Bob Woodward’s Evolving Portrait of President Bush

Kevin Drum cites a NYT review of Bob Woodward’s latest which begins thusly:

In Bob Woodward’s highly anticipated new book, “State of Denial,” President Bush emerges as a passive, impatient, sophomoric and intellectually incurious leader, presiding over a grossly dysfunctional war cabinet and given to an almost religious certainty that makes him disinclined to rethink or re-evaluate decisions he has made about the war. It’s a portrait that stands in stark contrast to the laudatory one Mr. Woodward drew in “Bush at War,” his 2002 book, which depicted the president — in terms that the White House press office itself has purveyed — as a judicious, resolute leader, blessed with the “vision thing” his father was accused of lacking and firmly in control of the ship of state.

Drum is pleased, observing,

This is what happens when a court turns on its king: the court stenographer dutifully turns right along with them and then tells the whole world about it. That’s why I’ve never held Bob Woodward’s role against him. We need to have at least one court stenographer around so the rest of us know what the court is thinking, and Woodward is as good a choice as anyone.

Steven Taylor adds, “The fact that Woodward’s first two books were considered basically positive vis-a-vis the administration will give this one more credibility.”


It seems to me, though, that what we have is an author who has published three books on the Bush presidency in four years whose evolving view of said presidency happens to coincide with the popular view of the moment. In 2002, Bush was wildly popular, riding high on his post-9/11 leadership wave and Woodward gave the public what it wanted. Now, with Bush’s poll numbers at Nixonian levels, suddenly Woodward sees him as inept. Strange that.

Especially so since, one presumes, people do not get less competent while in office. Whatever George W. Bush’s intellectual and character shortcomings, they had to be evident in 2001. After all, he was new to the job and, really, new to politics. And he was dealing with arguably the biggest domestic crisis in forty years. Even if his stubborness and lack of curiosity prevented him from growing in office, it’s rather hard to believe that he got less competent with time.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Cernig says:

    new to politics Yeah, it wasn’t like he’d been Governor of Texas or had family in political careers or had a VP and SecDef with decades of experience or anything.

    it’s rather hard to believe that he got less competent with time. I think many experienced the same change in opinions as folks like Andrew Sullivan, Greg Djerejian or the wonks at the Cato Institute. It wasn’t that Bush grew more incompetent it was that it took time to overcome sheer disbelief at the depths of his unwillingness to admit or learn from mistakes.

    Being conservative didn’t used to mean never saying sorry for mistakes, but it is a Bush administration value and a neocon one. It isn’t “strong”, it stems from an elitist sense of entitlement – that they alone have been annointed as the ones who know best for the American people and the world. Once that became obvious many conservatives, and many Americans, decided it wasn’t a value they shared.

    Regards, C

  2. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Who does Bob Woodward work for? The Washington Post. That is enough said to explain the new hit piece from this author. There are at least 5 outright lies in his book, according to those who know the truth. It becomes a matter of who one believes. Those who’s deeds are falsely portrayed in Woodward’s book, or the believer of rumors who wrote them down? Andy Card already denied what was written by Woodward. Notice how close this is to the November election. I wonder why.

  3. The notion that Woodward would be effected by the views of the moment is interesting one, and perhaps one that has some merit.

    However, it may also be that that which was perceived of strengths a few years back (e.g., his “resoluteness”) were actually a weakness.

    Indeed, that which I once thought of an evidence of vision looks more like me to be simple-mindedness on the part of the President ans several of his key advisers.

    While I take your point about marketing and giving the people what they want, it may still be that there is a reason that Bush’s popularity has plummeted, and it has an awful lot to do with Bush himself.

  4. G.A. Phillips says:

    The only mistakes I see is that he is to nice to Liberals and and our enemy’s(oops oxymoron)dude like we are in world war four and we getting mighty close to an all out civil one.

  5. Michael says:

    one presumes, people do not get less competent while in office.

    Quite the contrary, I would assume that the longer someone remains in a position, the less likely they are to entertain other people’s ideas about how to do their job. So a question to you James: Are you more or less willing to accept someone’s advice about how you should write a blog now than you were when you first started blogging?

