general wouldn’t expose him in the Oval Office. But Garner did talk to Woodward.

Covering it is not the only dimension to Washington’s obsession with asses. ‘You are just so out the ass,’ ‘you need to get off your ass,’ ‘getting an ass-chewing’, ‘a royal ass-chewing’ – these are routine expressions in Woodward’s books. ‘We have put together a lethal military, and we will kick his ass,’ Bush tells Silvio Berlusconi, referring to his plans for Saddam Hussein in January 2003. So he had and so he did.

In Plan of Attack, Kenneth Adelman tells Woodward about a celebratory dinner party given by Cheney soon after the invasion of Iraq had begun. Adelman is a neo-con activist, who until 2005 was on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, and in the two-year run-up to the war appeared on TV and wrote op-ed articles arguing for the invasion. Before it began, he said the war would be a ‘cakewalk’. He is also one of the administration’s ‘bummers’ – the name given to those Union guerrillas who, in advance of General Sherman’s march through Georgia and the Carolinas, scared the daylights out of the South so as to soften up the opposition before the main assault. Like Charles Krauthammer, the Washington Post columnist, like the conservatives and liberals who argued for war in 2003, and said that Saddam Hussein, the Hitler of our time, must not be appeased, and this mustn’t turn into Munich all over again, Adelman demanded war and nothing else would do.

When he arrived at the vice president’s mansion, Adelman began to cry, so happy was he that the war had begun and that he was among his friends, the people who had launched it: Cheney, Cheney’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby, their wives (neither of whom has shown much inclination to imitate Martha Mitchell), and the divorced Paul Wolfowitz. As Woodward reports, Adelman, who had flown from Europe to attend the celebration, ‘hugged Cheney for the first time in the 30 years he had known him … “We’re all together. There should be no protocol, let’s just talk,” Cheney said when they sat down to dinner.’ Wolfowitz talked about the 1991 war against Iraq. Adelman interrupted:

Let’s talk about this Gulf War. It’s so wonderful to celebrate … It’s so easy for me to write an article saying do this. It’s much tougher for Paul to advocate it. Paul and Scooter, you give advice inside and the president listens. Dick, your advice is the most important, the Cadillac. It’s much more serious for you to advocate it. But in the end, all of what we said was still only advice. The president is the one who had to decide. I have been blown away by how determined he is … So I just want to make a toast, without getting too cheesy. To the president of the United States.

Here is a group of men who, by instinct and reputation, consider themselves more powerful than their boss, but pretend otherwise. For them, the office of the presidency is more like the mail-room where the occupant of the Oval Office signs off on dockets ensuring the swift arrival of tomorrow’s new orders. This is reminiscent of Preston Sturges’s The Great McGinty, a movie about a good-looking puppet installed as mayor of an American city by thugs too ugly and too thuggish to appear in public themselves. ‘To us,’ you can almost hear Adelman cry at that dinner party – to the authors, architects, and executors of the war who now had the US fighting on the ground in Iraq.

A month later, the chief – all hail to him – landed on an aircraft-carrier in the Pacific and delivered his much ridiculed ‘mission accomplished’ speech. Three years later, with the end of the war invisible, that speech is the object of futile Bush-bashing. Bush wasn’t joking, nor was he wrong. He had taken the US to war; the mission of the people who Cheney had to dinner was accomplished. They’d also put the country on a semi-permanent war-footing, finished off the Security Council of the United Nations, ignored the Geneva Conventions, tortured prisoners, hidden their decision-making behind legislation protecting executive privilege, launched an espionage programme against Americans themselves, spent colossal sums of money, divided liberals, hoodwinked the press, and, though they cared about this least of all, made the US into World Bully, breaking no obvious American laws as they did so (the Valerie Plame case excluded). All this, until recently, with popular assent and elite approval.

Edmund Wilson in Patriotic Gore, his book about America’s Civil War and about an American obsession with war, said of the literature on this conflict that never before had Americans found themselves so articulate while also failing to convey any sense of what actually happened. Daniel Aaron, in his 1973 book, The Unwritten War: American Writers and the Civil War, said: ‘our untidy and unkempt war confounds interpreters.’ The Iraq war, untidy and unkempt to say the least, has produced an even more stunning mass articulateness: before the war began (for example, in Kenneth Pollack’s subtle presentation of the case for invasion, The Threatening Storm), but now more than ever before. New books, magazine articles and blog entries go on endlessly about Bush and the neo-cons, how they skittled the war in Iraq because they were incompetent or because of their bad planning. If only the administration had listened to the conscience of the military, General Anthony Zinni, and had deployed more men at the start; if only the postwar planning had been more considered; if only Rumsfeld had delegated the planning for the occupation to someone other than Douglas Feith, described by General Tommy Franks as the ‘fucking stupidest guy on the face of the earth’.

