IS THERE a more celebrated journalist, or for that matter a more reviled one, than Bob Woodward, the Pulitzer prize-winning assistant managing editor for investigations at the Washington Post? No one can deny that, for better or worse, his daily reporting with Carl Bernstein on Watergate contributed mightily to the downfall of the Nixon administration twenty years ago. The two books that came out of that episode, All the President’s Men and The Final Days, are as classic as they are controversial still.

Since then, Woodward has given us a look inside the Supreme Court (The Brethren, written with Scott Armstrong); an explosive and heavily litigated biography of a Hollywood superstar (Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi); Veil, a chronicle of “the secret wars of the CIA” during the Reagan administration, including, incredibly, a purported death-bed interview with the CIA’s William Casey; and The Commanders, a portrait reaching to the very top of the United States military establishment, published as the nation prepared to go to war in the Persian Gulf.

Along the way, there have been smaller projects for the Post, alone or in collaboration — from a revisionist assessment of Vice President Dan Quayle to a series on the Bush administration’s economic policy-making. (The latter, published in the heat of the 1992 presidential campaign, confirmed forever the American Right’s assessment of Richard Darman, Bush’s budget director, as an American Rasputin.) And now we have The Agenda,[1] Woodward’s account of policy-making in the first year of the Clinton administration — a blow-by-blow, at times minute-by-minute, account of the internal struggles within the fledgling administration.

Woodward’s reputation among his “peers,” the elite of establishment journalism, is a hard thing to assess. Some, although probably few, express unreserved admiration. Others have a cavil here or there, or worse: genuine doubts about the veracity of the William Casey interview, for example, are quite widespread, and so is skepticism concerning Woodward’s longstanding reliance on unnamed sources and interviews on “deep background.” In the end, though, no one would dispute that Woodward’s reportage has, on numerous occasions, landed with nuclear impact. That constitutes real journalistic achievement.

Besides, if his colleagues express reservations about Woodward — something they are often willing to do only when on “deep background” themselves — their reaction must in part be owing to good old-fashioned envy. For who among them has broken as much news, sold as many books, obtained as much access to power, and as often persuaded power to talk?

AS FOR conservative, nonestablishment journalists, they have taken a rather different view of Bob Woodward, as have conservatives in general. Many have held a deep grudge against him ever since the impeachment clouds began to swirl around Richard Nixon — in some cases simply out of loyalty to Nixon, in other cases out of dismay at the damage the protracted Watergate crisis did to the United States and its position in the world.

Then, too, Woodward occupies a position of preeminence in a media culture dominated by liberal and adversarial views; he is, in some ways, the apotheosis of that culture, which the Right tends to regard as implacably hostile to conservatives and conservatism. Finally, some Woodward-hating among conservative journalists is born of the conviction that Woodward is a fabricator who has utterly discredited himself and should be discredited by others.

At the same time, there are more than a few closeted conservative admirers of Woodward, willing to distinguish the messenger from the message. Of course, Woodward himself is the last person on earth one would mistake for a conservative. But it is quite apparent that he gets to talk to important people, often some of the most important people in the nation’s political life, and just as often he gets their story. It is absurd to underestimate that fact, on grounds either of ideology or of personal hostility.

Thanks to The Agenda, it is likely that Woodward will find his conservative fan club growing. For at last there is in place a Democratic administration, along with a Democratic Congress, and it turns out that Woodward’s reportage is no more forgiving and no less devastating when the subject is Democrats than when it is Republicans.

There has never been a political book quite like The Agenda. To be sure, there have been similar looks into the corridors of power, but usually we have had to wait for them until long after an administration has left town. The task of the author of such a book is to sift through innumerable press reports, vast piles of public and private documents obtained at great labor and expense, self-serving memoirs of administration officials, and transcripts of interviews with participants whose memory has faded with time and whose reason has imposed retrospective order on events that may have seemed very different as they were unfolding. By contrast, the insect Woodward has pinned to the wall for our detailed examination is still alive, and wriggling.

