Fear: Trump in the White House
Bob Woodward, Simon & Schuster, 2018, ISBN978-1-4711-8129-0, 420pp
As soon as I saw that Woodward was about to publish a book about the Trump presidency I knew that I would be among its first readers. I was in Sydney a day after its publication and I was braying at the door of the Potts Point Bookshop in Macleay Street immediately after breakfast. Within moments I was back at my son’s apartment and had read several chapters. I suppose that this was always going to be a book that I was buying as much for its author as for its subject, but I was not disappointed.
Of course, Woodward comes with a fine pedigree. The machinations of the United States political process are a source of great wonder and amazement and, it has to be said, incredulity; at least they are to me. Over the years in both the UK and Australia I have had cause to look across the Atlantic or the Pacific and thank heavens for the water that separates us. One event that informed the lives of many folks of my generation was the Watergate scandal that eventually ended Richard Nixon’s presidency in 1974. It was Bob Woodward, along with his colleague Carl Bernstein at the Washington Post, that exposed the dirty deeds of the appropriately-named (in hindsight) CREEP – the Committee to Re-elect the President. CREEP and the White House were involved in attempts to sabotage the Democrats. In all, 48 officials were convicted of wrongdoing. And we who looked on went in our droves to watch All the President’s Men with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. And we read the book of the same title written by Woodward and Bernstein.
Forty years later Woodward is an Associate Editor at the Washington Post though, as he admits in the acknowledgements, he does little associating these days. Maybe he is an editor emeritus. At any rate he should be. He has shared two Pulitzer Prizes; one for the Washington Post’s coverage of Watergate and the second in 2003 as the lead reporter for the coverage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
There is little in the book that I didn’t already know or hadn’t already divined from my (admittedly partisan) reading of the press but, my goodness, it’s a brilliant read. I had expected it to be a discursive tome along the lines of Hillary Clinton’s not surprisingly somewhat self-serving Shattered. It was not discursive; the book reads like a novel and it’s a page turner. It sold 1.1 million copies in all formats in its first week. Barnes & Noble said "Fear" has had the "fastest sales for an adult title since Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman in July 2015." While these facts do justice to the book they may also reflect, or be a reaction to, the blustering that emerged from the White House as its publication approached. Woodward’s pedigree suggests that he has not made this stuff up, though had we not experienced the Trump White House we might have been happy to regard his book as pure fiction. Unfortunately for the world, it is not fiction. The man who occupies the White House as the President of the United States is, as Clinton said on the ABC’s 730 when Leigh Sales interviewed her, “a clear and present danger.”
That phrase, which is peculiarly American, and which is usually an exaggeration is almost certainly not an exaggeration in the case of Trump. Woodward’s book starts with the story of a one-page letter that lay on Trump’s desk in September 2017. That letter was addressed to the President of South Korea and would have terminated the United States–Korea Free Trade Agreement. This agreement is one of the foundations of an economic relationship, a military alliance and of intelligence operations and capabilities. It is through this agreement that the US could detect an ICBM launch from North Korea in 7 seconds. The equivalent capability in Alaska would take 15 minutes. This piece of stupidity derived from Trump’s “fury that the United States had an $18 billion annual trade deficit with South Korea and was spending $3.5 billion a year to keep US troops there.” It is yet more evidence that “America First” means “America Alone”. It will live with the consequences … so long as we don’t all get vaporised and irradiated first. The letter was surreptitiously removed from his desk and Trump, whose attention span is close to zero and whose memory seems to be not a lot better, forgot about it and moved on to other sillinesses.
I recall from the Watergate affair as it unfolded those tapes that revealed that Nixon had attempted to cover up activities that took place after the Watergate break-in. The contents of those tapes were reported widely though, as was the case forty years ago, with some delicacy. The term “expletive deleted” entered briefly into our vocabulary. Four decades on we are not so delicate. The beauty of this book, and what makes it so readable, is that Woodward has taken the information that he has collected and rendered it, in the main, as dialogue. This enables him to give a sense of not only what people think but also how they speak to each other. The dialogue is liberally sprinkled with that four-letter verb that begins with “f” and that we always fooled ourselves that our mothers had never heard.
There is a “note to readers” at the front of Woodward’s book that says that “interviews for this book were conducted under the journalist ground rule of ‘deep background’. This means that all the information could be used but I would not say who provided it.” Of course, this enables everyone to deny everything and anything. Immediately after publication there was a whole host of denials, from the White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders as well as from Trump’s former personal attorney John Dowd. Mattis called the book “fiction,” and Sanders denounced the tome in a statement as “nothing more than fabricated stories, many by former disgruntled employees” but without disputing any of the specifics that have been reported in excerpts. The widely reported op-ed, which Trump called “gutless”, and that was published in the Washington Post on 5 September 2018 used the same technique. But it is interesting that no one has denied anything that was said. And the fact is that however unbelievable the events that Woodward recounts may be, you know that they are, paradoxically, perfectly believable.
You may not be as fascinated as I am by the peculiarities of the American political system and of the historical and cultural backdrop that informs that system and is informed by it. But if you are so fascinated you will not be disappointed by Woodward’s book. I just hope he has the energy to write a sequel.