Woodward's lens: pasta or meatballs?

July 04, 1999|By Lars-Erik Nelson | By Lars-Erik Nelson,Special to the Sun

"Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate," by Bob Woodward. Simon & Schuster. 592 pages. $27.50.

You may already know the story of the endless Whitewater investigation, but you probably do not know which government official, in private conversation, called someone else a bleeping bleep. You may remember the Iran-Contra investigation, but you may not know that at one meeting to discuss his plight, President George Bush wore a striped shirt with a white collar and banged on his desk with a plastic mallet.

Along comes Bob Woodward to fill in these missing details as though hanging tinsel on a Christmas tree. We already know the shape of the story, we have seen the lights and the candy canes, but here is some extra sparkle.

The theme of Woodward's book is how five presidents -- Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Bill Clinton -- have dealt with scandal in the years after Watergate, which made Woodward's fame and fortune. But in telling these stories, Woodward showers us with close-up detail and misses a bigger picture: How easy it is, after Watergate, to gin up a scandal out of nothing at all and force innocent people to lose fame and fortune in trying to prove their innocence to the Woodwards of the world.

Woodward reminds us of the false charges of cocaine use leveled against Jimmy Carter's chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, and the trivial banking scandal that caused his budget director, Bert Lance, to quit. He mentions the Tailhook Scandal, as a result of which George Bush threw a perfectly innocent Navy secretary, Lawrence Garrett, over the side as human sacrifice. He cites Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh's attempted prosecution of former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who courageously opposed the Iran-Contra scandal, for failure to disclose his notes.

Plus, we have had the blind alleys of Vince Foster's suicide, the firings in the White House Travel Office, the FBI files that turned up in the White House, the Clintons' Whitewater transactions, former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy's Super Bowl tickets and, at the moment, the question of exactly how much money former Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros paid to a former mistress. Since Watergate, the press has gone scandal crazy, and politicians are all too eager to capitalize by demanding investigations and prosecutions.

The news in Woodward's book is that he seems to have persuaded Clinton's lawyer, Bob Bennett, to talk about his client in violation of normal attorney-client confidentiality. Bennett denies it but, unless Woodward has suddenly developed the creative imagination to write fiction, Bennett must be the only source for verbatim quotations of private conversations with the president in which the president looks bad and Bennett looks good.

Woodward's reporting technique is seductive. He approaches players like Bennett and asks for the inside-the-room detail that can flesh out history. For those who cooperate, there can be great rewards.

In Woodward's retelling of the Whitewater investigation, the toughest-minded, clearest-eyed, most politically astute player on the White House team is former counsel Bernard Nussbaum -- one of Woodward's sources, who was dumped for mishandling the aftermath of the Foster suicide.

Similarly, Kenneth Starr's aggressive team of prosecutors had one sensitive, principled lawyer with a sense of proportion and fair play: Woodward's source, Brett Kavanaugh. Bennett, alas, was burned. So too was former White House counsel Jane Sherburne, now stunned to see her words in print.

With its high ratio of descriptive detail to genuine news or fresh insight, "Shadow" fits the old news magazine knock on a wordy but empty reporting file: a lot of spaghetti and too few meatballs. At times, however, it is interesting spaghetti. And, willy-nilly, there is one big meatball: We are fools for scandal.

Lars-Erik Nelson is a Washington columnist for the New York Daily News and was its Washington bureau chief and has written for the New York Review of Books. He has covered government and politics in the United States and abroad for 35 years. He covered the Watergate events for Reuters. He also has covered Washington politics since 1981 for the News and for Newsday. Before that he was for many years diplomatic correspondent for Reuters, based in Moscow, Prague and London.

Pub Date: 07/04/99

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