Woodward Elaborates on Bush's 'State of Denial'
Journalist Bob Woodward's new book, State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III, is a follow-up to his previous books on the Bush administration. In the new book, Woodward says that the Bush administration has avoided telling the truth about the Iraq war to the public, to Congress, and to itself. Woodward is an assistant managing editor of The Washington Post and has been a newspaper reporter and editor for 35 years.
Other segments from the episode on October 4, 2006
DATE October 4, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Bob Woodward on his new book "State of Denial," about
the Bush administration's handling of the war in Iraq, and on how
and why this book was more personal than his last two on Bush
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
You've probably heard by now about Bob Woodward's new book "State of Denial,"
his third book about the Bush administration at war. This one, as the title
implies, is about conflicts within the administration about what to do in Iraq
and about intelligence reports that have been kept secret from the public that
tell a much more grim and pessimistic story than what the president has told
us. Woodward concludes his book by saying, "With all Bush's upbeat talk and
optimism, he had not told the American public the truth about what Iraq had
become." Woodward interviewed President Bush four times between 2001 and 2003.
The president declined to be interviewed for the new book. Nearly all of the
information in the new book, Woodward says, comes from interviews with the
president's national security team, their deputies and other senior and key
players in the administration responsible for the military, the diplomacy, and
the intelligence on the Iraq war.
I spoke with Woodward about "State of Denial" and the process of writing it.
You write in the 2004 presidential campaign the real evidence of just how
badly things were going in Iraq, the data entrants on the violence, the number
and the effectiveness of the enemy-initiated attacks. All of this was kept
classified, hidden away from the voting public. Are you saying that you think
the information was kept classified for campaign reasons as opposed to
national security reasons?
Mr. BOB WOODWARD: That's a profound question. I can't--I mean, it's part
political and it's part, you know, if we advertise that we're getting--that
there's this level of violence it may encourage the insurgency more and so
forth. But I was, quite frankly, surprised to see the level of violence and
that they did keep it classified.
And that doesn't mean, you know, there were lots of reports, probably some of
the best ones in my own newspaper, the Washington Post, about the level of
violence, but they were always focused--or almost always focused--on specific
attacks. But it turned out there was an attack every hour in Iraq. I mean,
think of that: an attack every hour. That's 24-30 a day. It got to the
point this year that there were attacks every 15 minutes. We haven't had one
terrorist attack in this country that's been carried off in the last five
years. To think of something where it's happening every 15 minutes or even
one a day, let alone one an hour.
And this was never made clear and never stated. And it's one of the theme
lines in the book. And that's why, in part, the book is called "State of
Denial," because they are denying this reality on the ground.
GROSS: Well, you know, even in your first book about the Bush administration,
you write about how, you know, President Bush doesn't really like doubt. And
also, in the first book...
Mr. WOODWARD: Yes, I'm glad you picked up on that. Because people think,
`Oh, the first book I did on Bush has got all of this praise and'--it does
have some of that, and it shows very forceful action. But there are scenes in
which he--Condi Rice comes to him, this is after 9/11, and they have started
the war in Afghanistan, and says, `Well, maybe we should consider alternative
strategies.' And he totally rejects it, meets with his war council and does
not open the door again. He goes around the table and says, `Look, all of you
guys signed up for this; let's be patient.'
GROSS: OK, he has an aversion to doubt. And in the first book, you also say
that the president would not stand public discord.
Mr. WOODWARD: Yes.
GROSS: And I assume you mean discord within the administration.
Mr. WOODWARD: Yeah.
Mr. WOODWARD: He didn't like hand-wringing, does not--I mean, he told me for
that book because I asked about it. He said, `The president has to be the
calcium in the backbone.' And said quite frankly. I went down and spent hours
with him at his ranch in Crawford in the summer, in August of 2002. And he
said if he, as president, starts expressing doubt, it will just have a ripple
effect in the whole national security team, so he has to remain firm. That's
one of his beliefs.
Now, in the first phase of the Afghanistan war, I think you can look back on
it and say he was right, because that was just a period of weeks or months
after the war began. But we are now three and a half years into this war,
where most of the news, unfortunately, is bad.
GROSS: Well, you know, reading your book and seeing how members of the Bush
administration publicly misrepresented the classified reports that they were
getting about how badly things were going in Iraq, I kept wondering, has
President Bush believed the misrepresentations, or has he not fully understood
the discord between the intelligence reports and some of the public statements
that he and other members of his administration have made about Iraq?
Mr. WOODWARD: That's exactly the right question. And that's exactly why I
asked to interview President Bush. And he declined, his advisers declined.
