...or it would have if I'd been holding one two days before Christmas as I queued in The Warehouse in Henderson waiting for the eftpos network to come back online. It didn't and I joined dozens of shoppers in abandoning our merchanise and leaving the store empty handed.
The 90 minute meltdown in eftpos operator Paymark's network caused serious frustration among stressed shoppers which I was able to witness firsthand in Henderson's sprawling Westgate mall. Having faced gridlock in the carpark, crowded aisles inside, all chances of a quick getaway evaporated for those not carrying cash. The queues at the ATMs which were still operational were too long to consider joining. No one at The Warehouse knew how to handle manual credit card transactions so that was my attempt at last minute Christmas shopping that day finished with. I did sneak back to The Warehouse the day before Christmas to root through its incredibly large bin of cut-price books. I picked several books for $5 each including Bob Woodward's Bush at War. It's a slightly dated work now, focusing on Bush's reaction to the September 11 attacks and the actions of his and his top advisers in the following 100 days.
It's an interesting book, but I had a nagging question the whole time I was reading it: "How the hell did Woodward, as good a journo as he is, get such fly on the wall access to Bush and his inner circle?"
As it turns out, Woodward, who with Carl Bernstein broke the 1970s Watergate scandal and documented the demise of President Nixon in the book All the President's Men, has been getting it in the neck on exactly that issue lately. Everyone envies his fantastic access to the Whitehouse as access after all is the most important thing for a journalist. But Woodward is perceived to have become too cosy with the administration, not being totally rigourous in presenting his findings in the interests of maintaining that access.
Just before Christmas, Howard Fineman, Newsweek's chief political correspondent, described Woodward as a "court stenographer" for the Bush Government. After reading Bush at War, the label seems a little bit more appropriate than I originally thought.
Woodward after all was my inspiration for going into journalism, or to be more specific, the movie All the President's Men which potrays the ultimate investigative journalism story. The movie has a killer script by William Goldman.
Thirty years after the stories Woodward wrote about Watergate, his book Bush at War documents in great detail what was said by Bush, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell and the other key politicians as they planned the US invasion of Afghanistan. There are quotes from secret CIA briefings, direct informal quotes from the main players themselves drawn from the notes of observers and it's all held together by two lengthy interviews Woodward conducted with Bush during the writing of a The Washington Post series of articles about September 11.
What is intriguing is how much Woodward tells us without really telling us much about the real inside workings of the Whitehouse. There are no startling revelations, nothing that would have hurt the administration. The rift between Powell and Rumsfeld is referred to but that was widely known at the time of the book's writing anyway. There are squabbles and disagreements but nothing that undermines any of the individuals or questions their motivations. It has the feel of an "official history", a story the parameters of which have been agreed upon in return for the granting of unprecendented access to the president and his people. In light of the growing criticism of Woodward lately, you could be mistaken for thinking that he has indeed become a subtle mouthpiece for the administration.
But has he really? Most people seem frustrated that he hasn't taken a strong stance against Bush's war in Iraq. But while Woodward is a celebrity expected to have a slant like Michael Moore perhaps, he's also still an investigative reporter and has sources to maintain. Does the fact that he may have omitted potentially damaging material imply that he's in the pocket of the administration or that he just wants to maintain the incredible access he has obtained so therefore is being very careful with what he publishes? Maybe one reason is as bad as the other. The reality is that his latter books are useful records of goings-on in the Bush camp, but the rigorous analysis of the administration is no longer being carried out by Woodward. Look to others with something more to prove for that.
What Bust at War gives us is an interesting insight into what makes Bush tick, presented admittedly in a rather sympathetic way. Bush isn't an idiot, but he's driven by philosophy, instinct and religious faith that has alienated much of the world.
"His vision clearly includes an ambitious reordering of the world through preemptive and, if necessary, unilateral action to reduce suffering and bring peace," writes Woodward.
There's nothing more powerful than a man who believes what he is doing is profoundly right.
An interesting summary of Bush's challenges to date has been posted at Dissident Voice.