Here's a fun party trick: Get some coffee with a friend. Then, after you've left the coffee shop, try to write down word for word what was said, with inflections, gestures, and expressions. Try doing it after two weeks or even two years. Even better, reconstruct a conversation you didn't even hear!
The business of reconstructing conversations is a tricky one. Interestingly, the excerpts I cited yesterday are rife with rebuilt experiences. Much has been made of the author's direct access to the administration, including interviews and various documentation. It's the way they're used in the excerpts I've read thus far (I confess I have not read the book) that makes me uncomfortable.
Of course, who am I to be criticizing this project? Woodward was venerated when I was in school and continues to be venerated by many journalists today. I do think it's a fascinating story and I have no doubt he can back up what he says. However, I don't understand his narrative approach, which makes me ask a lot of questions I was taught to ask in school and continue to ask authors today.
The site provides this guidance on how things were put together:
Many of the direct quotations of dialogue, dates, times and other details of this history come from documents, including personal notes, calendars, chronologies, official and unofficial records, phone transcripts and memos. Where thoughts, judgments or feelings are attributed to participants, they were obtained from the person directly, a colleague with firsthand knowledge or the written record.
Even given that, I just can't see how he's put some of this stuff together. Reconstructing conversations and events is very difficult unless you have tape recordings or complete transcripts. Memos, notes, and calendars probably aren't going to provide a full picture. (Unless everybody in the White House is tape recording everything or taking painstaking notes of every encounter for posterity, in which case it's hard to see how they have much time for doing any actual governing, not to mention reading those briefing books.)
Lots will be written about what the book says, but allow me to dwell for a moment on how it says it.
Everyone paraphrases, usually when the original quote can't be reconstructed or is fragmented or unintelligible, or just for brevity's sake. Here and there the author paraphrases, but the not particularly graceful execution has bizarre results. These snippets from a dinner at Dick Cheney's house sound like they come from surfer dudes.
The war has been awesome, Adelman said.
Cheney said he was confident after Sept. 11 that it would come out okay.
Moreover, how do we know what was said, even in this goofy way? Was he recording his own party? (Can you chew that olive away from the mic, please?)
The choice of quotes and paraphrases in a conversation makes almost no sense and the result reads very strangely. Here's an example:
The president gave his approval but pressed Rumsfeld again. When is my last decision point?
The paraphrase slips oddly into the first person. The response, a direct quote, isn't much better:
"When your people, Mr. President, look people in the eye and tell them you're going."
This sentence sounds impressive, but what does it mean? We never find out.
The process of synthesizing all the material may have led the author to make some shortcuts or assumptions that are never really attributed. Perception is reality in this case:
Powell appeared to harbor a deep-seated anger even though he was getting his way this time.
Who thought Powell harbored anger? One person? Several? The entire room? It makes a difference. Or was the author making this judgement himself--and unless he was there, how did he make it?
The inconsistencies are hard to understand and make for bumpy reading here:
"You understand the consequences," Powell said in a half question. ...
How do we know he said this specific quote in a private meeting with the president? And who remembers his inflection? If the source is Powell himself, it should be specified that this is his recollection. It's told here as if to sound like an actual eyewitness account. So here's the response:
Yeah, I do, the president answered.
Who paraphrases with "yeah"? Most narratives would use paraphrase more gracefully, or use "yes," unless it's a direct quote. The overall effect is the impression of verite, without actual attribution or qualification.
So....how do we know what really happened? I wish the author had been more specific about whose impressions were whose, and whose accounts are being reported. The picture is very blurry and highly subjective, and I feel no wiser than I was before. Given what's at stake, I want to know who said what, or when.Posted at April 21, 2004 06:47 PM