And so I do not know the answer to that. I suspect--I don't want to ascribe
motives, but I have lots of questions of his senior advisers and other Cabinet
members along these lines and I have to direct with you, I think that's why he
didn't want to talk, because didn't want to answer questions on this. Because
the discrepancy, not just one or two times, it's dozens of times over three
and a half years.
GROSS: Now one of the controversies about your approach, now, to writing
about the Bush administration, is that you're gathering all this information
for books and you withhold the information until the book is published. And
so the question has been raised, `Is this the way to deal with inside
information about intelligence and the Bush administration and the war in
Iraq?' Would the American public be better if every time you had a revelation
you published it in a daily newspaper such as The Washington Post, which
you've written for for years, instead of waiting months or years to publish it
in a book? So what do you say to that?
Mr. WOODWARD: The problem is, you can't just--it's not as if there's one
revelation. And what you want to do is--this is an interagency government.
If you find out something about the Pentagon, you want to see what the CIA
angle is on it. What's the White House, NSC staff angle on it. So you go
back to people and you develop sources and you try to present a full picture.
And I think the full picture is the most important thing.
GROSS: You know what I'm wondering, like...
Mr. WOODWARD: I...
GROSS: ...like with Watergate.
Mr. WOODWARD: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: You didn't wait. With Watergate, it was like every time there was new
information, it was published. Now of course you didn't have a track record
as an author yet, it was early in your career, but you found a way with
Watergate to publish information as you got it.
Mr. WOODWARD: Yes, that's right, and I had a colleague working with me, Carl
Bernstein, who was probably one of the best reporters in America. I was very
young, had no family, and I think as the book we wrote on this demonstrates,
you work full time, day and night, weekends. You have to be a creature of the
night. I'm 63 years old and have a family and I try to work hard, but to get
in that mode, which quite frankly I did after 9/11, I have discussed this with
the editors at the Post, with Don Graham, who's the CEO of the Post company,
and if I found something that was so critical that, you know, I would publish
in the newspaper. I think all of this is critical, but it all fits together.
GROSS: You write that when you interviewed Rumsfeld, you submitted 29 sample
questions in advance. And I guess I was surprised to read that you were
submitting advance questions.
Mr. WOODWARD: Why?
GROSS: Do you usually do that? Well...
Mr. WOODWARD: Why would you be surprised?
GROSS: ...why because--I think the assumption is if you submit questions in
advance, particularly to people in the political world, that they will come up
with more expert ways of spinning the answer or evading the question.
Mr. WOODWARD: Well, it turned out that I had so much information--I mean,
Rumsfeld gets to say what he wants to say, but you want some--these are busy
people, you want them to know what you want to focus in on and ask. Quite
frankly, you want them to prepare. In no way do you say, `These are the only
questions I'm going to ask.' And there's no limit on the questions or the
issues or how you're going to conduct the interview. But quite frankly, in
the case of Rumsfeld, I submitted those questions and, you're right, there
were 29 of them, and Rumsfeld looked at that--now remember, he's given no
interviews for books or for anything at length about post-war Iraq. He saw
those questions and, I believe, and aides told me, he realized I had all kinds
of information, classified, inside, what he had done, what he had said. And
it is those questions, I think, that caused him to say, `Well, A, this guy is
serious, this guy has lots of information. I'm going to sit down and
respond.' In this case, it worked.
And there is an abundance of information I got. The whole business of the
"mission accomplished" speech that the president gave on the aircraft carrier,
the Abraham Lincoln, May 1st, 2003, Rumsfeld disclosed and said just openly,
when he see the president's speech it had "mission accomplished" in it. And
he said, `I almost died. I got it out of the speech but not--didn't get the
sign down.' Now the White House has always taken the position that the
"mission accomplished" sign was put up by the Navy and the military and they
were not responsible. Here's Rumsfeld saying it was in the speech. Clearly,
the White House had some--had total responsibility for the speech, so so many
things are learned in this process, I think the value of submitting questions
in advance, it works.
GROSS: My guest is Bob Woodward. His new book about the Bush administration
is called "State of Denial." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
GROSS: My guest is Bob Woodward. His new book "State of Denial" is his third
and most critical book about President Bush at war.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but my impression is there's a little more first
person in here than in your previous books.
Mr. WOODWARD: Yes.
GROSS: You basically express your astonishment at one point that it takes
President Bush about five minutes in an earlier interview you did with him to
admit that we haven't found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. You express
astonishment at an analogy that Donald Rumsfeld uses in an interview,
comparing problems in Iraq with the mixed fruit in a fruit bowl.
