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Books Written on the War in Iraq and on President Bush Will Impact History

October 17, 2006 at 4:55 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, writing history as it happens. Jeffrey Brown has our Media Unit look.

JEFFREY BROWN: Philip Graham, the late publisher of the Washington Post, is often credited with calling newspapers “the first rough draft of history.” These days, a walk through a bookstore suggests that reporters at Mr. Graham’s paper are submitting second drafts, as well, part of a flood of new books on recent events even as those events continue to unfold.

In the last two months alone, four reporters and editors from the Post have come out with books on the Iraq war: Thomas Ricks, a veteran military writer, authored “Fiasco”; former Baghdad bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran penned “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone”; reporter and editor Karen DeYoung wrote a biography of Colin Powell called “Soldier,” which deals extensively with Iraq; and Bob Woodward unleashed his third volume on the Bush White House, “State of Denial.”

Other reporters have also been busily writing on the Bush administration, Iraq, and the war on terrorism, including: New York Times chief military correspondent Michael Gordon, who collaborated with General Bernard Trainor on “Cobra II”; Newsweek correspondent Michael Isikoff co-wrote “Hubris” with the Nation magazine’s David Corn; Ron Suskind, the former Wall Street Journal reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winner produced “The One-Percent Doctrine.”

Last week at a Rose Garden news conference, the president was asked about all these books and their judgments.

DAVID JACKSON, USA Today: Thank you, Mr. President. You spoke of the troubles in Iraq. And, as you know, we have Woodward and we have a shelf full of books about Iraq. And many of them claim that administration policies contributed to the difficulties there. So I’m wondering, is there anything you wish you would have done differently with regard to Iraq?

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: You know, speaking about books, I — somebody ought to add up the number of pages that have been written about my administration. There’s a lot of books out there — you know, a lot. I don’t know if I’ve set the record or not, but I guess it means that I’ve made some hard decisions and will continue to make hard decisions.

JEFFREY BROWN: However the president may feel, publishers are pleased that many of these books have become bestsellers.

A rapidly emerging journalism

JEFFREY BROWN: And more now on books and history from Peter Osnos, founder and editor-at-large of PublicAffairs books. He's also a former journalist and editor for the Washington Post. And two of our NewsHour historian regulars, Ellen Fitzpatrick, professor of American history at the University of New Hampshire, and Richard Norton Smith, presidential historian and scholar in residence at George Mason University.

Peter Osnos, let me start with you. What is going on? What explains this convergence of news and publishing that's brought so many books?

PETER OSNOS, Former Editor, Washington Post: Well, I can say, on behalf of the publishing industry, that we're absolutely thrilled that this old-fogey group of printed books can set the agenda for the news in the country at the moment.

I think that it's very, very, very valuable to have reporters of the skill of the ones that you mentioned out there doing the kind of hard work and putting together a really comprehensive account of what's happened since the war on terror began.

JEFFREY BROWN: You said you're thrilled. Are you surprised that it is the book that is still making waves in the age of the 24-hour news cycle and the Internet and so on?

PETER OSNOS: I am not surprised, but I suspect that other people may be. There is actually a pattern. If you go back to the beginning of modern history, of modern political history, which I guess is Watergate, you'll see that there started to be things like "All the President's Men" and "The Final Days," books written in the heat of the moment that actually captured brilliantly the detail, the texture of the times, and became really very important pieces of historic literature.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ellen, let me ask you first about what the president said, where he said, "I don't know if I set the record or not." Does anybody quantify this stuff? Do you know the answer?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK, University of New Hampshire: I don't know the answer, and I tried to find out this afternoon. I think that he may have. Partly that just reflects the enormous rapidity with which books can be produced these days. There were a lot of books written about Clinton during the Clinton administration, but I think this is something that is becoming more possible to do very, very rapidly, and so Bush may have a record here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you think it is largely the technology, the speed with which they can bring out these books, that explains why there's so many now and why people are buying them?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I think that it may explain the speed with which they're being produced, but I don't think it explains why people are buying them; that, I think, speaks to a larger issue.

And these journalists are actually doing a service in the fact that many of them have extraordinary access, and they are telling sort of history as it's unfolding. As history, I'm not sure how well it will hold up in the long run, but they are providing an important service for the public. They're crystallizing issues.

They have a kind of advocacy role, either for or against the current administration, the war, the war on terror, but they're doing an important service, I think, for the public.

'History as it's unfolding'

JEFFREY BROWN: Richard, history as it's unfolding, as Ellen said, is a key phrase here. What do you make of it? Why is it happening?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: There's nothing new about it. In the 1920s, William Allen White, the great editor from Emporia, Kansas, decided to write a biography about Calvin Coolidge, this enigmatic, sphinx-like Vermonter who had only been in the White House a few months.

He spent some time with the president on the presidential yacht. Coolidge said at one point, "What are you looking for?" And White said, "I want a peek at the man behind the mask." And Coolidge thought for a moment, and he said, "I'm not sure there is any." And I think White took him literally, with the result that for 80 years I think we've distorted our view of who the real Coolidge was.

I think the grandfather of this trend, and maybe the forerunner of Bob Woodward, is Teddy White. Theodore White, the great Time journalist in the 1950s, 1960s, who really invented the genre, by taking the process by which we elect a president and infusing it with great narrative drama.

