If you haven't run across it yet, for the past week Slate has been hosting a high-powered panel discussion bringing Oliver Stone together with three (and, finally, a fourth) of the best-known chroniclers of the Bush administration, to discuss his use of their work and others in his new movie W. Along with Jacob Weisberg, the former Slate editor whose book, The Bush Tragedy, provides much source material for the 41/43 father-son drama Stone portrays, they brought in Bob Woodward and Ron Suskind, who between them have written seven bestsellers on the administration, and today, on what appears to be the final day of the discussion, Hubris coauthor Michael Isikoff joined in with a specific anecdote from his book that Stone used for the movie.
There's a lot of discussion of Stone's dramatic license with the reported facts, with some pointed criticism (and Stone's defenses) of a few of the movie's more Stonian interpretive flights (which just about everyone who's seen W. has noted he has reined in considerably this time), and there's a lot of debate between the journalists about the exact timeline of when the war was decided upon. But what I like best is the shoptalk among these guys who have all been trying to write the first draft of history, without much help from the primary participants. Here's Suskind giving Woodward a backhanded compliment about his unique access:
Bob, clearly, has sat in what journalists generally consider "access heaven" in his unmatched colloquies with Bush. You have witnessed Bush jumping out of his chair to make a point, and many other moments from your interviews provide some signature scenes of this period. But, I wonder, Bob, if you think, looking back, that access to Bush has not been as valuable—hour for hour—as it has been with other presidents whom you've interviewed. I think it's fair to say that Bush and his team don't believe that truthful public disclosure and dialogue are among their central obligations. Other presidents have railed against the troublemakers in the press, but they felt, often reluctantly, that letting the American people know their mind—the good-enough reasons that drive action—was part of their job description. Frankly, I think the best book of your quartet is State of Denial—the one for which, I gather, you were not given access to Bush. But that's a rare occurrence. (The last president you wrote about who wouldn't grant an audience was Nixon, and, of course, you and Carl notched a few historic bell-ringers back then.)
And here's Isikoff arguing that all their discussion of various memos and anecdotes are somewhat beside the point in trying to figure out when the Decider decided (which he backs up with an anecdote from his own book):
We can debate endlessly what really motivated Bush in making the audacious decision to invade Iraq—the threat of WMD, the cooked-up evidence about connections between Saddam and al-Qaida, the need to be pre-emptive in the post-9/11 era, the desire to secure Mideast oil supplies. But I think the "tear it all down" line captures the essence of Bush's worldview. Why monkey around with diplomacy, U.N. inspections, and halfway measures? And the search for one key moment to pinpoint the "decision" time is probably illusory. Bush the Decider didn't actually decide in Cabinet or war-council meetings. His White House didn't thrash out option memos and debate them endlessly. He decided on what his gut told him, and his gut instincts were that he had had enough of trying to "box in" Saddam Hussein and that it was time to kick his ass and remove him through military force.
This all gives me an opportunity to point to a couple interviews I did for our Election 2008 store this fall with two of the participants above: Woodward and Suskind. They are both, like their recent books, The War Within and The Way of the World, focused mostly on events after those in Stone's movie. Woodward is concerned mostly with discussing a much later (and more successful) decision: Bush's choice to go forward with the "surge" in Iraq:
And with Suskind, we talked less about his administration reporting and more about what is the real focus of The Way of the World, the threat of nuclear proliferation and the importance of America's moral identity in controlling them:
I know not everybody (me included) prefers listening to reading, so I'll post transcripts of these separately in the next day or so as well. --Tom