D.C. Sleuth

updated 05/03/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/03/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Bob Woodward discovered his vocation in high school, when he worked part-time as a janitor at his father's law office in conservative Wheaton, Ill. Along with sweeping floors, he found himself sifting through papers on desks, then in drawers, then in discarded files. "There were cases we didn't know about," he says. "You know, divorces, the mayor of a town was involved with a high school student—there were just a lot of shocking things." Woodward was struck by the difference between the truth and "the pretty pictures of life as people presented it." And a reporter was born.

Since then Woodward, 61, has persuaded Washington, D.C., to part with plenty of its own secrets. Case in point: Plan of Attack, his account of how George W. Bush began preparing for war against Iraq a mere two months after 9/11. At a White House party in '02, Bush himself had hinted that it would be worth Woodward's while to pursue the story; last December, after grilling sources from Cabinet members to CIA operatives, he spent more than three hours lobbing questions at the President. The result, says Woodward (an assistant managing editor at the Washington Post), is an "intimate" look at Bush's actions—one that is "very close to the bone."

If so, it's partly because the White House quietly urged those in Bush's camp to cooperate with Woodward (whose 2002 Bush at War, on the invasion of Afghanistan, was a bestseller). Says former press secretary Ari Fleischer, a source in both books: "He asked sharp questions that illustrate the difficulties decision-makers go through. That's how good history is written."

So how does Woodward get insiders to open up? By all accounts, he has lost none of the doggedness he displayed when, as a Yale grad and Navy vet of 29, he, along with Post partner Carl Bernstein, unveiled the misdeeds of the Nixon Administration in the Watergate scandal (with the help of their still unidentified source Deep Throat).

"I don't think I've ever met any journalist with that kind of powerhouse focus," says Ben Bradlee, now vice president of the Post. "He never gives up. I think the record for him was 18 times returning to the same source until he got what he wanted."

Third wife Elsa Walsh, 46, seconds that assessment. "Bob is the hardest-working journalist I know," says Walsh, a writer for The New Yorker who met him when she joined the Post in 1980. "There's no artifice. He cuts to the chase."

Patient and meticulous, Woodward "tries to know more about the event he's covering than even the participants," notes former Clinton advisor Paul Be-gala. "As he's interviewing you, you think, 'Oh, my God, how does he know that?' "

And then there's the glamor factor. These days, says Post writer Sally Quinn, her resolutely nonpartisan colleague is "an institution. It's sort of a badge of honor to be interviewed by Woodward. If you aren't, you're not a player."

In the Georgetown house he shares with Walsh and their daughter Diana, 7, Woodward rises at 4 or 5 a.m. and puts in 12-hour shifts in his office. (Like the author, the space is low-key; walls are bare except for a framed poster of the book cover for All the Presidents Men and a copy of the Post's front page with the banner headline: "Nixon Resigns.") Long hours or no, Woodward pulls his weight as a family man; he recently visited Diana's school to talk about water— her class's study theme—and, last week, crawled on his roof to fix a downspout.

"He's a great dad, very involved," says Walsh. (Tali, his daughter from his second marriage, is 27 and a reporter for the San Francisco Bay Guardian) "We take turns putting Diana to bed. He tells her detective stories."

Now, with his latest batch of secrets in the hands of readers, Woodward plans to take the summer off. (Well, most of it; Quinn says that August is his favorite time to pursue subjects, since "they're on vacation, which means they're more relaxed.") He'll spend time at the family's getaway on the South River in Maryland—"our little piece of paradise," says his wife. And then? Most likely, more snooping. "It's fun," says Woodward. "Journalists have the best jobs."

Michelle Green. Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C.

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