Rendered as an Erewhon

Bob Woodward has recently come in for some well-deserved flogging, but even the best of it is really just gorging at the table that was impeccably set by the great Joan Didion in the NYRB some years ago. Check this out:

The author himself disclaims “the perspective of history.” His preferred approach has been one in which “issues could be examined before the possible outcome or meaning was at all clear or the possible consequences were weighed.” The refusal to consider meaning or outcome or consequence has, as a way of writing a book, a certain Zen purity, but tends toward a process in which no research method is so commonplace as to go unexplained (“The record will show how I was able to gain information from records or interviews…. I could then talk with other sources and return to most of them again and again as necessary”), no product of that research so predictable as to go unrecorded.

The world rendered is an Erewhon in which not only inductive reasoning but ordinary reliance on context clues appear to have vanished. Any reader who wonders what Vice-President Gore thinks about Whitewater can turn to page 418 of The Choice and find that he believes the matter “small and unfair,” but has sometimes been concerned that “the Republicans and the scandal machinery in Washington” could keep it front and center. Any reader unwilling to hazard a guess about what Dick Morris’s polling data told him about Medicare can turn to page 235 of The Choice and find that “voters liked Medicare, trusted it and felt it was the one federal program that worked.”

This tabula rasa typing requires rather persistent attention on the part of the reader, since its very presence on the page tends to an impression that significant and heretofore undisclosed information must have just been revealed, by a reporter who left no stone unturned to obtain it. The weekly lunch shared by the President and Vice-President Gore, we learn in The Choice, “sometimes did not start until 3 P.M. because of other business.” The President, “who had a notorious appetite, tried to eat lighter food.” The reader attuned to the conventions of narrative might be led by the presentation of these quotidian details into thinking that a dramatic moment is about to occur, but the crux of the four-page prologue having to do with the weekly lunches turns out to be this: the President, according to Mr. Woodward, “thought a lot of the criticism he received was unfair.” The Vice-President, he reveals, “had some advice. Clinton always had found excess reserve within himself. He would just have to find more, Gore said.”

What Mr. Woodward chooses to leave unrecorded, or what he apparently does not think to elicit, is in many ways more instructive than what he commits to paper. “The accounts I have compiled may, at times, be more comprehensive than what a future historian, who has to rely on a single memo, letter, or recollection of what happened, might be able to piece together,” he noted in the introduction to The Agenda, an account of certain events in the first years of the Clinton administration in which he endeavored, to cryogenic effect, “to give every key participant in these events an opportunity to offer his or her recollections and views.” The “future historian” who might be interested in piecing together the details of how the Clinton administration arrived at its program for health-care reform, however, will find, despite a promising page of index references, that none of the key participants interviewed for The Agenda apparently thought to discuss what might have seemed the central curiosity in that process, which was by what political miscalculation a plan initially meant to remove third-party profit from the health-care equation (or to “take on the insurance industry,” as Putting People First, the manifesto of the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign, had phrased it) would become one distrusted by large numbers of Americans precisely because it seemed to enlarge and further entrench the role of the insurance industry.