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First the Buzz : THE CHOICE,<i> By Bob Woodward (Simon & Schuster: $26, 439 pp.)</i>

Bob Woodward long ago transcended that by which he made his name.

Back then he was half of the Washington Post’s upstart reporting duo, along with Carl Bernstein, that helped unravel Watergate and bring down President Richard Nixon. Old story, but scrappy and memorable.

That was before Woodward became a reigning prince in the royal court of the Washington insider. He still strives to be scrappy, but this time his achievement has a half-life so short it can barely be called fleeting, let alone memorable.

For the past few days, Woodward’s fellow Beltway noblemen and women have been predictably atwitter over his insider account of . . . well, an account of what Bob Woodward could gather up from the political clubhouse by way of interesting behind-the-policy anecdotes, gossipy chitchat and everyday banalities. He calls it a 1996 presidential campaign book, and that the campaign really has not begun outside the sweat lodges of Pennsylvania Avenue--hey, that’s the originality of it, see?

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Nixon himself might have appreciated the audacity. Write about something before it reaches meaningful velocity, shroud it in CIA-style secrecy to get the proper tongues wagging in D.C. and then thrust it upon the public with such a feverish and choreographed PR campaign that the “buzz” beats the book to market, by which time the substance of the thing itself already has been certified, if only for an instant.

Before ordinary readers can decide that only a small part of this book is news, and that its insight is of the do-it-yourself variety, the whole event will have passed.

To quote Nixon: “Voters quickly forget what a man says.”

But, thanks to the hoopla, they will remember that Bob Woodward once again got people to talk--first to him, and then about him. And that, apparently, is enough for one of America’s most celebrated print journalists.

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“The Choice,” then, is as much a process as a book. Not that the work doesn’t have quick fascination for the politically-minded, which we will get to in a minute. But this virtue hardly warrants the sirens and flashing lights of such a publicity motorcade.

Woodward began reporting just after the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994. “Presidential campaigns are defining moments,” he writes, by way of the obvious.

Such is Woodward’s standing in the royal court of Washington that many people are willing to talk to him, if perhaps only out of fear of how they will be portrayed if they do not. Bob Dole, for instance, submitted to 12 hours of interviews. Bill Clinton did not sit for interviews, at least on the record, but the White House provided plenty of surrogates.

The next step in the process is the whisper and worry. Official Washington begins to ask, what will he come up with? That is, how will my enemies do me in?

Along the way, Woodward teases. He told journalist Robert Sam Anson before publication, “I wish I could take you upstairs and show you my files.” Anticipation swells.

As completion approaches, secrecy becomes even more important. No advance copies are circulated. The juiciest excerpts are published in the Washington Post, where Woodward is assistant managing editor. Then the first TV appearances, which set the radio talk shows yammering. The PR phenomenon already is in full pitch--White House reactions, wire service dispatches--even before the publisher ships out the first advance copies. Folks, this is runaway excitement.

And the juicy disclosure? That Hillary Clinton met with a New Age author and was encouraged to imagine conversations with two people the first lady admired--Eleanor Roosevelt and Mahatma Gandhi. And what did Hillary Clinton say in these conversations? That she respected the strength and resolve of both these famous figures and she imagined that they, like she, would say they had been through some tough times in the public spotlight. Wow.

“Voices were on Hillary’s mind. Whether the voices of Eleanor Roosevelt or Gandhi . . . or voices from her immediate family or her own past, the first lady seemed to be straining to hear them,” writes Woodward.

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Hearing voices is what crackpots do--which is not suggested in this book, except as a political calculation by anonymous and timid White House aides. But imagining conversations is also something that reflective and honorable people do when they try to hold themselves to the standards of their heroes and their families.

Oh, but what about Nancy Reagan? She went to an astrologer to arrange the president’s schedule. Surely this New Age business is the same? Frankly, to compare a reliance on astrology with imagining how you would make an accounting of yourself to your heroes stigmatizes legitimate approaches to personal growth.

To suggest otherwise brings to mind a 1972 diary entry on the subject of American culture by, who else, Woodward’s old foil, Nixon: “We often lack a sense of subtlety but that will come after a few hundred more years of civilization.”

In defense of the book, the Hillary anecdote does not read maliciously in the text, although neither is it well analyzed. But the first-peek weekend excerpt inevitably shaded public anticipation and set the tone of buzz. Editors all around the country immediately ordered up stories about Hillary Clinton talking to the dead. Joke writers worked into the night.

So what of the remainder of the book?

Stripped of overblown pretensions, Woodward actually has produced a breezy behind-the-scenes sampler of Washington political life during primary election season. Not a meat-and-potatoes inquiry of America at the crossroads, as the publisher proclaims, but a robust after-dinner cigar for purposes of parlor conversation among the politically keen.

As is his style, Woodward refuses to impose his own, or anyone’s, notions of perspective on the events he reports. So America’s hesitant policy on Bosnia is laid bare, with plenty of anguish and an eye toward the judgments of history, in the same tone of voice as the recounting of a congressman’s petty tantrum, outdated political strategy sessions and otherwise stale rundowns of 1996’s losers and has-beens. Reporters call this dumping out the notebook.

“Action is character, I believe,” writes Woodward, by way of explaining his undigested material, “and when all is said and sifted, character is what matters most.”

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Writers are entitled to their presumptions. Although it is worth reminding ourselves that some of the great leaders of the century, say, Winston Churchill or Gandhi himself, had eccentricities that would be regarded as character flaws today.

Overall, Woodward regards both Clinton and Dole more kindly than cynically. They are portrayed as cautious human politicians--sometimes feeling their way slowly and to the consternation of those around them, occasionally and quietly working together and for common purpose, surrounded by all variety of gabby underlings.

Dole equivocates about announcing his candidacy and then threatens to drop out if he finishes third in New Hampshire. Then the hard-bitten warrior breaks into sobbing sadness when defeated rival Phil Gramm quits the race.

Clinton is depicted in one passage as facing a politician’s everyday easy choice: Principle or expediency? His decision runs counter to the stereotype.

“ ‘I just can’t play the game,’ the president said. . . .” Thus Woodward recounts Clinton’s decision rejecting a peace overture from New York Times columnist William Safire, who had called the president’s wife a “congenital liar” in print.

Anyone hooked on politics is sure to appreciate passing moments like these.

As he has done before, Woodward departs from everyday journalistic practice here and there and takes readers into the thoughts and feelings of his subjects, a device that increases readability at the expense of credibility. In this case, though, events do not have the kind of historical consequence to stir much fuss over technique.

When the buzz dies down, after all, the real 1996 campaign for the presidency will just be getting underway. And this book will come to look like what it is--too much gimmick for the sake of a splash.

As Nixon once said about Washington: “It’s a piece of cake until you get to the top. You find you can’t stop playing the game the way you’ve always played it. So you are lean and mean and resourceful, and you continue to walk on the edge of the precipice because of the years you have become fascinated by how close you can walk without losing your balance.”

With this book, Woodward is still playing the game, still lean and resourceful, but here he’s too ahead of himself for a guy on top.


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