By that standard, “The Price of Politics” falls short, but Woodward surely has nobler aims. The book is a highly detailed dissection of the debt-limit negotiations and how the hope of a “grand bargain” to reform the tax code and reduce runaway entitlement spending — a shared ambition of President Obama and Speaker John Boehner — ended, as so many hopes do in Washington, in recriminations and retrenchment.
If this is not quite instant history, it is certainly recent history, and painfully fresh. For all the apparent speed with which Woodward did his work, the contours and even many of the crucial details of the story have already appeared beneath other bylines. Most notably, last spring, New York Times reporter Matt Bai dedicated nearly 10,000 words to the subject. Of course Woodward, being Woodward, digs deeper, and draws more out of the protagonists than anyone else has. A full 40 years after Woodward’s emergence, it has become commonplace to cite (or, if you are a journalist, to envy) his ability to get virtually everyone to talk about everything, but it is still a remarkable achievement. “The Price of Politics” is enlivened, in the Woodward way, by reciting the profane haiku of Rahm Emanuel’s e-mails, retracing every awkward step in the pas de deux between Obama and Boehner, and recounting the private torment of Rep. Eric Cantor (thus exposing him, improbably, as a man capable of doubt and regret, excommunicable offenses in the House Republican caucus).
The prurient reader is thusly rewarded. As the negotiations grind on, the indignities mount for the key participants. Boehner screens Obama’s calls and shuns his requests to come back to the White House for yet another meeting. Obama is left to complain — publicly — that “I’ve been left at the altar.” A Democratic Senate aide dresses the president down in the Oval Office: “It is really disheartening that you, that this White House did not have a Plan B.” When the speaker tries to corral votes for his own Plan B, several House Republicans walk out of his office; two of them tell reporters they’re on their way to the chapel to pray for their leaders. And throughout the talks, Boehner and Cantor undercut each other, their animosity so obvious that a White House staffer “felt awkward being in the same room with the two of them.” Clearly, for career politicians, there are humiliations greater than kissing babies and supporting ethanol subsidies.
In the aggregate, details like these add color (often a sickly, pallid hue) to a familiar picture and provide moments of real clarity — about the character of our leaders, the dynamics of power between the branches of government, and the mechanics, step by step, of high-stakes sausage-making. Still, much of “The Price of Politics” reads like a transcript of an interminable meeting, a literary equivalent of C-SPAN3.
“Let me do some rough math here,” Obama says in a typical passage. “If you take the health care mandatories that don’t fall on the beneficiary, with the possible exception of means testing — which Pelosi and Reid have said they will oppose — plus other mandatory, plus discretionary, you’re at $1.4 to $1.5 trillion.”