Mr. WOODWARD: Not just the problems, but the attacks that are killing and
wounding our soldiers.
Mr. WOODWARD: He says it's like a fruit bowl: apples, oranges, bananas.
GROSS: Why is there more of you? Why do you allow yourself to express
astonishment at what your sources within the administration are telling you in
a way that you didn't allow yourself to do that in previous books?
Mr. WOODWARD: That's a really good question. And I served in the military,
in the Navy in the '60s in Vietnam. And I did not like the Vietnam War. I
didn't know what to do about it, but I was stuck on a ship or ordered around
because people at the higher levels had decided on a certain policy which I
did not understand, that in fact was not explained to me. In fact, at the
time, I felt was wrong and opposed.
Quite frankly, I identify with the 147,000 American troops we have stuck in
Iraq. I'll be honest with you: I think about them regularly and I put myself
in their shoes. And I know what they're thinking. We've reported
magnificently on this in The Washington Post, frankly, by going out and
interviewing sergeants and privates and officers who say, `We don't quite know
why we're here.' One actually said in one story we published on the front page
that, `We're here waiting to be blown up.'
And so I know what it's like to have--I remember when I served in the Navy I
was extended for a year, fifth year. And at the time, I said to people, this
is like a one-year Gulf of Tonkin resolution on another year of my life. And
those people are stuck, they're the ones who bear the burden of this, and I
feel very strongly--I'm sorry, I guess I can't bleach out my own emotions on
this--that we need to explain why we're there. We need to know why we're
there. We need to be truthful about what's going on. And when the secretary
of defense, as he did in that interview with me, compares the things that are
killing people to bananas, apples, and oranges, I'm speechless, as I report in
When the secretary of defense denies that he's a military commander--I quoted
McNamara, the former secretary of defense, saying--as he does in that
wonderful documentary "The Fog of War"--`If any military commander is honest
with you, he will tell you that he's made mistakes that have cost lives.' And
I quoted this to Rumsfeld, and Rumsfeld said, `Well, yes, military
commanders,' and said he's not. Now here's the number two person, right after
the president. And I said, 'No, you are by law.' And I literally said, `The
president and secretary of defense to the combatant commander.' And he said,
'Well, maybe by indirection or two or three steps removed.' I mean, how--he is
a military commander. He can't take himself out of the chain of command. But
he did! He said it. And I express astonishment at that.
I guess that is not the voice of a reporter, that is the voice of, quite
frankly, a young lieutenant in the Navy stuck in Vietnam.
GROSS: I want to go back to another story that you're involved with, and that
is the leak of the fact that ambassador Joe Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame
Wilson, was a CIA agent. It turns out...
Mr. WOODWARD: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: It turns out you were the first reporter to hear that she was a CIA
agent and you...
Mr. WOODWARD: No, actually, I was told that she was a WMD analyst. Big
GROSS: Oh, OK. OK.
Mr. WOODWARD: Yes.
Mr. WOODWARD: Significant difference. That's why I didn't unders--one of
the reasons why I didn't think it was a big deal.
GROSS: When you were told, you didn't think it was a big deal?
Mr. WOODWARD: Yeah. That's right.
GROSS: OK. And you heard it from Richard Armitage?
Mr. WOODWARD: He has said that, that's correct.
GROSS: Well, knowing what you know and having been involved in the way, you
know, in the tangential way that you were, do you think that there is still
the possibility that members of the Bush administration leaked the information
that she was a CIA agent, you know, an undercover CIA agent, to discredit her?
Mr. WOODWARD: I don't know, I mean, it's pretty clear...
GROSS: Or, I should say, to discredit her husband, is what I mean to say.
Mr. WOODWARD: That's the right way to phrase it. I don't know. The
prosecutor has told Armitage and other people like Karl Rove that he's not
going to charge them. Scooter Libby has been indicted for perjury. My--I
think, and it may have been on your show, where I said that this investigation
is laughable, or is going to come to laughable results. I think that was
definitely the wrong choice of words. Any investigation like that is serious.
Though I was not involved in the story or the case. I have not been called.
I should've thought ahead to the 10th bounce and realized it was possible I
would and shouldn't've said anything about it.
But I knew something about it and I was trying to give people a clue, `Hey, I
don't think this is going anywhere.' And as we now know, other than the
indictment of Libby, it hasn't gone anywhere.
GROSS: One final question. Throughout the book, you reprint haiku that was
written by Colonel Steve Rotcloth. And I just want to read a couple of them.
