Bob Woodward's new book is less an expose than an inkblot test. It's remarkable how people can see the same words on the same pages - and come away with entirely different pictures.
In an election year, it's to be expected that members of the opposition party would thumb eagerly through a book like "Plan of Attack," looking for stones to throw at the incumbent president.
More troubling is that so many media figures also are viewing the book through a partisan prism - headlining whatever casts the president in an unfavorable light, conspicuously ignoring those chapters that challenge the conventional critique of Bush and his policies.
An example? For months, the president's critics have accused him of exaggerating or even distorting the CIA's intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, the charge has been made repeatedly that the president "misled" the public - even that he "lied" and "betrayed" America.
The big news in Woodward's book is that Bush was deeply skeptical about the CIA's conclusions regarding Iraqi WMD - even after he was presented with a "Top Secret" document starkly warning: "Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons."
What changed the president's mind? Woodward vividly describes a meeting in the Oval Office in which George Tenet, the director of central intelligence, responded to Bush's doubts by rising up from his seat and throwing his arms in the air. "It's a slam-dunk case!" he said.
Even that didn't quite persuade Bush. He pressed further, asking Tenet: "George, how confident are you?" At which point, the nation's top spy - a nonideological nonpartisan who held the same job in the Clinton administration - "threw his arms up again. 'Don't worry, it's a slam dunk!' he repeated."
Imagine if - instead of heeding this warning - Bush had ignored it, put on his sweat suit and gone for a jog around the White House. Imagine if a terrorist attack, utilizing WMD supplied by Saddam Hussein, had followed. Bush would have faced impeachment - and deservedly so.
But the president didn't do that. Instead - according to Woodward's reporting - he instructed his CIA chief to assemble the evidence on WMD, adding cautiously: "Make sure no one stretches to make our case."
The Woodward book also reveals that early in this administration, Vice President Dick Cheney recognized that, "Democracy in the Middle East is just a big deal for (President Bush). It's what's driving him." That's news to me. Isn't that news to you? But have you heard anyone in the media talk about it?
One more surprise: It's not a secret that President Bill Clinton in 1998 signed the Iraq Liberation Act, making regime change in Baghdad the official policy of the U.S. government. What was not widely known before Woodward's book was that in 2002 the CIA reluctantly concluded that neither diplomacy nor clandestine action could get the job done. Instead, the CIA's top Iraq specialist told Bush that he regarded "military action as the only feasible way of removing Hussein." In other words, Bush had no choice other than war or abandoning America's bipartisan policy on Iraq.
"Plan of Attack" also shows Bush listening - sometimes for hours - to Secretary of State Colin Powell as he made reasoned arguments about how difficult it would be to help Iraqis transform their injured nation into a free and democratic society.
On some occasions, Bush did take Powell's advice. Over Cheney's "strenuous objections," he followed Powell's strong recommendation to go to the United Nations "to seek new weapons inspection resolutions." On other occasions, he took Cheney's counsel instead. Is that not what a president is supposed to do - listen to various advisers and then make up his own mind? Inside the Beltway, the answer to that question would be "no." In this town, every president is supposed to take your advice - if he doesn't, what a fool he must be, as you are bound to reveal in a blockbuster book and maybe a movie, perhaps starring Harrison Ford in the role of you.
In the real America, people have different expectations, which might explain why the storms whipped up by Washington best sellers so seldom unsettle the broader political landscape. Americans expect debate and even disagreement within their government. They expect their president to make the tough, final decisions.
One last word: Those media moguls who have chosen to highlight only parts of Woodward's book they hope will damage Bush might want to recall the old joke about the man whose psychiatrist shows him a series of inkblots.
"Listen, Doc," he says, "I have serious problems to discuss with you. I have no time to look at a bunch of dirty pictures."