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’.

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[*] 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).