Mr. WOODWARD: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: One of them is:
where is WMD?
what a kick if he has none
sorry about that
GROSS: And another one:
mental bone tired
hard to stay, not want it
can't rest, men will die
GROSS: These are really kind of interesting haiku and I wonder why you
decided to print them through different parts of the story in the book.
Mr. WOODWARD: Well, my assistant, Bill Murphy, did the interviews on this,
and the colonel was the deputy intelligence chief tasked with finding WMD.
And it's a real-time expression, and I guess this goes back to the emotions of
the people on the ground. And I think I included it because it is
contemporaneous reaction by somebody in a very senior and sensitive position
expressing his emotions about doubt and about the difficulty and about the
bone tiredness of war.
GROSS: Bob Woodward, thanks so much for talking with us.
Mr. WOODWARD: Thank you.
GROSS: Bob Woodward's new book is called "State of Denial." I'm Terry Gross
and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, we talk politics and the media with Mark Halperin, the
political director of ABC News; and John Harris, the national political editor
of the Washington Post. They've collaborated on the new book "The Way to Win:
Taking the White House in 2008."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Mark Halperin and John Harris discuss their new book
"The Way to Win," about the differences in Clinton and Rove
politics, and the influence of the new media on the old media
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The rules of politics are changing and so is the way that the media cover
politics. Both sets of changes are examined in the new book "The Way to Win:
Taking the White House in 2008." My guests are the authors, Mark Halperin and
John Harris. Halperin is the political director of ABC News and the creator
of The Note, a daily political update on abcnews.com. Harris is the national
political editor of the Washington Post. He also wrote a bestselling
biography of Bill Clinton called "The Survivor."
Mark Halperin, John Harris, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now you write in your book
that Bill Clinton and Karl Rove know how to win elections better than anyone
of their generation. You describe Clinton as practicing the politics of the
center and Rove the politics of the base. How would you define the difference
between the two?
Mr. JOHN HARRIS: Neither strategist ignores the other tactic, or the other
broad strategic model. Bill Clinton, though, governed and ran as someone who
said, `I want to be a popular president who bridges the two parties, who
fuzzes up the differences between the two parties,' and who believed that the
country is not fundamentally divided, but that there's a broad middle, broad
agreement on a range of issues.
George Bush, as a candidate in 2000, sort of followed that model. But after
getting elected and throughout his presidency and in his re-election, worked
with Karl Rove to pursue a much different model. They are fundamentally
conservative. They think the country's institutions, including the federal
government, is not as conservative as they'd like it to be and as it should be
to reflect the country overall, and they've worked to change the country.
They don't care about how popular George Bush is. They don't care about
winning 65 percent of the vote. They want to win just enough of the vote in
order to keep a majority and try to change the country in a conservative
We call it Bush politics and Clinton politics. And in talking to Karl Rove
and talking to Bill Clinton for the book, they didn't disagree. They
concurred with the notion that those were two separate ways of looking at
things, and two different models that have real practical implications for not
only elections, but for governing.
Mr. MARK HALPERIN: Bill Clinton thought the way that he could succeed in a
divided country was to try to transcend the political divisions and unite
people. Sometimes that meant blurring his policy position. He realized that
there was no way for him to survive in office or to win re-election in 1996
unless he could elevate his own personal approval ratings.
George W. Bush has a totally different model that's inspired by Karl Rove,
the chief strategist, which is: he prospers by clarifying the differences and
using them as a wedge. So you got one brand of politics that's unifying, the
other which is clarifying or to put it slightly more pejoratively, is
GROSS: Do you think that the Democratic and the Republican Parties are
following in those molds?
Mr. HARRIS: Well, I think it's sort of up for grabs now, particularly as you
look at these midterm elections and also 2008. You know, the subtitle of our
book, "Taking the White House in 2008," every candidate who runs, whether
they're a Democrat or a Republican, has to consider do they want to run on
Bush politics or Clinton politics, or Clinton-Rove politics.
It's easier to do that as a Republican for several reasons. Asymmetry, to use
an NPR word, between the two parties. Republicans are better at targeting
their messages through consumer marketing research, through the so-called new
media, talk radio, the Internet. They're also better at delivering a simple
message and riling up base supporters. They also have that advantage of the
country having more conservatives than liberals.
But every candidate's got to think about how to do it. Probably there's no
figure among Democrats that's more loathed than Karl Rove. He is the devil
incarnate for people on the Democratic side. But if you want to understand
his influence, look at what he's done to transform not just Republican
politics but Democratic politics. Ned Lamont in Connecticut beat a sitting
senator, Joe Lieberman, by using classic Rove techniques. That is, he
motivated the ideological base, he got to maximum turnout, he used technology
in creative ways to find voters that otherwise, under more conventional
politics, simply didn't exist previously.
