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

Books: The author's intimate portraits of power players transformed journalism. Now if only people would pay attention to the substance of his new work.

July 19, 1996|BETTIJANE LEVINE | 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?

*

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?'

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