Rashomon at the White House

We all know history is written by the victors. It’s also worth remembering that it’s written by a lot of other unreliable witnesses besides. By participants, loyalists, traitors, friends, enemies, people with various kinds of axe to grind, people who were paying only selective attention (and who ever pays anything else?). Which is not to say that it’s all a fairy tale, that no history is more accurate than any other so there’s no need to be careful with the evidence or the conclusions we draw from it. It’s only to point out how tricky it all is. This story in the Guardian is a good example. Tony Blair and the people around him are quite sure they have influenced George Bush to enlist the U.N. in the conflict with Iraq. They talk of a crucial meeting between Bush and Blair at Camp David in September last year. But then the Guardian story points out that other people don’t seem to see it quite that way. Bob Woodward seldom mentions Blair in his book Bush at War. There, it is at a dinner with Colin Powell in August that Bush becomes persuaded of the merits of the UN. Perhaps Woodward has it right and the Blair people are deluding themselves. But then again…

But the fact that Mr Powell plays such a heroic, single-handed role may have something to do with the fact that Mr Woodward depended greatly on the secretary’s version of events for his book. Mr Blair was not interviewed.

Ah. Woodward doesn’t have a god’s-eye view either, does he. The account he gives does depend on which people he talks to. Naturally. And we’re all the heroes of our own stories, aren’t we. No doubt if Woodward talked to Powell’s cook and Blair’s driver, they would play a more central role than anyone suspects. A conversation in the car, mind-altering spices in the paella. It all adds up.

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