You've got Karl Rove making his influence felt in the Democratic Party.
That's why we think he's such an important strategist and worthy of study,
which we do in this book.
GROSS: Now in your book "The Way to Win," you coin the term "freakshow
politics." What does that mean, John?
Mr. HARRIS: The freakshow is a term that Mark and I came up with as we were
trying to understand why American politics had become such a gaudy,
destructive, bloody exercise. And the freakshow is, for one thing, it's the
stage upon which the 2008 presidential campaign will be waged. It's a brand
of politics in which the aim of the exercise is not to defeat your opponent in
an argument, it is to destroy that person as a viable figure, as to make them
unacceptable. It's a brand of politics which is all about attack and all
about appealing to an extreme rather than finding some kind of consensus in
Mr. HALPERIN: It's where extreme voices have more influence than what we
used to consider moderate voices, where politicians succeed by pandering to
their base and where Laura Ingram and Michael Moore have a lot of
influence--not just in their own realm, but on what The New York Times and
Washington Post and ABC News do.
GROSS: Who's a good example of being a casualty of the freakshow?
Mr. HALPERIN: Well, I think the greatest casualty of the freakshow is facts
and civilized debate. It's very hard, with the old media news
organizations--again, like the Washington Post, ABC News, and the
organizations that used to dominate, we are already under pressure:.
declining budgets, no economic model for the future because of challenges from
the Internet and other things, young people not as interested in our product.
All of that have left old media organizations vulnerable. And the freakshow
forces us down to the lowest common denominator. It shouldn't be. We should
do everything we can to resist it. But we are part of the problem, we are
amongst the casualties, as are anyone involved in politics.
So many people who want to run for president, one of the first things and
biggest things they consider is, `Can I withstand the scrutiny and the attacks
that are going to come?' We've always had attacks in American history, without
question. But if you look at the era, starting with Bill Clinton's presidency
up through George Bush, the pervasive of 24-hour media, the power of these
voices, they used to be on the fringe and now at the center, is unprecedented
in American history.
Mr. HARRIS: You know, one person who was a casualty of freakshow politics is
John Kerry. There's somebody who completely lost control of his public image
and his public reputation by virtue of these attacks. The Swift boat, that
turn episode is the most famous of these, but even before that, conservative
operatives used this new media reality that Mark was just describing and
exploited it to completely hijack John Kerry's public reputation--I think even
more than that, his sense of myself.
We talked at some length with Bill Clinton about this phenomenon--he gave us a
lengthy interview at his home in Chappaqua about how politics has changed and
about how he tried to adapt and what he did to be successful. And he said
something interesting. He said, `Really, all great contests are head games
and that's true of politics.' What he meant is, psychologically, the
psychology of competition in this new environment is the biggest challenge.
To his mind, Al Gore completely lost his self-confidence because of the
attacks that were made on him in 2000.
And the same thing happened to John Kerry where, for a critical period in
summer of 2004, he was paralyzed and he didn't respond to the Swift boat
accusations, in part because he was so stunned that they were happening. What
he thought was his strength, his war record, his personal machismo, his
patriotism, was precisely the place where he was attacked and essentially
decimated during that period.
GROSS: My guests are John Harris and Mark Halperin, authors of the new book
"The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008." We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guests are Mark Halperin and John Harris, authors of the new book
"The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008." Halperin is the political
director of ABC News and the creator of The Note, a political news digest on
the ABC News Web site. Harris is the national political editor of the
Washington Post and wrote a biography of Bill Clinton called "The Survivor."
Now you describe the new media as favoring conservatives. And so when you're
talking about new media, you're talking about talk shows, blogs, other
Mr. HALPERIN: Talking about Sean Hannity; Rush Limbaugh; direct mail; Matt
Drudge, who we write about, from the Drudge Report, we write about quite a bit
in the book and make clear that he has been an incredible conduit for
Republicans in the last two presidential campaigns and, of course, during the
Republicans are angry at the old media. They simply don't believe they get a
fair break for them. We try to illustrate in the book why they think that, we
make the argument, despite the fact that we work in the old media, that we see
their point in a lot of cases, that they really do feel, somewhat rightly,
that they don't get a fair shake. And their aggressiveness in developing
these new technologies has not only been so they can get their own voices out,
but they've learned to use the new media to infect, in a sense, the old media,
how we cover things. The Swift boat story was largely being ignored by the
old media until it got so big in the new media, on cable TV, on the Internet,
that that became a story in and of itself, allowing--forcing our coverage, in
some ways--liberals would say guiding our coverage improperly, but forcing our
coverage to cover something that I think in the old days would've been
Mr. HARRIS: The point is not that the old media was perfect. We believe it
had some basic flaws. The problem is, the new media that's grown up in
response to that is much worse. There's no fundamental standards of basic
ethics. The whole definition of "news" in the new media environment has
changed. There's no such thing as neutral facts, Terry; everything is either
a weapon or a shield in this great ideological war. And that benefits
conservatives, without question, and liberals, I think, are just coming to
terms with it. They didn't in the last presidential election. If they're to
have a chance in 2008, they better figure it out and figure out what to do
GROSS: And you describe the new media as really feeding the whole, like,
freakshow politics style because, you know, in the kind of new media that
you're describing, it's all about opinion and insinuation and allegation.
