When President Bush recently greeted the White House Correspondents dinner, he jokingly complained that critics had given him a bad rap for his economic policies. "Just look at what I've done for the book industry!" he said.

He's dead on.

It is unprecedented that in a presidential election year there would be so many critical books of the incumbent president — but anti-Bush books seem destined to become best-sellers.

Richard Clarke, for instance, former head of counter-terrorism for both Clinton and Bush, wrote a hard-hitting book titled "Against All Enemies," in which he claims the Bush administration dragged its feet on fighting terrorism.

Paul O'Neill, former treasury secretary under Bush, with journalist Ron Susskind, wrote "The Price of Loyalty," which supports the Clarke interpretation.

Kevin Phillips, a print and TV commentator, and formerly a conservative pundit who has become increasingly liberal, wrote a stinging rebuke, "American Dynasty."

Craig Unger wrote "House of Bush, House of Saud," in which he makes a case for the Bush family's close ties with a prominent Arab family.

John W. Dean, former Nixon counsel, who became infamous through the Watergate scandal in the 1970s, tried in "Worse Than Watergate" to paint Bush as more derelict and corrupt than the president Dean served.

Finally, the biggie, now comfortable at the top of most best-seller lists is Bob Woodward's "Plan of Attack," which is a more moderate Bush critique that portrays a president overanxious to prosecute a war with Iraq. Woodward, of course, came to journalistic fame from the bottom of the ladder when, in 1974, he and Carl Bernstein co-authored "All the President's Men," describing the unfolding of Watergate.

Because Woodward turned out to be right about most of what he said in that first book, he has written nine nonfiction political best-sellers in which he invents conversations and quotes people without saying where he got the information. Woodward continues to dominate political literature by telling stories that are almost completely undocumented. If you want to know how close to the truth he is on Bush, you will have to wait until way after the 2004 presidential election.

The problem with Woodward is that he does numerous interviews with people who probably know the answers to the questions, but he fails to cite them in either footnotes or a bibliography. Allegedly, 75 people close to the Bush administration talked with Woodward about Bush's behavior toward both terrorism and Iraq — but their names don't show up. The result is an imposing book written in Woodward's authoritative prose that we, as readers, are expected to take on faith.

The day after an interview on CBS's "60 Minutes," during which Woodward quoted and named several of his subjects, many of them categorically denied what Woodward said — most notably, Colin Powell, secretary of state, who denied that he disagreed with the president on the Iraq War.

So what do we do? Who do we believe? Do we wait until history demonstrates that Woodward was right, as he was in his analysis of Watergate? Or do we just say no to political books that include no citations of sources?

Ironically, George Bush endorses the book. Why? Bush likes it, because even though it makes the administration look mostly bad, it shows Bush to be a firm leader willing to make tough decisions, thus running counter to the late-night TV comedians who say the vice president is really running the country.

This leaves the public uncomfortably sitting on the fence.

No matter how many times Woodward has eventually been proved right, we shouldn't allow him to be the national political gatekeeper. He should have to explain who said and did what, where, when and why.

That's what historians have to do.


E-mail: dennis@desnews.com