Bob Woodward's Burden: The Hype of a Hungry Media

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The nation's most famous print journalist is peeved. It just happened again.

Yet another TV type has "ambushed" him, talking intelligently about his new book before the show but then--once the cameras begin to roll--focusing only on the hype of Hillary Clinton's conversations with the dead.

If there had been time, the interviewer might also have asked Bob Woodward about Newt Gingrich's colorful way with words: "You have a chicken sh-- operation here, Mr. President."

And about Elizabeth Dole's quaint habit of making formal office appointments with her husband to discuss family matters.

Those are the most-discussed nuggets from Woodward's newest book, "The Choice" (Simon & Schuster)--433 exhaustively researched pages of insider information on how the two presumed presidential candidates are preparing for the campaign.

But aside from political junkies and serious students of government, few seem to care about the serious side of Woodward's meticulous mosaic of minutiae.

What the world wants now is sex and scandal, commodities in short supply in Woodward's work but rampant in other efforts flooding the market in this political season.

Woodward, the Washington Post's Watergate wunderkind, sometimes gets miffed but says he really couldn't care less.

In Los Angeles to promote his book the other day, he sat back, relaxed and evaded questions brilliantly during a genial interview at the Four Seasons hotel. Until mention was made of some unflattering reviews and criticisms he's received from colleagues in the press.

"They just don't get it," he says. "Every time I do one of these books [this is his eighth, all with Simon & Schuster], there are people who don't understand, who don't see the point, who disagree with my approach. But after time goes by--maybe months or even 20 years--they look back and say, 'Oh yes, that was right, that was insightful, that told us about something we needed to know.' "

And what we need to know now, he believes, is about "the character, values and decision-making styles" of the men who would be president.

Yes, but people seem to want less cerebral stuff--like maybe unverified rumors of orgies in the White House.

Woodward has no comment. He toiled 19 months on "The Choice." But just a few days after it came out, the press went baying after another, far less distinguished effort. "Unlimited Access" (Regnery), by former FBI agent Gary Aldrich, hit with hurricane force because it offered unsubstantiated rumors of sexual high jinks by the Clintons. It doesn't seem to matter that the rumors are apparently utterly untrue. Interest in the book remains so high that the publisher has quadrupled the first printing of 30,000. (Not that notoriety equals sales: "The Choice" is No. 1 in Washington and No. 4 in New York and Los Angeles.)

And this week the media feeding frenzy returned to "Primary Colors" with the Post's revelation that the author was in fact Joe Klein, the Newsweek columnist and CBS commentator who had steadfastly denied that he wrote it.

What's a serious journalist to do?

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It is Bob Woodward's burden that the profession of journalism--which he personally helped transform into investigative art with big box-office appeal--has jumped up and bitten him in his archives.

The hours spent taping interviews with the candidates' families, political consultants, associates and aides--all painstakingly transcribed, diagramed, chronologized and cataloged--have resulted in 60-second news briefs and titillating headlines about issues he doesn't think really matter.

The man who, with Carl Bernstein, cracked open Watergate and toppled Richard Nixon, who legitimized the use of unidentified sources, and who transformed journalism from grubby to glamorous (when Robert Redford played him in "All the President's Men") must now live within a media madness he helped to create.

In his Watergate stories for the Post, and the two books that followed ("All the President's Men" in 1974 and "The Final Days" in 1976) Woodward and Bernstein served up astonishing images of a tragic president who paced the White House talking to portraits on the walls, who asked Henry Kissinger to kneel with him on the Oval Office carpet and pray.

It was the first time such shockingly intimate details about a highly placed public figure were revealed in respectable newspapers.

Woodward and Bernstein's stories were responsible and accurate. But with the investigative frenzy they inspired, the tabloidization of America had begun. And now Woodward is accused, in some circles, of not keeping up with it.

"Absurd," he says. "I'm at my maximum level of comfort" with criticism of this new book.

"Every time I do something in-depth there is the same reaction from people who just don't get it. The last book I did, on the Clinton White House, certain people said 'What is this thing, and how boring is this?'

"When I wrote on the Supreme Court ["The Brethren," 1979], the lawyers were in a rage. They said 'How dare you write about the court! How would you know about such things?' "

Of course his primary, unidentified source for the book was Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, whom Woodward met at an A-list party and convinced to talk with him. After five hours of drinking juleps on Stewart's porch, Woodward has said, the entire outline for the book was in his head.

And John Belushi? Woodward says his book, "Wired (1984)" about the performer's drug-attributed death, was the "first to disclose intense drug use in Hollywood."

Did other members of the press want to know about it?

"Absolutely not," he says. He tried to tell colleagues "there's a plague out there," but they either did not believe him or did not think it important.

Woodward also penetrated the mysteries of the CIA ("The Veil," 1987), and the Gulf War era Pentagon ("The Commanders," 1991).

Between books, he lives the paradoxical life of journalist-celebrity, granting interviews to glossy magazines who gush about the apricot glaze on the walls of his 1868 Georgetown mansion. He works on his books at home, but maintains his position as assistant managing editor of the Post, which has the right to publish excerpts from his books.

To launch "The Choice," the Post devoted the top half of a recent Sunday front page to an excerpt and a news story taken from it--highlighting Bob Dole's assertion that he wants to pick a vice presidential candidate who's 'a 10.'

Ombudsman Geneva Overholser sided with readers who griped that the paper was in error to give the Dole story such a splash.

Is that really front-page news in Woodward's eyes?

"I would that argue it is. David Broder and I [did] a series on Dan Quayle in 1992. And something that seared itself into my brain was the casual, solitary way that George Bush had picked Quayle.

"Bush had no process, no review committee, he did not sit down and interview him and say 'I'm thinking of picking you. What are your expectations, these are mine.' Bush had a very haphazard approach. It was wacky, insufficient. So in doing this book, I wanted to talk to Dole about, if he wins the nomination, what would be the process whereby he would select a vice presidential candidate. We talked at length. . . . I really pushed it with him, and with other candidates in the book.

"Now I maintain that if somebody had been doing the same thing in 1988, had asked George Bush to go on record, to define his process and his standards, then he would have been precluded from picking Dan Quayle."

Is the government so haphazard that it takes Bob Woodward--or any reporter--to assure we get a good vice president?

"That's our job," he says sitting back with a satisfied smile. "That's our job."

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