Fact-checking is not important, as it would be at ABC or the Washington Post,
where you each work. So you can get all kinds of information out there to
undercut your opponent without even worrying too whether it's true.
Mr. HALPERIN: Well, you don't have to worry at all about whether it's true.
You know that it will be repeated and talked about and, like I said, infect
the old media as well. This is a brand of politics that has no referee. You
know, people debate all the time the role of the media. The problem now is,
most news organizations aren't strong enough to referee and we have such a
decreasing audience size and in looking over the horizon, even lower audience
size, that we worry about how to stay viable.
And what seems to be attractive to news consumers who are either on the left
or on the right is this kind of opinion journalism, advocacy journalism, that
really isn't, by almost any real definition or true definition, journalism.
It's simply, as John said, either a weapon or a shield in this ideological
conflict. And as we've said before, that favors conservatives because the old
system was very much stacked against them.
Mr. HARRIS: I would put it slightly differently than Mark. I think the old
media was perhaps mildly biased in the liberal direction, but that bias was
attenuated by some basic professional habits and standards. The new media, I
think, is virulently biased in favor of conservatives against liberals, and it
has none of those sort of professional checks.
GROSS: Can you each give an example from your experiences at the Washington
Post, John, and ABC, Mark, about how you think the new media has affected the
stories that you've covered, or how you've covered those stories?
Mr. HARRIS: Well, look, my job is, I'm the political editor of the Post.
Our campaign staff works for me, our White House staff works for me. I can
say in truth that there will be things that will appear on a place like the
Drudge Report where Matt Drudge will be influencing our agenda--not
necessarily on the next day's front page, but I'm going to see something, and
quite often it's something that's been distributed by Republican operatives
because they use Matt Drudge and go to him frequently. They know he's a
favorable outlet. And that, at least, forces us to consider whether we wish
to devote reporting about that. I might wander over to a reporter's desk and
say, `What about this? Is this true?' So in that sense, he is influencing our
And they've obviously been episodes. The most famous is back in the Clinton
years during the Lewinsky scandal. But there's many, many more since then,
including up to the current day, where he has effectively driven the old
Mr. HALPERIN: I think the coverage of Al Gore vs. the coverage of George
Bush in 2000, although I do think that the press is generally biased--the old
press is generally biased in favor of Democrats. I think George Bush got much
softer coverage than Al Gore, in part because the old media was driven by the
new media to cover the exaggerations and the misstatements that Gore made
during that campaign, much more than we would have if the new media hadn't
been flogging them relentlessly--things about, these statements he made about
whether he was the basis of the character in "Love Story," statements he made
about whether he discovered Love Canal. There were a number of statements
that got much more attention in the old media than they would have if the new
media hadn't flogged them. And I think than, in most cases, more than they
GROSS: You include a list of things in your book that you call trade secrets
to undermine the old media. So these are ways that you think conservatives
try to undermine the old media. Would you run through some of those?
Mr. HALPERIN: When George Bush and Karl Rove came into the White House, they
had pretty good relations with the press during the campaign in 2000. In
fact, better relations with their press corps than Al Gore had with his. But
when they came in, they recognized several things. One was, they recognized
that they shared the view of Richard Nixon, that the press was liberally
biased against them.
They also shared the view that the public didn't have much appreciation for
the role of the White House and the Washington press corps, and therefore they
could do things that would undermine even further the credibility of the press
corps, and no one would--there'd be no public outcry. No one would say, `Wait
a minute,' you know, `Ari Fleischer,' who was the first White House press
secretary in the Bush administration, `How dare you insult the reporters
there?' So they used the White House press corps as a foil, even the wider
Washington establishment, to appeal to the general public, knowing again, full
well, that there'd be very little resistance, credible resistance, from the
Washington press corps.
