Fear: Trump in the White House
by Bob Woodward
Simon & Schuster, 2018
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bob Woodward’s explosive new book Fear: Trump in the White House has been the subject of many hundreds of thousands of words of speculation, excoriation, and validation in the forty minutes or so since it was published; even before it went on sale in bookstores across the benighted USA, it had rendered all possible reviews of its actual content perfunctory.
Woodward has written fly-on-the-wall portraits of eight presidencies, beginning, of course, with reporting that helped bring down the Nixon administration. In all that time, the reporter has wisely decided not to abandon caution in the bright light of fame. He keeps careful records, keeps his speculation to a minimum, and keeps his many interview subjects mostly on the record and fully documented. On the merest bookish level, Fear is a preposterous mismatch: the most bumbling and scandal-plagued White House in American history coming up against the most thorough and accomplished political reporter in the world.
But as noted, Fear has ascended beyond the mere bookish level. In a way given to few works of nonfiction, it’s become part of the news it’s reporting and has therefore migrated from the teetering, disheveled stacks of the Books section, with its crabbed marginalia and its rumpled, unclubbable staff, to the polished and conspicuously uncluttered glass-topped desk of the blow-dried lead TV anchor, someone who’s only indifferently literate but who does a very effective concern-pout in close-ups and has had interesting Hamptons conversations with Bono. Books that land in such well-manicured hands are not reviewed - they have moved beyond such grubby concerns.
In a way, this isn’t even an injustice. Woodward is only human, but his probity and reliability are by this point largely beyond question. When dealing with someone as thuggish and vindictive as Donald Trump, Woodward would have seen to it that his reporting was mostly bulletproof. Trump officials may howl when quoted in the book characterizing the Commander-in-Chief as vain, intensely stupid dotard, but there will be no lawsuits, and the understanding will be that they’re howling mostly for theatrical reasons. Therefore it’s possible to look at Fear as not really a book at all, any more than a pile of court transcripts would be a book.
But this would indeed be an injustice, because there’s a surprising and encouraging amount of wry, almost literary business going on in Fear, a kind of dry, mordant wit that’s likewise discernible in Woodward’s earlier books but never quite so badly needed as in this one, with its relentless anecdotes of apocalyptic incompetence and deceit. Woodward is too much of a professional to put a soft focus on that apocalypse, but his native comic sensibility prompts him often to see the humor in a free country’s slide into trivial despotism.
Take the moment when Trump and his staff are interviewing candidates for a new national security adviser. General H. R. McMaster makes the mistake in his first interview of showing up in civilian clothes instead of the military uniform guaranteed to flatter Trump’s pre-adolescent vanity. The interview doesn’t go well, and Trump later comments, “He looked like a beer salesman.” Next to be interviewed is John Bolton, and Woodward writes, “His answers were fine, but Trump did not like his big, bushy mustache.” Readers appalled by the idiotic superficiality of such a reaction might miss the deadpan follow up: “The next day Bolton came in. He was fine, the same, but still had the mustache.”
Or one of the many moments in the book that indicate Senator Lindsey Graham as a frequent source for the book: Trump has been led to a convenient decision regarding US forces in Afghanistan and immediately calls Graham:
“You’re the first person I called,” Trump told Graham. “I just met with the generals. I’m going to go with the generals.”
“Well, Mr. President that’s probably the smartest thing any president could have done.”
“That was a hard one,” Trump said. “It’s the graveyard of empires.” It was a reference to a book by Seth G. Jones on Afghanistan.
“It’s my luck the only book you ever read was that one,” Graham joked.
Trump laughed along.
Even this is not a mark against Woodward’s reliability; in this case he’s relating what Graham related to him. The senator’s elaboration is obvious and twofold: first, Trump didn’t read Jones’ In the Graveyard of Empires, since Trump doesn’t read (he likely heard the phrase from one of the aforementioned generals and liked it because it implicitly makes him an emperor), and second, Trump certainly didn’t laugh along with a joke made at his expense (Graham is obviously telling Woodward what he thought at the moment and merely claiming he actually said it). But the little sting of the jab is enjoyable either way, and despite the sobering nature of what Fear describes, those little po-faced jabs happen throughout the book and are apt to be overlooked in the news-desk frenzy to decry the political calamity described on every page.
As those news-desk comment-makers have been saying on quick repeat for two weeks now, none of the broader elements of that political calamity are actually new. Fear isn’t the moment in the doctor’s office when the diagnosis of cancer is made; it’s the series of follow-up appointments in which the extent of the rot is clinically clarified. It has the same dead-weight momentum of those follow-up appointments, and it shares their macabre fascination.
And there’s the implicit promise of future appointments. But at least the physician is keeping a twinkle in his eye. There are precious few comforts in this ongoing travesty, after all.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.