When Books Are Mere Products

"The art of not reading is a very important one. It consists in not taking an interest in whatever may be engaging the attention of the general public at any particular time. When some political or ecclesiastical pamphlet, or novel, or poem is making a great commotion, you should remember that he who writes for fools always finds a large public. A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short."

-- Arthur Schopenhauer, "On Books And Writing"

The other day a friend asked if I had seen the latest Bob Woodward book (Bush At War). I told him that I had no intention of hurrying out to secure my copy. Ordinarily such a dismissive reply might count as an instance of closed-mindedness, but sometime before I had seen Woodward interviewed on C-SPAN. I was disappointed but not surprised to hear him say that the Bush Administration's only motive in Iraq was to remove a madman from power. This conclusion, he said, was reached after countless hours interviewing the President and other officials in the National Security Agency.

Woodward's statement is difficult to countenance for at least these reasons:

1. Since entering office, President Bush hasn't shown the least resolve to deal with Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. No dire need to strip that regime of the bomb; no effort to force Islamabad to comply with the wishes of the major powers of the U.N. Security Council. Iraq's Hussein, some would argue, constitutes a far greater threat to the security of the U.S. than Pakistan, but is this so? Pakistan is militantly Islamic, harbors many operatives of the Al Qaeda network, and is as likely to be led by a regime far more fanatical, irrational and antipathetic to the U.S. than S. Hussein.

2. Anyone remotely acquainted with U.S. foreign policy in the last century knows that the line between the "national interest" and private commercial interests has been blurred out of existence. Despots in Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Chile, and a host of other nations enjoyed the full support of the U.S. because their one redeeming quality was a heartfelt sympathy for the needs of U.S. corporations. Why, then, is it bad form to explore the connection between current foreign policy and the ties of its architects to the oil industry, and why wouldn't a renowned investigative reporter happily dive into the subject?

3. If Iraq didn't have a drop of oil, and if its despot kept to himself and only ruined the lives of his subjects, would the existing administration give a whit about it?

In the same interview Woodward said he didn't want to write a book that was in any way "political," that he was only concerned with straightforward reporting. As if objectivity precluded aggressive lines of inquiry; as if the insipid, take-the-president-at-his-word approach were decidedly apolitical and not unmistakably conservative.

Perhaps the greatest insight into books like Woodward's isn't to be found in the insult-nobody narrative, but rather in the motivation that produces them. Here the rational-actor paradigm might serve a useful purpose:

If you're Bob Woodward, you want to keep your contacts and your access to high office. You want the President and his Chief of Staff and the Secretaries of State and Defense to trust you if not like you. Consider for one moment writing too probing a book, a book that delves into many aspects of the Empire, and you lose your contacts and sources -- your product, in other words -- and life as a muckraker is at once lonely and unrewarding.

After all, there's always next year's book, next year's dinner parties and television interviews to protect and look forward to. Far better for the careerist personally to write a book that simulates controversy and suggests deep insight than one that really is controversial and insightful.

Old Woodward credits President Bush for having spent untold hours answering questions and tidying up loose ends, unwitting apparently that the President has his own reasons for appearing candid. Is it a stretch of the seasoned imagination that President Bush's media advisers have explained the benefits to him of being friendly to big-name reporters like Woodward? Be nice to him, invite him over to the White House, bring him into your circle, and you can be sure you'll never read a noxious word about yourself in any overpublicized "expose."

Understood in these terms, a book like Bush At War is merely another product whose real value is in the marketing rather than in the prose. Keep the title pithy, make sure the photographs are alluring (those of the President must suggest a figure straining under the awesome responsibilities of the job), get the jacket's colors right (red, white and blue always a winning combination), and you've got bestseller material.

"No," said I to my friend, recalling a favorite line of an old prof at Johns Hopkins, "that genre isn't very appealing to me."