RECONSIDERED: The Dishonesty Of Wired


SLATE: “The greatest crime of that book,” Landis says of Wired, “is that if you read it and you’d just assume that John was a pig and an asshole, and he was anything but. He could be abrupt and unpleasant, but most of the time he was totally charming and people adored him.” The wrongness in Woodward’s reporting is always ever so subtle. SNL writer Michael O’Donoghue—who died before I started the book but who videotaped an interview with Judy years before—told this story about how Belushi loved to mess with him:

I am very anal-retentive, and John used to come over and just move things around, just move things a couple of inches, drop a paper on the floor, miss an ashtray a little bit until finally he could see me just tensing up. That was his idea of a fine joke. Another joke he used to do was to sit on me.

When put through the Woodward filter, this becomes:

A compulsively neat person, O’Donoghue was always picking up and straightening his office. Frequently, John came in and destroyed the order in a minute, shifting papers, furniture or pencils or dropping cigarette ashes.

Again, Woodward’s account is not wrong. It’s just … wrong. In his version, Belushi is not a prankster but a jerk. Wired is like that throughout. Like a funhouse mirror, Woodward’s prose distorts what it purports to reflect. Moments of tearful drama are rendered as tersely as an accounting of Belushi’s car-service receipts. Friendly jokes are stripped of their humor and turned into boorish annoyances. And when Woodward fails to convey the subtleties of those little moments, he misses the bigger picture. Belushi’s nervousness about doing that love scene in Continental Divide was an important detail. When that movie came out, it tanked at the box office. After months of fighting to stay clean, Belushi fell off the wagon and started using heavily again. Six months later he was dead. Woodward missed the real meaning of what went on.

Woodward also makes peculiar decisions about what facts he uses as evidence. His detractors like to say that he’s little more than a stenographer—and they’re right. In Wired, he takes what he is told and simply puts it down in chronological order with no sense of proportionality, nuance, or understanding. John Belushi was a recreational drug user for roughly one-third of his 33 years, and he was a hard-core addict for the last five or six, from which you can subtract one solid year of sobriety. Yet in Wired, which has 403 pages of narrative text, the total number of pages that make some reference to drugs is something like 295, or nearly 75 percent. Belushi’s drug use is surely a key part of his life—drugs are what ended it, after all—but shouldn’t a writer also be interested in what led his subject to this substance abuse in the first place? If you want to know why someone was a cocaine addict for the last six years of his life, the answer is probably hiding somewhere in the first 27 years. But Woodward chooses to largely ignore that period, and in doing so he again misses the point. In terms of illuminating its subject, Wired is about as useful as a biography of Buddy Holly that only covers time he spent on airplanes. MORE

RELATED: It was 25 years ago, March 5th, 1982, and I was riding through the tulip fields outside of La Conner, Washington with Tom Robbins when the news came over the radio that John Belushi had died of a drug overdose at the Chateau Marmont. I started crying. It was the worst thing I’d ever heard. Here I was on one of the primo writing assignments of all time, adapting a Tom Robbins novel with the man himself, and I was blubbering like a baby. It must have seemed a bit extreme.

“Did you know him?” asked Tom.

“Yeah,” I said, “I did.”

When I got back to Hollywood from La Conner I was anxious to find out what really happened to John, so I started asking around. Through my old drug connections, I found that the drugs that killed John had come from the LAPD, that it was a sting operation gone bad.  Apparently Cathy Smith, a snitch with drugs from the LAPD evidence locker, was getting high with John at the Chateau Marmont. She had told her police connection that Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro might be coming by. This bit of information tantalized them. Smith was told to keep getting John high till Williams and DeNiro showed up so the bust could be bigger and higher profile. Three for the price of one. 

Williams and DeNiro showed up briefly and at different times, splitting out of disgust with the presence of Smith. Cathy kept getting John high till he overdosed right in front of her. She immediately called her connection, a woman who was sleeping with the officer who supplied the drugs. He got on the phone and told Smith not to do a thing, to just wait for him. He showed up at the Marmont, told her to leave and come back in an hour. He then prepared the scene the way he wanted it to be found, then went down the block and waited for the body to be discovered. Basically, if the LAPD hadn’t gotten piggy for the big bust instead of just arresting him alone, John Belushi might still be alive today. Smith’s early release, plus the total lack of police investigation into the source of the drugs, seemed to back this story, but with my drug past, and with none of my sources willing to go on the record, I sure as hell wasn’t going to write about it.

A year went by.

The phone rang and it was Bob Woodward. 

“Sure it is,” I said.

“Hang up,” he replied, “call information, ask for the number of the Washington Post in Washington D.C., call the main number and ask for me.” I did. Got the same guy. He told me he was writing a book about John Belushi and had heard that I knew him. I told him I did, but expressed justifiable reticence in telling him my story. He told me everyone was cooperating and I should talk to Judy Belushi, then call him back.

I called Judy. She confirmed that she had personally asked Woodward to write the book, and that she was asking everyone to cooperate with him. She wanted the whole story to come out, and if I was scared to mention drugs, I shouldn’t be because John did drugs with everybody. I’d be part of the crowd. I should just tell Woodward everything I knew. Bad advice. Maybe I kept picturing Robert Redford in All the President’s Men. Maybe I had this fantasy of being the new Deep Throat. Hell, maybe I just wanted to be in the book. All I know is that I called him back and told him “Follow the drugs. You won’t believe where they lead.”

“How do you know all this?” he asked.

In order to prove the reliability of my information, I told him the whole back story of my drug escapades, including how I met John and the life and death of Captain Preemo. Who knew he would turn the assignment around and destroy John Belushi with the same fervor he used to destroy Richard Nixon? When Wired came out, it mysteriously included absolutely none of the story about the sting operation, not even as a wacko theory. It was a vast compilation of “just the facts, ma’am” that managed to totally mistake lists of information for truth. I later found out that my version of events had been corroborated by several other sources. “It was going to be the story,” one of Woodward’s research assistants told me, “but Bob went to L.A. to meet with Daryl Gates, came back and killed it.” […] How come the man who took on Richard Nixon refused to take on Daryl Gates? My theory? He’s an alcoholic. He’s never done drugs and knows nothing of the scene. Thinks booze is good and pot is bad. He’s an anti-drug warrior, eager to point out that “the scene” killed John, not just the drugs. His book subtly proposed that people like John deserved to die. My picture of him as Robert Redford was quickly replaced with one of Satan. MORE