At what point does naiveté become something to be ashamed of? The revelation last week that Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward abetted the Bush administration's program of lies and character assassination left you feeling as if you, too, have been a coconspirator in the sleaze. Not that you were under any illusion about the turn Woodward's career took when he became a justifying megaphone for ''Washington insiders." Nor is it a surprise to find the dean of investigative journalism acting like every other self-protecting member of the establishment, since journalism itself has become a pillar of the governing power structure. But Woodward represented something more than all of this, and his quite American fall from grace (''The bigger they come") presents a challenge to your conscience.
''Watergate" is the most familiar word in the political lexicon. It means two things at once, referring first to the American low point, when the White House became a den of law breakers. You remember that the crimes of the Nixon cabal were meant to shore up the walls of deceit behind which the war in Vietnam was being fought. Lies and unjustified violence defined the nation's soul. But Watergate also became code for the most dramatic reiteration of national redemption, when diligent truth-seekers brought to light the methods and purposes of Nixon's band. The myth of American goodness depends on the conviction that, when the truth is finally apparent, the nation will act upon it. Watergate was the morality tale that made it so, and Bob Woodward, with his partner Carl Bernstein, was the moral hero. It is not too much to say that Woodward rescued your ability to believe in your country again.
The free press is an absolute value not only because the unfettered flow of information is essential to the republican system, nor only because the fourth estate serves as a check on the power of the other three, but because public expression is necessary for the communal self-awareness that keeps the body politic alive. You routinely turn to the newspaper each morning not only to learn what happened, but to stroke the otherwise intangible bond you share with the neighbors and strangers in whose company you will spend the day. Reading the morning paper is like tagging up, a literal ''touching wood," a dispelling of the darkness of night, all done in the knowledge that everyone else is doing the same thing, which gives you not only a place to start the day from, but a reassurance that you are not alone in your concern for the common good. The news media do for democracy what liturgy does for religion; what poetry does for experience; what gesture does for feeling. With words out of silence, the press tells you who you are.
And why shouldn't you be disturbed by Woodward's fall? As Watergate was about the war in Vietnam, so the Valerie Plame affair is about the war in Iraq. Woodward turns out to have been just another embedded reporter, doing the war-work of the Bush administration while pretending to be independent of it. But, speaking generally, the press has not been independent since the traumas of the autumn of 2001. Newsrooms were themselves targeted by the anthrax killer, and the fear that paralyzed the nation was felt as much by reporters as by anyone.
So also that season's grief. Like frightened and heart-sick scribes looking to Marines to protect them on the battlefield, and therefore unable to write critically about their protectors, the news media, with rare exceptions, simply embraced and passed along Bush's purposes and justifications, not matter how palpably dishonest. Judith Miller was the public captain of this enterprise, but Woodward was her secret co-captain. This time, he was his own Deep Throat.
Your naiveté consisted in the belief that, after Vietnam, your nation would never again embark on a criminal and unnecessary war. After a popular movement, inspired by tribunes of the free press, stopped the Vietnam War, you believed that the government would be responsive to the will of the people, forgetting that the people can surrender that will.
The finger-pointing in Washington now -- who voted for what, when and why -- is truly pointless. The merest glance back at the prewar debates shows that the justifications for war were all made of tissue. If the press treated them as substantial, that is because the nation itself, which still includes you, needed the tissue to cover its shame. The tissue of lies is yours.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
© 2005 Boston Globe