Thomas Ricks’s Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (the most bearable of these excruciating war volumes), Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor’s Cobra II, George Packer’s The Assassins’ Gate, Peter Galbraith’s The End of Iraq, and now Woodward: these books and many others present their versions of what went wrong, aim for a culprit, and hope that a firing or a resignation will reverse the situation. But they don’t consider a question they themselves raise: what did it matter to Bush, Cheney and their friends what happened in Iraq if going to war was all that mattered? Whether democracy in the Middle East thrived or failed – that doesn’t seem to have mattered either. Proving war was important, that did matter, and in relation to this goal there’s less separating the administration and some of the authors of these books, who also believed that war was the only way to fix Iraq.

Damning as the books are about the way the occupation has been administered, and damning as they were said to be by their reviewers, they’re just not damning enough. In October, Bush said that the occupation must go on indefinitely: if the US were to withdraw, then ‘they’ – meaning the insurg-ents – would follow the troops home to America, which meant the US had to stay in Iraq until it was victorious. It was an admission by this utopian that the war in Iraq had created exactly what he said he went to war to pre-empt.

Government publications, too, are considered more articulate than ever. When the 9/11 Commission Report was published in 2004 it was said to be the most readable report in years, its writing presided over by Philip Zelikow, who now works for Condoleezza Rice at the State Department. That report made no mention of a meeting between Rice and George Tenet, the head of the CIA, in early July 2001, at which Tenet expressed his concern about a forthcoming al-Qaida attack – when Woodward’s State of Denial made this previously unknown meeting news it was considered a significant development – although the omission is not so much surprising as expected, and what’s more revealing about the 9/11 Commission Report is what it hid.

‘Americans have a technique for concealing by revealing,’ Dwight Macdonald once remarked. ‘We publish so much accurate information that only the most acute and diligent reader can find the needle of Truth in the haystack of Facts.’ The haystacks are now much larger than Macdonald would have imagined possible in the 1960s, the internet allowing for the industrial production of facts. The writers of the 9/11 Commission Report concluded in a brief, eloquent, boxed-off aside that there was no evidence to support the assertion that Muhammad Atta went to Prague in April 2001 and had there met an Iraqi secret agent named Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani. This was an important tale because it linked Saddam Hussein to al-Qaida. From the beginning, as soon as the story surfaced, it was known that Atta hadn’t gone to Prague in 2001, yet the war’s advocates went on for years about this non-existent journey and a meeting that never took place. The writers of the report dismissed the story, but they didn’t begin to explain who had made the haystack.

Many must now find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having been fooled, charmed, persuaded or perhaps made fearful by the neo-cons and their war on terror, consoled as they may be by a Democrat victory at the polls. Colin Powell wasn’t the only one who acted as a water-carrier for the administration, willingly or unknowingly. Bill Keller, once a columnist and now the editor of the New York Times, wrote a widely read article in favour of the war in February 2003, entitled ‘The I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-A-Hawk Club’. Like many liberal interventionists, Keller said that what happened in Bosnia – genocide – couldn’t be allowed to happen again. Two days after the invasion, he wrote a column arguing for Colin Powell’s resignation: the secretary of state’s diplomacy at the UN had failed and therefore Powell should go, but only at a moment when his departure didn’t ‘undermine the president at a time of national crisis’ – as if there was any diplomacy as Bush prepared for war.

Keller also wrote a fawning profile of Wolfowitz in the New York Times Sunday magazine in September 2002, while Rumsfeld mulled over Thomas More’s Utopia. Of Wolfowitz’s opinion on the connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida, Keller said that the deputy secretary of defense ‘can describe the evidence in detail, the clandestine meetings between Iraqi intelligence and figures who may have been al-Qaida operatives, and says he finds it intriguing but not conclusive.’ Why, Keller wondered, did Wolfowitz believe that an invasion of Iraq was essential? What was his motivation?