THE main part of this book is taken up by a single story: the new administration’s struggle to pass its five-year budget plan. This, the top item on the administration’s agenda, was a program meant to reverse the wrongs of twelve years of Republican policy, end “gridlock,” and bring fundamental change to the way Washington does business.

The most important feature of the plan was deficit reduction, to the tune of $500 billion over five years. This was an amount large enough, in the view of the President’s economic advisers, to earn the blessing of Wall Street. The bond market would reward the administration with lower interest rates, which in turn would stimulate the economy and allow the President to make good on his other main commitment, the expensive “investments” he had promised that would benefit the economy in the long run — things like education and job training, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, and expanding the government’s role in industry research and development.

From the beginning, however, the administration was internally divided over the relative priority of deficit reduction and “investment.” The clash was between the old-guard establishment of the Democratic party and the Young Turks whose message was decidedly more populist. These divisions, between Wall Street and Main Street, deepened as the consequences of the commitment to a $500-billion target played out through the budget deal’s final passage. The fights, the backbiting, the bitch-fests, the recriminations, the pep-talks, the maneuvering — all the things that accompany policy-making in any administration, and sometimes constitute the process of policy-making itself — are detailed here, page after vicious, lush, delicious page.

Scenes from an administration:

Paul Begala, White House consultant, and Alice Rivlin, deputy budget director, in a February 1, 1992 meeting in which Begala is explaining what he and other White House consultants call “the Story,” the pitch to the American people. One element of the Story is that the deficit picture is far bleaker than the Clinton team imagined during the campaign:

“We have to walk people through the journey the President has gone from November to February. We have to explain why the deficit got worse and how it got worse,” Begala said, focusing on the Story.

“That’s nonsense,” Rivlin said bluntly, her voice cold with assured professionalism. “Bill Clinton knew where this deficit was going,” she said, adding that they had to face the fact that the campaign fundamentally misrepresented the situation. There was no need to revisit that journey, she said.

Begala was steaming. To him, Rivlin symbolized all that was wrong with Clinton’s new team of Washington hands, and represented the Volvo-driving, National Public Radio-listening, wine-drinking liberalism that he felt had crippled the Democratic party for decades.

Clinton on Air Force One, after learning about a scheduling mistake that had resulted in a slight of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley:

“Who the hell could make such a dumb fucking mistake?” the President bellowed out. He raged on. . . . In the confined spaces of the plane, Clinton stormed on and on. It was truly awful, on the edge of controlled violence. “Why are we not or-ganized to do this?” Clinton screamed. [Presidential counselor David R.] Gergen, watching the outburst, was stunned. He had never quite seen an adult, let alone a President, in such a rage.

Along the same lines, Clinton at a July 3 meeting where Hillary Rodham Clinton has just dressed down a dozen or so senior advisers:

Clinton rose to his feet. He was seething, and he just started yelling. He picked up where Hillary had left off, reenforcing [sic] her points. [Presidential counselor George] Stephanopoulos almost tuned out. He had seen and experienced Clinton’s temper tantrums so many times before. Others called them “purple fits” or “earthquakes.” Stephanopoulos simply called it “the wave,” an over-powering, prolonged rage that could shock an outsider, and often was way out of proportion to what caused it. He couldn’t listen to the precise words, which really didn’t matter anyway. The words were also best unremembered.

A summer Oval Office meeting attended by Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, chief of staff Mack McLarty, and congressional liaison Howard Paster, during which Clinton (in Woodward’s telling) was “rambling on inconclusively about the endless compromises and delays on investments and health care that had left him with a Wall Street plan”:

As this particular conversation progressed, Clinton turned to Gore. “What can I do?” he asked the Vice President. “You can get with the goddamn program!” Gore answered tersely, his own exasperation boiling over. . . . Clinton paused a long time, the scene virtually stopped in freeze-frame. The President finally laughed. Mildly. “Okay,” Clinton said.