So there's a variety of things they did. One was, they went to their old
media allies--because there were conservative columnists like Fred Barnes and
Bob Novak in the old media. They talked to them. They didn't talk very much
to reporters. As you recall, President Bush had very few press conferences
early in his administration. And they also talked, of course, to the new
media. They also basically stiffed the old media whenever possible and didn't
really do what the old media would want. If the old media said, `Have press
conferences,' they wouldn't have press conferences. `Do interviews,' they
wouldn't do interviews. That was another tactic they would use.
They also would, at the daily briefings, very clearly try to embarrass
reporters to try to put reporters on the spot. And again, take advantage of
reporters' weaknesses, not only being seen as biased by some members of the
public, but also being seen, with some justification in some cases, I would
say, as being perhaps self-interested, as lazy, as an uniformed special
They also would, finally, not care what was said about them. Bad coverage in
the Washington Post and The New York Times, things that would drive Bill
Clinton crazy, wouldn't matter to George Bush and Karl Rove, because they
would know that their base, their supporters, the people they needed to get
their agenda past and to get re-elected, they didn't care about what was in
the Washington Post and The New York Times. A much different mindset than not
only Bill Clinton had, but than the previous Republican presidents after Nixon
had. And that liberated them and also served, as I said, to further weaken
the old media.
GROSS: Now you think at some point that this kind of approach to dealing with
the old media backfired. When and how do you think it backfired?
Mr. HARRIS: Well, I think, like a lot of Bush politics, this kind of press
strategy, it works while things are going well. When things start to go
badly, it falls apart. You have very little margin of error if you're
practicing Bush politics. You're relying basically just on your base,
50-percent-plus-one to get things done. And in the second term, as President
Bush's approval ratings went down, as Hurricane Katrina occurred, they brought
in a new White House press secretary, Tony Snow, the president began to meet
with reporters a little bit more frequently in private and had more press
And I think the problem is, and the reason that has not been that effective,
is because I think the reporters at some point kind of turned the corner and
said, `We don't trust this White House. We don't believe they respect our
role in a democracy.' And I think the White House, to some extent, is still
paying a price for that.
But remember, they've got their new media allies. When they have trouble, you
see Vice President Cheney sometimes going on old media platforms, but more
often going on Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity to get their message out to their
supporters. That's who they want to reach. And of course, in those venues,
you often get more friendly questions and you force the old media to pick up
that information because it's the only place it's available.
GROSS: Conservatives often accuse the press of being liberal and of asking
challenging questions because they have a liberal bias. Now very recently,
Bill Clinton was on Fox News talking to Chris Wallace. And Chris
Wallace--this was after the broadcast of the September 11th movie. And Chris
Wallace said to President Clinton, `Why is it that you didn't do more to stop
a terrorist attack?' And, you know, Bill Clinton got really angry and said,
you know, said first of all that, `You're asking me that because Fox News is
so conservative.' And then he made his case about how at least he tried,
whereas Bush didn't even try before September 11th.
Were you surprised at how Bill Clinton handled that, and how he used that as
an opportunity to accuse Chris Wallace of kind of representing Fox News as a
conservative outlet and therefore asking that critical question?
Mr. HARRIS: I wasn't surprised, because, you know, having followed Clinton
for a good long time and in fact having talked about this very subject with
him for a couple of hours for purposes of this book, both Mark and I knew very
much how he feels.
One of the big lessons for Democrats, he believes, is you have to be
aggressive in challenging conservative attempts to define you and to make you
unacceptable in the public mind. He thinks Al Gore failed because he was not
aggressive enough in doing that. John Kerry failed because he wasn't
aggressive enough in doing that.
He was doing something very purposeful in that interview. He was showing, I
think, the country, but in particular Democrats, `Look, here's how it's done.
You fight back. You respond to these allegations and you go on the attack.
You get in their face. Do not let them define you.' I think in the course of
doing that, he did genuinely lose his temper, and the public saw what people
who worked with Clinton--and even those of us who were reporters who followed
him for a long time--have seen with some regularity. He's got a temper. He
got mad. But that was a very purposeful thing he was doing in getting mad.
GROSS: My guests are John Harris and Mark Halperin, authors of the new book
"The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008." We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Mark Halperin and John
Harris. They're the authors of the new book "The Way to Win: Taking the
White House in 2008." And Halperin is the political director of ABC News.
Harris is the national political editor for the Washington Post.
