Bob Woodward’s eavesdropping style of reporting — lots of taut behind-the-scenes dialogue drawn from anonymous sources — works pretty well when his subject is full of cats clamoring to be let out of the bag, like Watergate (All the President’s Men, The Final Days) or, more recently, the Gulf War (The Commanders). But what emerges from his seventh book, The Agenda, is a platoon of Keystone Kops disguised as Clinton administration officials, exchanging custard pies and clinging to a careening economic program that collides with everything in sight, especially Congress.
Clinton and his staff were up against steep odds when they came to Washington determined to get a crowd-pleasing performance out of the economy. Since the economy has three basic phases — troubled, slow, and uncertain — it doesn’t really lend itself to melodrama. It does lend itself to inaccurate forecasts, inscrutable statistics, and dull arguments, all generously supplied in this book. And since Clinton’s advisers were divided into three or four feuding factions, plus Hillary, and Clinton’s mind was similarly divided, plus Hillary, the program was incoherent even before it got dented while squeaking through the House and Senate. Who remembers much about it now, after Bosnia, Whitewater, and North Korea? With those more momentous questions to delve into, who needs a numbingly detailed book about it?
Of course, The Agenda can also be read as a study of public officials in private disarray — egos unleashed, tactical maneuvers, tantrums, swift kicks delivered and received. In other words, it can be read as a sample of Washington dinner-party chatter. It still doesn’t add up to much, though President Clinton himself — engagingly speculative and enigmatically irresolute — is complex and puzzling, as every Hamlet should be. His supporting cast of advisers is mostly annoying. The book consists of anticlimaxes leading inexorably to new anticlimaxes. The pattern, which is established as bold populist rhetoric, gives way to obsessive worrying about the delicate nerves of Wall Street bond traders. ”We’re Eisenhower Republicans here…fighting the Reagan Republicans. We stand for lower deficits and free trade and the bond market,” Clinton remarks at one point — ”his voice dripping with sarcasm,” as Woodward, his prose dripping with cliches, puts it. There’s a moral here somewhere, but it’s not in the book, which doesn’t occupy the middle ground between journalism and history that Woodward stakes out in his introduction. The writing of history requires some reflection, not just reconstructed conversations and harangues, and it also requires picking the right horse. This one was lame. D