It is forged partly of humanitarian impulse, a horror of standing by and watching bad things happen. He often talks about Kitty Genovese, the New York woman murdered in 1964 while dozens of neighbours watched from their apartment windows without lifting a phone to call the police. His inclination to act derives, too, from his analytical style, a residue, perhaps, of the mathematician he started out to be. In almost any discussion, he tends to be the one focusing on the most often overlooked variable in decision making, the cost of not acting. On Iraq, that has now been taken up as a White House mantra.

Others might not be so generous in their assessment of the former Pentagon deputy. And that humanitarian impulse: if it was so important to act, why was the planning for the postwar, the humanitarian dimension to the invasion that was said to be a mantra, so ill considered?

Before the mid-term elections Frank Rich said that the Democratic Party was without leaders. They’re less leaderless after their election victory, but their problem is not just one of leadership but one of public authority and the absence of public accountability, in government and in the press. Many Democrats supported Bush’s war on terror. If you’ve argued for war and asked a secretary of state to resign; if you’ve written glowingly about one of the architects of this war and if that war and its aftermath are a disaster, then what? Which isn’t to blame Keller for the invasion of Iraq: it’s not his war. But Keller nevertheless acquiesced in a White House demand that the first detailed story about the surveillance of American citizens by the federal government be suppressed by the Times, as it was for a year. In an editorial explaining why his paper went along with this White House request – the threat of terrorism was genuine – Keller said that giving in to the administration’s wishes had been an ‘agonising’ decision. I heard James Risen, the Times journalist who wrote the suppressed story, defend Keller at the New York Public Library this summer. At the end of a talk on the National Security Agency, which had carried out the surveillance, Risen was asked what distinguishes the US from General Pinochet’s Chile. Risen replied: a free press. These three words produced a silence that I’ve not known before, though the suppression of news is almost less angry-making than what the media more simply ignore.

Sack Rumsfeld, the Army Times demanded before the mid-term elections: by noon the day after the Americans voted, the secretary of defense had resigned. Woodward closes with a Rumsfeld interview. ‘There’s something about the body politic in the United States,’ the secretary of defense tells Woodward, ‘that they can accept the enemy killing innocent men, women and children and cutting off people’s heads, but have zero tolerance for some soldier who does something he shouldn’t do.’ It was typical of Rumsfeld, as it is of neo-cons generally, to blame others for their mistakes.

Vanity Fair has trailed a forthcoming article – a series of interviews with neo-cons – on its website. It is an amazing piece. In it Adelman, Richard Perle, David Frum, all paid-up neo-cons, blame the following people for the Iraq disaster: George Tenet, General Tommy Franks, members of the National Security Council (‘not only did each of them, individually, have enormous flaws, but together they were deadly, dysfunctional,’ Adelman said), Paul Bremer, Condoleezza Rice, Laura Bush, Karen Hughes, as well as the ‘machinery of government’, which presumably means the government of the United States. Dick Cheney, the neo-cons’ Cadillac, it seems, is faultless, therefore absent from their list. George Bush is blamed for betraying Iraq, as his father did before him; for failing fully to absorb neo-con ideas; and for bringing incoherence to the whole world. ‘At the end of the day,’ Perle said, ‘you have to hold the president responsible.’ The neo-cons have now turned their sights on the president himself, first their puppet, now their scapegoat. Preston Sturges couldn’t have created such shameless or opportunistic charlatans. Ass-covering is a practice so ingrained within these people that they’re prepared to sacrifice the president to protect themselves. Only Martha Mitchell is missing from the story.

Historians such as Alan Brinkley, trying to sound reassuring, say that when difficult times arrive in the US then the constitution has always provided a framework within which Americans turn disaster around. Bush and the neo-cons have savaged the constitution. It’s frightening that so few people in power – in government and in the press – have stood up to this White House, but equally shocking is the lengths some people who make much of their idealism will go to protect themselves. More troubling than shocking, more worrying than frightening, is that the situation in Washington is more desperate than it was in 1974, when Nixon saved himself and left the White House, and when his departure obscured America’s defeat in a war it never needed to fight. The constitution has yet again failed to halt the ambitions of a group of self-possessed men who, having gambled away their country’s reputation, now seek to save themselves at their country’s expense.

[*] Bush at War (Pocket Books, 416 pp., £8.99, 2003, 0 743 46107 x).

Plan of Attack (Pocket Books, 467 pp., £8.99, 2004, 0 743 49545 4).