Clinton, on the eve of the final Senate vote, in a telephone conversation with Senator Robert Kerrey of Nebraska, after hearing that Kerrey, a Democrat, was planning to vote against the plan:

Clinton’s tone was visceral and personal. “If you want to bring this presidency down,” the President said, “then go ahead! I was told that this was going to be the good thing to do, and I took on the most difficult problem the nation faced and suddenly I’m regretting it. I wish I hadn’t done it. All I’m doing is catching grief for doing what everybody knows is the most difficult problem we face.”

Kerrey would ultimately change his mind and support the deal, providing the crucial 50th vote in the Senate for final passage and allowing the tie to be broken by Gore. Woodward describes the wild whoops of celebration in the Oval Office, yet the administration’s own sense of the victory it had narrowly won seems better expressed in the sentiments voiced by the President in his heated phone call with Senator Kerrey. He “was told” this was the right thing for the nation, says Clinton, who seems not only confused and uncertain about the direction he is imposing on the nation, but indifferent as well: “I took on . . . I’m regretting. . . . I wish I hadn’t. . . . All I’m doing is catching grief.”

The themes that emerge from The Agenda are troubling on more than a few levels. It was long apparent that there were serious ideological fault lines in the Clinton White House; but the depth of the division presented here is nonetheless startling. The hard-Left views of Paul Begala and others — and the apocalyptic terms in which they see their intramural dust-ups — may help explain both the evident difficulty this administration has had in making decisions and the colossal missteps some of those decisions have represented.

The personalities revealed are likewise disconcerting in the extreme: the righteous hatred Begala feels for Alice Rivlin, for example, suggests a person resolved to stamp out Rivlinism in all its forms.

And as for the President. . . .

Twenty years ago, readers were appalled to learn from Woodward’s The Final Days that Richard Nixon had once asked Henry Kissinger to kneel with him in prayer. But that book appeared a year after Nixon had gone into exile in San Clemente. Now we read about Clinton’s terrifying bouts of temper even as they occur. Suppose The Haldeman Diaries had been published a year-and-a-half into Nixon’s first term, instead of just this past season: that is how internally revealing, and how damaging, The Agenda is.

BUT if one would have expected so remarkable a piece of journalism to be celebrated, at least by other Washington journalists, one would have been mistaken. Although it was, of course, the talk of Washington in the weeks following its release, The Agenda was talked about in terms that reflect some odd preoccupations and vanities.

The culture of official Washington, effectively made up of everyone in the city who takes an interest in politics and policy, is based on knowing what is “really” going on. Daily — sometimes hourly, or by the minute — phone lines and fax machines burn with raw material that may or may not end up on tonight’s news broadcasts or in tomorrow’s paper, but is endlessly fascinating to those who possess and circulate it. Many Washing-tonians read newspapers solely to see how the news is being covered, who is spinning what tale, what parts of a story have been left untold, and so on. In addition, there are the things that are much discussed but that will never appear in the paper — from matters of high political or legal strategy to salacious gossip. To be in possession of such commodities is to be in an enviable position.

Since “knowing” is the primary virtue in Washington, one can hardly admit to not knowing something if one is supposed to be in the know. And so the main Washington reaction to Woodward was: we knew that. The statement was untrue, but it had to be made. Fortunately for Woodward’s sales, though, America does not seem to share this particular form of vanity. Long after the book had ceased to be interesting to official Washington (even though everybody in Washington was buying and reading it), it debuted as No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list. There were 700,000 copies in print.

Did The Agenda become a huge best-seller because people were desperate to learn everything they could about the 1993 budget deal? Hardly. The truth is that Americans, 57 percent of whom did not vote for Bill Clinton, are desperate to find out who he is. It has after all only been three years since Clinton was an unknown governor from a rather small state; no recent presidential candidate (with the exception of Jimmy Carter) has been so obscure. And even many Americans who thought they got a sense of Clinton during the 1992 campaign have been given cause to wonder. Whether it be campaign promises abandoned, White House scandals, or the untold policy vacillations since Clinton took office, polls consistently show that the President has a credibility problem with the American people. He is not regarded as a man of candor, and consequently people wonder about him. The Agenda is most helpful in this regard.

