Bob Woodward’s new book Fear: Trump in the White House, is filled with extended accounts of behind-the-scenes conversations between major players in the Trump campaign and administration. There’s no need to give examples; almost every page has dialogue that is presented, in quotation marks, with the implicit assurance that the author knows precisely what was said.
Of course, Woodward did not hear every word uttered by every character in the book. So any reader would ask: How does he know exactly what they said? Woodward anticipated such questions in a note to readers, explaining that, “When I have attributed exact quotations, thoughts or conclusions to the participants, that information comes from the person, a colleague with direct knowledge, or from meeting notes, personal diaries, files and government or personal documents.”
Woodward’s note raises an obvious question. If Participant A, for example — whether it was Kellyanne Conway, or Steve Bannon, or Gary Cohn, or someone else — told Woodward what he or she said in a particular conversation that occurred months earlier, how could Woodward be confident that they recalled just what was said? So even if Woodward accurately recounted what Participant A said she said, how could he, or anyone else, be certain that that is what was actually said? Shouldn’t Woodward have written that this is what Participant A recalled about a conversation, rather than this is the conversation?
The answer, of course, is that it is not possible for Woodward to know precisely what was said, quotation marks or not. But even as controversy swirls around Fear, it’s important to note that questions about Woodward’s quotes are nothing new. Fear is not the first time these questions have arisen in connection with a Woodward book. In fact, many of Woodward’s books have raised precisely the same questions, leading to similar, and similarly unsatisfying, answers. Here is a look back at a few of the how-does-he-know questions that have surrounded Woodward efforts in the past.
In 1999, Woodward published Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate. The book included in-quotation-marks recountings of conversations that took place in the Clinton administration. Critics wondered how Woodward knew what was said. On July 6, 1999, Washington Post columnist and former ombudsman Geneva Overholser, in a column headlined “Rules Not Made to be Broken,” wrote:
This causes confusion, and not just for readers wondering who told Woodward what and why. Both McCurry and Sherburne said recently that the conversations Woodward reconstructed between them and the First Lady are inaccurate. “The dialogue that Woodward describes or has in my mouth and hers…does not resemble what I recall of the conversation,” said Sherburn.
McCurry said, “If I left Bob Woodward with that impression that I was giving him direct, verbatim quotes, then we must have had a serious misunderstanding, but I would not have quoted her. That’s not the way I remember that moment.”
“Woodward stood by his account,” Overholser added. “He told The Post that McCurry had not objected when Woodward read him the passages before publication. And he called Sherburne’s account ‘false.'”
In the Washington Monthly on Oct. 1, 1999, critic Art Levine addressed the same issue with Shadow:
Woodward’s liberal use of quotes raises questions about craft and technique that may be of interest only to fellow journalists. Still, most of us feel queasy about using direct quotes if we’re not confident that those words were said exactly as we write it. My guess is that Woodward is simply more willing to run with the gist of what he’s told, dressed up as exact quotes remembered with curiously total recall by his sources and supplemented by their meeting notes. He is clearly pushing the envelope of recreated dialogue further than previous New Journalists did. Personally, I can’t remember exactly what I said at lunch last week, let alone in meetings a year ago. The more troubling issue raised by all these hard-charging quotes that enliven Woodward’s books, including Shadow, is their strikingly self-serving quality and Woodward’s complicity in promoting his subjects’ preening self-portraits. Typically, his subjects are also saddened and angered to discover dark truths about the president they defended…
Asked about his practice in a January 2000 appearance at the National Press Club, Woodward said, “I extensively use quotation marks in conversations that — where I was not present, but I’ve talked to people who were present. Lots of people keep diaries and notes. And if you were to go to a courtroom where somebody is under oath, and they were to relate a conversation that occurred, it would be accepted in all courts in this country, state or federal or other, that somebody can say “Yes, this is what somebody said.”
In 2004, Woodward published Plan of Attack, about George W. Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq. It was filled with quotes of conversations between top Bush administration officials. In response, the New Republic’s Gregg Easterbrook wrote this on May 3, 2004:
Extended sections of [Woodward’s] recent efforts have been fabricated in the literalist sense, with speculative conversations placed in quotation marks. What is presented may be similar to what was actually said but cannot have the verity Woodward claims (unless George W. Bush and Colin Powell taped their private conversations). Woodward and his editors have thus cheapened the quotation mark, changing its meaning from “what was said” to “whatever sounds about right”…Does Woodward crave attention so badly he can no longer write a book that conforms to the standard disciplines of nonfiction and to standard distinctions between truth and conjecture?
Around the same time, The Weekly Standard‘s Andrew Ferguson drew attention to an anecdote in Plan of Attack in which some top supporters of the Iraq War, among them Kenneth Adelman, attended a dinner organized by Vice President Dick Cheney. Of course Woodward quoted what was said at the dinner. “Though the quotes that Woodward offers us appear to be direct,” Ferguson wrote, “they are in fact direct quotes from a source, Adelman, who is quoting himself through a haze of memory and self-congratulation months after the words were uttered…”
With much criticism in the air, on April 25, 2004, Howard Kurtz, then with CNN, asked Woodward about Plan of Attack. Woodward said his quotes were accurate. From their conversation on April 25, 2004:
WOODWARD: What it is is what they said, or what’s in notes or what’s in the records. And, as you know — and I asked the president. I said, “Well, what did you say to Colin Powell when you called him in and told him it’s going to be war?” He said, “I told” — this is the president, quoting him — he told Powell, “Time to get your war uniform on.” It’s pretty vivid and clear, recollected by the president on the record. He could go into a courtroom and say it, and it would be admitted as evidence. I’m not reconstructing anything. It’s reported from the participants, witnesses and the record.
We must…take on trust extended passages in direct quotes that the author cannot have heard and for which there cannot be available recordings. Can Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Paul Bremer or Paul Wolfowitz — assuming they are the sources — really remember pages of verbatim conversation with the president? And when so many quotes are derogatory, Woodward’s sources must have some axes to grind.
Aside from citing [former CIA director William Casey], Mr. Woodward identifies few of the 250 people he talked to for this book, and none of the 100 or so with whom he held multiple interviews. Moreover, his use of quotation marks even for remarks not precisely recalled or documented is not reassuring.
So the questions about Fear: Trump in the White House are nothing new. They were not fully answered when they arose in connection with previous Woodward books. And there is no reason to believe they will be fully answered now.