Bob Woodward shows a White House waffling toward budget bill

June 26, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon

In "The Agenda," Bob Woodward uses as his springboard a pledge that Bill Clinton made at the Democratic National Convention in 1992, namely, to use the presidency to re-energize America's economy.

The tale that follows is an insider's glimpse into the remarkable angst of the Clinton White House as it lurched unsteadily toward production of a budget bill that the president and his loyalists have touted as one of their great accomplishments.

Privately, they thought much less of their own budget package, Mr. Woodward reveals. The tensions that went into its creation, marketing and narrow passage by Congress are a fascinating case study into an administration that seems to function only while facing catastrophe.

"The Agenda" has, naturally, prompted the controversy that goes with the territory whenever Mr. Woodward is involved.

I know from experience that some sniping at Mr. Woodward stems from simple jealousy. When "Veil," his book about former CIA chief William Casey, was published, I was asked by a newspaper editor -- not with The Sun -- to write a story focusing on, among other things, the money Mr. Woodward was making from his books while still working for the Washington Post.

This was a laugh, given how much money Mr. Woodward has turned down over the years from TV networks that tried to lure him from the Post. Mr. Woodward's boss at the time, Benjamin C. Bradlee, put it this way: "Bob Woodward gives me more on his worst day than your [editor] could give me in a year."

Nevertheless, there are legitimate reasons that some of his work gives fellow journalists pause.

The first is how Mr. Woodward dispenses with the time-honored practices of historians of sourcing material, either with footnotes or by citing the sources in the text.

The second is his practice of re-creating conversations, including conversations with the president -- complete with direct quotes -- that happened months before and which he could not have overheard personally. He's taking the recollections of one or more principals in the conversations, without telling the reader which one, and without offering the kind of corroborative material historians use to buttress the material.

In fairness, any suggestion -- and one hears this kind of thing in Washington -- that Mr. Woodward embellishes or makes up these quotes is absurd. In an only partially successful attempt to insulate him from that criticism, the author donated the tapes of the interviews to Yale University with the stipulation that they be sealed for 40 years.

More to the point, what some detractors don't seem to understand is that Bob Woodward is a big star, the biggest, by far, in print journalism today. When he calls a guy such as Bill Casey or Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, that's not considered a nuisance; it's considered an honor.

Besides, Mr. Woodward is going to be writing his book anyway, (( and they can either give their side or let someone else -- perhaps an enemy -- give it for them. Thus, it's not surprising that he interviewed everyone of consequence in the Clinton White House for hours on end.

Sometimes Mr. Woodward's technique works just fine.

In discussing how Mr. Clinton's own advisers lost patience with the president over his waffling about his own economic plan, Mr. Woodward cites a provocative illustration from a conversation in the Oval Office between the president, Vice President Al Gore, chief of staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty III and congressional liaison chief Howard Paster.

Mr. Woodward sets up the scene by saying that as the first year progressed, Mr. Gore had developed a way to talk bluntly with the mercurial Mr. Clinton, sometimes couching his candor with respectful prefaces such as, "I hope I'm not offending you . . ."

In the dramatic instance cited by Mr. Woodward, Mr. Clinton turns to the vice president and asks, "What can I do?"

Mr. Gore is quoted as replying: "You can get with the goddamned program!"

It is precisely the kind of quote a White House chief of staff could be trusted to remember. But this book is full of observations, the importuning of thoughts and motives to lesser characters that, at some point, simply requires a big leap of faith.

For readers who make that leap, however, "The Agenda," will prove to be some kind of summer reading. Political junkies or those who care about the Clinton White House will find that this book reads as fast as any John Grisham thriller.

Ostensibly, the tension in the story is between the president's competing impulses to bring the wildly out-of-balance federal budget under control or to spend vastly increasing sums of federal money on those in American society who need help to reach the middle class.

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