Brief Encounters

Short reviews of books: Woodward and Bernstein, the U.S. record on torture, and media populism

Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate
By Alicia C. Shepard
John Wiley & Sons
288 pages, $24.95

In my files I have a folder of clippings, brown and soft as an old shoeshine cloth. The one on top led The Washington Post’s October 10, 1972, edition: FBI FINDS NIXON AIDES SABOTAGED DEMOCRATS. The double byline reads, of course: “By Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.” That story was the one, according to Alicia Shepard, that proved that the Watergate break-in was not an isolated event, but one of many “illegal and corrupt schemes” run by the Nixon administration. That was thirty-five years ago, but Shepard offers a fresh account of the Watergate enterprise at the Post, deftly sorting fact from legend, giving credit where credit is belatedly due. She also deals well with the difficulties of describing the team’s separate careers after the mid-1970s, when they split after writing two best-seller Watergate books and seeing themselves portrayed in film by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. She somehow avoids making it all sound like good Bob, bad Carl. She leaves in plenty of blemishes for both—the trail of professional grudges and broken marriages—and gives equal respect to their separate efforts to find the best uses for the second acts of their lives.

Administration of Torture: A Documentary Record from Washington to Abu Ghraib and Beyond
By Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh
Columbia University Press
439 pages, $29.95

Although the title of this collection is not explicitly defined, in the past “administration of torture” has referred, not to bureaucratic arrangements, but to actual infliction of pain. And the United States, this black-bound volume makes clear, has inflicted a great deal of pain on its captives abroad, despite presidential denials and the government’s at least rote adherence to the web of international agreements prohibiting torture. On behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, staff attorneys Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh provide a compendium of truly incriminating documents, released in response to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and four allied organizations against the Department of Defense. The catalog—another testament to the quiet power of the Freedom of Information Act—starts with the notorious January 2002 memorandum to President Bush from White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, seeking to excuse the United States from the Geneva Conventions in handling prisoners taken in the “war on terror.” It then runs through 369 pages of reproduced documents—policy memorandums, depositions, transcripts of testimony, even autopsies. Most names and many details are blacked out, but what remains is incriminating, showing that interrogators at Guantánamo, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan inflicted severe damage on prisoners that sometimes even led to their deaths—that, in short, they inflicted torture, if the term has any meaning at all. An extended introduction by Jaffer and Singh provides a guide to the documents, of which hundreds more are available on the ACLU Web site at One searches almost in vain for a glimmer in the darkness of this maze of quasi-sanctioned abuse and misconduct. A single exchange stands out. Following an e-mail message distributed on August 14, 2003, asserting that “The gloves are coming off…we want these individuals broken,” a lone, anonymous soul responded: “We need to take a deep breath and remember who we are….We are American soldiers, heirs of a long tradition of staying on the high ground. We need to stay there.” Words, apparently, hardly anybody wanted to hear.

Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism

By Umberto Eco; translated by Alastair McEwen


369 pages, $27

Besides being a novelist (e.g., The Name of the Rose), Umberto Eco is a professor of semiotics of international standing, and a prolific and accessible commentator on topics political and otherwise. The title refers to what he sees as a regression toward old-fashioned wars and hatreds, though he treats these matters briefly. The collection centers on pieces written during Italy’s age of Berlusconi, when the same man ran both the government and the major media. (Imagine a Rupert Murdoch in the White House.) Eco meditates on the fate of government under what he calls “media populism,” leadership claiming direct contact with the people through the media (television), and able to slip the fetters of constitution and press. All this commentary is entertaining, but its discursiveness has a quicksilver effect: What was that he just said? His final short offering, “On the Disadvantages and Advantages of Death,” written as he entered his seventies, contemplates the possible disadvantages of trying to extend life past a hundred years—boredom, repetitiveness, a world crowded with people of the same super-longevity. He decides to just let nature take its course. 

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James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.