And it was really Teddy White who introduced the legend of John F. Kennedy, first in "The Making of the President" in 1960 and then, very appropriately, following the president's assassination, it was Teddy White to whom a young widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, talked about Camelot. Teddy White took that and made it an indelible part of our history.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you get up to our time and you have so many of these books being written, especially by reporters, do you see a blurring of the line between journalism and history?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Oh, I think there is. I think that's been going on, though, for a long time, too. Emmet Hughes worked at Time magazine under Henry Luce. He wrote speeches for Dwight Eisenhower. And then he wrote a book called "Ordeal of Power," which really froze for a long time the view of Eisenhower as a kind of well-meaning duffer.

Then it was another journalist, Murray Kempton, in 1967, who wrote an essay called "The Underestimation of Dwight Eisenhower." Twenty years go by, and the academics have access to the papers. But the point is, yes, there is a total blurring between journalism, punditry and history.

Blurred lines between history,news?

JEFFREY BROWN: Total blurring?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Total blurring, with the fact that Tony Snow was a journalist at FOX. He's now become the press secretary at the White House. Does anyone doubt that he will write a book about that experience?

George Stephanopoulos became a celebrity because of a documentary called "The War Room" before his boss was elected president. He later wrote a book that wasn't terribly well-received at the Clinton White House. It doesn't seem to have harmed his journalistic career at ABC.

So there is this total blurring of lines between history, journalism. I'm not sure it's all a bad thing, but I think it's a genie that can't be put back in the bottle.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Peter Osnos, do you see a total blurring? And if so, is that a good or bad thing?

PETER OSNOS: No, actually, I think you're confusing several things. What you have going on now, particularly these books on the war in Iraq, is superb investigative journalism by reporters for the leading newspapers in the country which happens to be in book form.

These people are not working for the administration, and they're not Teddy White, who was in many ways a servant of the administrations in power. These are hard-nosed reporters.

I also think that particularly important now is the fact that everybody felt that journalism didn't really fulfill its natural mission in the build-up to the war. And what's wonderful about what's happening now is that journalism is certainly telling people what went wrong and why, right now, in this really very credible form of properly issued books.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you see this second draft, as we were calling it earlier, as a way of redressing what perhaps they didn't get all completely right in the first draft?

PETER OSNOS: Well, journalists, like everyone else who try to find things out, are at the mercy of information and their sources. It turns out that everybody was wrong. And journalists can only report what they can find out. What's amazing now is how much they're finding out.

You take somebody like Tom Ricks' "Fiasco." He didn't start out to be a critic of the administration. But what he found are colonels and majors and all kinds of people who served in Iraq in various capacities who told him why this has turned into a fiasco. That's a real contribution to history.

No 'final draft' in history

JEFFREY BROWN: Ellen, why don't you come in on this blurring question and especially about -- I'm thinking of, with a Teddy White, the question is to what extent do these books that are written today influence the legacy, the history as we will know it in years to come, when historians are writing their books?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Well, I don't agree that there's a total blurring. And I do agree that there needs to be a distinction made between campaign biographies, books by members of the administration, things that are produced in medias res, and then other books that at least aspire to telling history in the moment of a sitting administration.

I do think that they're influential in the long run in a couple of ways. One, they often -- and particularly in this day and age, where so much verbal communication is important, e-mail, phone calls -- the interviews that they are doing, the hard-nosed work, as it was said, of investigative journalism is yielding important findings that historians in the future, scholarly historians, academic historians will make use of.

Secondly, historians that are trying to understand our own time will look at these books, and they will evaluate the way in which the society itself responded to these events.

Consider a book like David Halberstam's "The Making of a Quagmire." It came out in 1965. It talked about the early stages of the Vietnam War. It was based on Halberstam's reporting in Vietnam. When he wrote it, I think there were 56,000 American soldiers in Vietnam. A year later, there were four times that many. It didn't stop the war in Vietnam. But in retrospect, as people look back on the historiography of the war, many people point to that book as something that was prescient in its understanding of the difficulties.

Or these books can have political consequences. Francis Fitzgerald's "Fire in the Lake," which came out in 1972 and really suggested that the United States had failed to look at the whole historical experience of the Vietnamese, galvanized the antiwar movement. So these books are important.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. OK, let me come back to Richard.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: First of all, the blurring is nothing new. Raymond Moley was the Columbia professor who wrote most of FDR's first Inaugural Address, then had a falling out with the president, became a conservative columnist for Newsweek, and in 1939 wrote a book called "After Seven Years," which remains 65 years later probably the most cogent critique of the New Deal. So there's nothing new about this.

The other thing that I would point out is that, as important as these books are, I think we all hopefully can agree that none of them represent the final word. Bob Woodward, who personifies this trend and in many ways is the best of this trend, has been very public in saying he's changed his mind, for example, about Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon.

Richard Reeves, very distinguished journalist who has written several books on recent presidents, wrote a book during the Ford presidency called "A Ford, Not a Lincoln." And he has subsequently said much of the same thing.

So, as long as these people are willing to revisit their certitude down the road, then I think it's a very healthy process.

JEFFREY BROWN: And historians get yet another crack at it.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Absolutely. There is no such thing as a final draft.

JEFFREY BROWN: No final draft.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: No final draft.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Richard Norton Smith, Peter Osnos, Ellen Fitzpatrick, thank you all very much.

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Thank you.