When Bob Woodward made one of his many trips through the White House's northwest gate early on the afternoon of April 16 to drop off a copy of "Plan of Attack" for President Bush, West Wing aides were presented with a choice.
The book, like the war in Iraq, was not the unalloyed triumph that Bush and his inner circle had thought it would be when the enterprise began. Woodward's account of decision-making leading to the war portrays Bush as decisive, unflinching and clearheaded. It also supplies ammunition for those who believe the president missed or discounted signs that his war plans were riddled with faulty assumptions, and that he prepared inadequately for the occupation.
Bush and his Cabinet are shown saying one thing publicly and doing another thing privately. Woodward said on CNN that his reporting had uncovered "a mixed bag" for Bush.
So would the White House embrace it, try to ignore it or nitpick specific facts?
Bush's aides made a decision that, for this tight-lipped White House, was as unusual as their extensive cooperation with Woodward while he was writing the book, including more than 31/2 hours of interviews with the president.
An administration official said Bush aides had learned from their failure to squelch critical books by ignoring or attacking them. So, the aides decided that not only would they not attack Woodward's book, they would promote it. They concluded that the book -- with index entries that included "Bush, George W.: absence of doubt in . . . optimism of . . . patience of . . . reluctance to go to war of . . . as strong leader" -- largely portrayed him the way they liked to portray him.
White House communications director Dan Bartlett read "Plan of Attack" over that weekend and called Woodward on Monday morning. He told the author that although White House spokespeople and Cabinet members would "clarify" two or three points of disagreement, aides would also go on television to recommend that people buy the book, and the Bush-Cheney campaign would tout it on its Web site as "recommended reading."
Some Republicans initially feared the book was bad for Bush based on a few revelations highlighted on CBS's "60 Minutes." Rush Limbaugh, writing in the Wall Street Journal, called it an "anti-Bush, antiwar screed."
But Mary Matalin, who is former counselor to Vice President Cheney and now speaks on behalf of the campaign, went on conservative radio stations to assure listeners that the book gave the administration "an opportunity to talk about the long view and the new national security necessitated by this new threat, and put it in historical context."
Within days, though, both presidential campaigns were promoting the book. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) talked at length about it on the stump, suggesting it portrayed the White House as too close to the Saudis. Kerry aides said they consider the book a goldmine that they will continue to exploit.
David Wade, a Kerry spokesman, said the White House could only be hugging "Plan of Attack" out of "extreme political chutzpah or outright delusion." He called the book "an indictment of the way the neoconservatives' ideologically rigid White House misled the American people about Iraq."
Administration officials acknowledge that their response was partly pragmatic, because they would look foolish if they had opened the Oval Office to Woodward and then admitted that some of what he found was incriminating or unflattering.
Matalin said in an interview that there may be "small imperfections in the big picture, but if you have a vehicle for people to get the big picture, that's in our interest."
Karen Hughes, Bush's former counselor, said it "debunks two major myths." She said it "drives a stake in the heart of Senator Kerry's contention that there was a, quote, rush to war," and makes it clear that Bush and those around him "accurately conveyed to the American people the facts as they were told them, as they believed they knew them."
Bush indicated he trusted Woodward after his 11th book, "Bush at War," about the response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the invasion of Afghanistan. Woodward writes that at a Christmas party in 2002, Bush congratulated him on sales, calling it "top of the charts." Bush suggested that if the author wrote another book, as Woodward put it, "there might be a story there, that it should be done."
Bartlett said Bush aides did not view cooperation as a gamble because they were "confident in the ultimate decision and the process of how that decision was made."
Other officials said they also had practical considerations. They knew Woodward was likely to get much of the information on his own and that he had a huge audience, and they did not want critics to control the early history. Woodward says the White House agreed to the presidential interviews after he submitted a 21-page chronology identifying key points he had learned.
'Tell the story'
An aide said Bush told his national security team, "Hey, guys, participate. It's important to tell the story." When Cheney balked, Bush pushed him to give an interview. When Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld resisted, Cheney leaned on him. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell felt so comfortable with Woodward that he talked to him by phone from home, according to a government official. Woodward says they talked six times, and transcripts ran as long as 32 pages.
Woodward said Friday on CNN's "Larry King Live" that someone who has talked to Bush reports he has "looked at the book, and he's happy with it, and this is a quote, 'warts and all.' "