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an eye toward the judgments of history, in the same tone of voice as the recounting of a congressman's petty tantrum, outdated political strategy sessions and otherwise stale rundowns of 1996's losers and has-beens.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."
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.