  6. Tano says:

    “what we have is an author … whose evolving view of said presidency happens to coincide with the popular view of the moment”

    Correlation and causation.
    Why do you imply that Woodward’s view is somehow driven by the popular view? Seems far more likely that the popular view, and Woodward’s view have both been evolving in the same direction as we have all witnessed Bush in action.

    Presidents are always given a benefit of the doubt, first in a big way (the honeymoon), then they settle into general acceptance, even if not enthusiastic. One needs to actually perform poorly in a sustained manner to elicit strong negative reactions.

    Bush also had a second, and much bigger honeymoon granted him by virtue of the fact that he was there in office when we were attacked. And his first response (Afghanistan before Tora Bora) was fine.

    If you look at his poll numbers, you see that from inauguration to 9/10, he was drifiting downward. 9/11 reset the baseline to an absurdly high level, and it has been all downhill since then (with a few transitory upticks with Saddam’s capture, the massive PR onslaught of the reelect campaign etc).

    So the story of the Bush presidency has basically been a constant erosion of support due to his continually mediocre performance, except for the first few months against the Taliban.

  7. Matt says:


    Woodward is a registered Republican who presumably voted for Bush in both 2000 and 2004. His first two books were glowing hagiographic portrayals of Bush’s strengths as commander in chief.

    Had Woodward been out to get Bush, wouldn’t he have timed his supposed “hit piece” for the far more important 2004 election?

    Zelsdorf is a killer name, though.

  8. cian says:

    I love Zelsdorf’s ‘according to those who know the truth’ statement. And who would they be exactly?

    Those who assured us there were WMDs all over Iraq? That Iraq was re-constituting its Nuclear arsenal? That Saddam was linked to 9/11? That we would be greeted as liberators? That the invasion would be a slam dunk? That the insurgency is in its last throes? That there are enough troops? That America doesn’t torture? That there are no CIA black sites?

    Those truth tellers?

    Zelsdorf needs to open his eyes, take his fingers out of his ears and stop repeating over and over that he is in his happy place, his happy place, his…..

  9. Even if his stubborness and lack of curiosity prevented him from growing in office, it’s rather hard to believe that he got less competent with time.

    Or perhaps, like millions of others, Woodward is now willing to concede that he overlooked the weaknesses of a man he was wont to support in the days and years following 9/11.

    I’d say that’s more likely. I certainly know it’s been that way with me. We still have a guy that stands behind the podium and basically continues to repeat that “Presidenting is hard…” and, while others praise him for his “Stay the course” attitude, others see that as an unwillingness to consider other options when the current ones clearly are not working. And to the extent that they are, not very well.

    Bush is one of those people who is absolutely unwilling to admit that he could have done something wrong. And everytime he is criticized, even by those in a position to know for sure, the Bush supporters come out in force to look for the hidden agenda.

    Well, maybe the “hidden agenda” is that they actually want this country to win, or to at least maintain any shred of credibility it has left in the world.

  10. Anderson says:

    The overwhelming problem with “Woodward now sees the errors of before” is that, presumably, Woodward isn’t a drooling imbecile, and the shoddiness of the Bush administration was quite evident to those who were paying attention.

    JJ is probably right that Woodward’s “opinions” follow the polls. He may not’ve always been a hack, but it’s hard to describe him more charitably today.

  11. legion says:

    I’ve gotten the distinct impression over the years that Woodward’s main goal in life has been not to lose the high-level access he so dearly loves. And even though my own opinions of Bush might be reinforced by this latest book, I’m not even going to read it. I understand Steven Taylor’s belief about credibility, but for me it’s exactly the opposite – his earlier writing in praise of Bush just reinforce my opinion that Woodward is only sensing a shift in the winds & wants to gain the trust of the people he thinks will be in power soon – if not after this fall, then certainly after the 08 elections.

  12. I haven’t read Mr. Woodward’s latest book, but which comatose former high administration official did he quote this time?

  13. Christopher says:

    I agree with u James, but I have to take exception with the new to politics remark. Gov of tx twic elected? Dad VP and prez? cmon the guy was bred for it. And good that he was too.