And there is another reason for The Agenda’s success. Here is a book that reads likes a thriller, yet it is about the actual political leaders of our country, individuals who are, almost all of them, still occupying the same offices in which they held the meetings described here in such lavish detail.

One can only speculate on what the reaction to The Agenda was inside those offices: so much dirty laundry, so prominently displayed. Did some find it impossible to read — too intimate, too real? Was it greeted with nervous laughter? Rage? Did people try to persuade themselves that, all things considered, what it said was not so bad? Did they feel that Bob Woodward had betrayed them? Or did it sink in that they had betrayed themselves?

IN ALL administrations, loyalty is considered a cardinal virtue and discretion is its handmaiden. One protects the President. One does not discuss private conversations one has had with him or with one’s superiors. Once the President has made a decision, one presents a united front in carrying out his wishes (even if one is trying to get him to change his mind).

What happened here? How on earth did so many people in and around the Clinton White House get it into their heads that it was a good idea to talk with a repor-ter, in the most intimate terms, about the doings of this administration?

There was, to be sure, the identity of the reporter. This was Bob Woodward, the man who had brought down the hated Nixon, the living legend of Washington journalism. Clinton’s people may have thought he was one of them, or at least “with” them in some elemental way. (Certainly Woodward would have done nothing to disabuse them of that notion.) And then, too, it must be highly flattering to be told that Bob Woodward is calling — that he is eager to listen to you and wants to know your thinking.

True, the administration was new, and many of those serving in it had no experience of the executive branch, and were quite young besides. But previous generations of arrivistes have found themselves at the red-hot center of Washington’s culture of knowing and have instinctively curbed the desire to say too much. There is far more than mere vanity to the act of self-immolation committed by Clinton’s people in The Agenda, more even than the vanity that is part and parcel of being in a position to know something about the most important political topic of the day.

Oddly, what made The Agenda possible was precisely a sense of loyalty — a genuine devotion to Bill Clinton and a feeling of kinship with his ideals. People talked to Bob Woodward to explain why Bill Clinton was right. Only, which Bill Clinton were they talking about? Again Woodward is helpful:

[George] Stephanopoulos knew that it was a mistake to assume that any one moment with Clinton, any one conversation, day, or even week reflected Clinton’s true feelings or unchanging fundamental attitude about something. With any single audience or person, Clinton was generally consistent and had mastered his rap. But he could articulate a totally different, even contradictory rap to the next audience with genuine sincerity. . . . “You’ve got to keep in mind,” Stephanopoulos said to one of his closest associates, that watching Clinton “is like a kaleidoscope. What you see is where you stand and where you’re looking at him. He will put one facet toward you, but that is only one facet.” Every time, the kaleidoscope would reflect the fragment of stone at the bottom in a unique way, showing a different facet; every person would see a different pattern. It was real, but it could change in an instant, as soon as Clinton turned.

Thus The Agenda: the story of Why Bill and I Are Right, as told by dozens of different individuals, each of whom felt that he and the President were the closest in their thinking, each of whom wanted to protect the President and the principles the two of them presumably shared from the others whose agenda was not Bill Clinton’s agenda, and many of whom were more than willing to do dirt to their rivals, including by disclosing the President’s wrath with them to an apparently sympathetic reporter.

In short, The Agenda paints a portrait that shows, indirectly, what made The Agenda possible. At the center, skewered by the pin, is the President of the United States, the embodiment of the other-directed man, a man who fulfills his driving ambition not just by seeming to be but by being all things to all people, until it is impossible to do so any longer. And he is raging.

[1] Simon & Schuster, 352 pp., $24.00