Each of your news organizations has had big stories in the past few days that
could have an impact on the midterm elections. For ABC News, it was the story
of Congressman Mark Foley's e-mails to pages. And for the Washington Post,
you know, Bob Woodward, who's still affiliated with the Post, has his new
book, "State of Denial," his third book about the Bush administration, and the
Washington Post published an excerpt of that book. You know, that book and
the Mark Foley story, could it have an impact on the 2006 elections? And I'm
wondering--I'll ask each of you to talk about your news organization's story
and what impact you think it might have.
Mr. HALPERIN: Well, in the case of ABC, we thought we were just doing a
story about one Congressman from a relatively safe congressional district. I
don't think we knew--I certainly didn't know for sure the congressman would
resign, and of course the real fallout from the story that might have
potential impact for 2006 midterms is the way congressional leaders handled
it. The Republican leaders seemed to have at least some knowledge of some of
Mark Foley's actions. And that could well affect the outcome of the election.
We are very careful and very cautious, when it comes to any political story
near an election, to think through, make certain, double certain, we're doing
the right thing. But it's also unfair to hold back a story, even though it's
close to election if it's a story in the public interest. These are hard
decisions, often. In this case, it wasn't a hard thing. This was, obviously,
a very important story, and one, like I said, the political implications of
which we didn't think all the way through because we didn't know what they'd
Mr. HARRIS: When Bob Woodward's working on a book, those of us in the Post
are aware of it, but often unaware of the particular avenues that he's taking
in his reporting or what he's going to come back with. And so in the weeks
before, you hear these rumblings. And Bob, you know--and rightfully
so--doesn't give much away. But he had told us that the material in this book
is something that, he felt, going to figure prominently in the elections. And
I think, you know, since the book's been out on Sunday, he has delivered on
GROSS: What do you see when you look ahead in 2006? Are you willing to
predict whether the Democrats will regain a majority in either the House or
Mr. HALPERIN: I'm not willing to make a hard prediction. I think until the
Foley story broke that, talking to everyone, every source I've got in both
parties, it seemed people thought this thing was sort of at a tipping point,
that the Democrats could take the House and or the Senate, but that it wasn't
a sure thing by any means. I think the Republicans had had a good couple of
weeks and were feeling better about things, and I think Democrats were feeling
a little bit worried, a little bit like Charlie Brown: they tried to kick
that football one more time and fail.
The Foley story has really shaken things up, and I think we're right in the
midst of it now. It's impossible to say what will happen. There is concern
in the Republican Party that this is something they think voters will
understand, that it could hurt them with all types of voters, with female
voters and older voters and religious voters. And they're anxious to try to
end this story, but it keeps on growing. They thought by now they'd have
contained it. They have not.
And I think at this point, if you were betting, you'd certainly be pushing
more money towards the Democratic side of the table than you would just of a
few days ago.
GROSS: John, what do you think?
Mr. HARRIS: I've always felt that Bush politics, which worked effectively in
2004, was reaching the end of its rope, that the country was wearying of the
particular tactics that Karl Rove had used and was wearying of the sort of
reliance on wedge politics. I felt it was reaching its natural life. I think
the events of the past month or so have tended to bear that out. I've always
felt this was going to be likely a Democratic year. And I don't think it's
going to be overwhelming, but I think it's quite likely the Democrats will
take control of at least one chamber of Congress.
GROSS: Mark, I have one personal question for you--not very personal. It's
biographical. Your father Morton Halperin worked in the Nixon administration
in the National Security Council. He supervised the writing of "The Pentagon
Papers," which was the secret history of the US involvement in Vietnam. And
after The Pentagon Papers were leaked to The New York Times, Nixon and
Kissinger ordered the wiretapping of your father's home phone.
I don't know how old you were then, but I'm wondering how that affected the
family political environment that you grew up and how that might've affected
you in the long run, as a journalist who covers politics.
Mr. HALPERIN: Well, I was all of four and five years old during that. The
tap went on for 21 months. You know, I think there's two things. One is,
this country, particularly after September 11th, but throughout its history,
has always had debates about national--the balance between national security
and civil liberties. And the country, I think, often is more at times of war
is more prone or directed towards the national security side. But I'm pretty
sensitive to those debates and the difficulty in a democracy of balancing
I think the other thing is, as a journalist is, it's an easy thing to forget,
but history proves it again and again, is that often people at the top of
governments lie and break the law, and you have to, as a journalist, be a
patriot, and you have to be respectful. But you also have to be skeptical and
questioning of government authority at all times, because history shows that
it is often abused.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both very much for talking with us. Thank
Mr. HALPERIN: Thank you for taking time. We appreciate it.
Mr. HARRIS: Thanks, Terry.
GROSS: Mark Halperin and John Harris are the authors of the new book "The Way
to Win: Taking the White House in 2008."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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