Trump has been good for the media, but bad for journalism. The electronic media-sphere reeks of all Trump all the time, from the partisan jousting of the knights of cable, CNN and Fox, to a cornucopia of websites and podcasts leaning left or right, to Trump’s social media lodestone, Twitter.
As always with the interwebs, there is more noise than substance. That is what legacy news organizations like the New York Times and the Washington Post are supposed to provide. And they do. For a hefty meal of hard-core investigative reporting, belly up to the hundreds of column inches filled by the Times just a week ago about Trump’s heretofore hidden tax returns – a high-calorie carbo-load of facts, truths and documents. The challenge for the big-boy newspapers is that Trump doesn’t stand still. He is a Rube Goldberg machine of perpetual news, outrage and scandal. What is Page One today is gone tomorrow (or even this evening). Look how Trump’s current Covid adventure relegated the Times’ blockbuster tax reporting to the morgue.
How then, in this gopher-on-a-wheel news cycle, does a staid, old-school, war-horse of a reporter like Bob Woodward, the inventor of a form of book-length journalism best described as anonymous-sources-meet-my-daily-diary-meet-the-telephone-book-meet-C-SPAN, write a recounting of the Trump presidency that has any currency?
In part, the answer is the short lag time between Woodward’s last conversation with Trump, which was on July 21, the day the manuscript for Rage was due, and date of the book’s publication, which was on September 15, only 59 days.
Much happened in that two-month gap, most importantly another 60,000 Americans died of Covid, so here’s another question that must be asked about Rage: Is the book relevant? Yes, I say, and that makes it worth reading.
First, let’s admit that no one reads a Woodward book – and I’ve read a half-dozen – for the writing. The text accompanying a statin prescription is more compelling. Woodward’s literary style is reminiscent of the joke about the bad restaurant with hefty servings – hey, the food is bad, but there is a lot of it. In Woodward’s defense, at least he keeps his portions small.
What gives Rage value is Woodward’s dedication to persistence (he did 17 lengthy interviews with Trump) and belief in one of journalism’s core practices, a tool often overlooked in these times of tweet reporting – the power of accumulation: adding one fact to the next, following the thread of evidence from interview to interview, and stacking truths next to falsehoods. The result is a powerful condemnation of Trump as president, Trump as a man, and Trump as the enabler of others of his ilk, such as his lamprey-like son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
It is Kushner, somewhat surprisingly because of his just-woken-from-the-tomb appearance, who provides the liveliest quotes in the book. Among them:
- He borrows from the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland to explain Trump’s behavior: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there.”
- “Controversy elevates message.” Writes Woodward: “This was core understanding of communication strategy in the age of the internet and Trump. A controversy over the economy, Kushner argued – how good it is – only helps Trump because it reminds voters that the economy is good.”
- Kushner on Trump and the media: “He’s just able to play the media like a fiddle, and the Democrats too. They run like dogs after a fire truck, chasing whatever he throws out there. … It’s like a buffet where they’ll always eat the worst thing you give them.”
- “What I’ve learned in the world of Trump is news cycles don’t last very long.”
Rage opens with a tour of Trump’s earliest days in the White House, guiding the reader through the unease he created among his senior staff by his ignorance of the world and his unconventional, to say the least, manner of decision-making. The misgivings and the fretting of those like James Mattis, Rex Tillerson and Dan Coats (ex-Secretary of Defense, ex-Secretary of State and ex-Director of National Intelligence) have been well-reported, but even though Woodward is late to the tale he tells their stories in such simple, declarative sentences that what is no longer surprising still has the power to shock.
For me, the final third of the book is more compelling. It focuses on the rise of parallel contemporary traumas – the beginnings of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. and the elevation to the national consciousness of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the homicide of George Floyd.
Of these two, Trump’s antipathy to wage all-out war against the virus by mandating mask-wearing and other socially beneficial measures is the most reported (especially his early awareness of the danger of the disease and his reluctance to take action for fear of economic ruin). What Woodward adds is perspective on the tension within the White House between the need of the administration to oversee the public health battle and the desire to focus on the upcoming election. Kushner, as kin, holds the upper hand. “The goal” with Trump, Kushner said, “is to get his head from governing to campaigning.
Woodward describes himself as being “incredulous” upon hearing these words: “In the midst of the largest public health crisis in a century, Kushner thought it was time to return to campaigning.”
As craven as Kushner is about the coronavirus, Trump is even more obtuse toward the significance of the police killings of black men and women, and the resulting waves of protests by people of all shades. Woodward asks Trump multiple times in several interviews if he understands the outrage and feels any sense of white privilege, given the circumstances in which he was raised.
“No,” said Trump. “You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you? Just listen to you,” he said, his voice mocking and incredulous. “Wow. No, I don’t feel that at all.”
Trump adds, repeating a common assertion of his, “I’ve don’t more for the Black community than any president in history with the possible exception of Lincoln.”
Woodward pursues the question several times, asking Trump if he understands what the protestors want and how he sees his role in responding to their demands, their fear and their pain. Trump answers in talking points and self-serving platitudes. As I said, not a single thing Trump says is surprising, but the cumulative impact of Woodward’s reporting is overwhelming. Normally, we see Trump in short-takes, yelling at reporters in soundbites or blurting out tweets. Rage is a full-length feature and like during the first (and maybe the last) Trump-Biden debate we see a long exposure of all of Trump’s ugliness – his hubris and insensitivity, his inability of see beyond himself, and, most of all, his profound ignorance.
Many times throughout the book, Trump tells Woodward he hopes the book will be positive, and just as many times says he doubts it will be. “I hope you treat me better than Bush,” he says at one point, “because you made him look like a stupid moron, which he was.”
Trump did not get his wish. Rage is a vivisection, a dismembering of Trump while he still breaths his foul breath on our nation. The book opens with an anecdote, told about the onset of the pandemic, that for the president there could be dynamite behind any door. Anything could explode. As he finishes the book, Woodward writes about Trump:
“I’ve come to the conclusion that the ‘dynamite behind the door’ was in plain sight. It was Trump himself. The oversized personality. The failure to organize. The lack of discipline. The lack of trust in others he had picked, in experts. The undermining or the attempted undermining of so many American institutions. The failure to be a calming, healing voice. The unwillingness to acknowledge error. The failure to do his homework. To extend the olive branch. To listen carefully to others. To craft a plan.”
Woodward, the one-man journalistic judge and jury of American presidents since the days when he and Carl Bernstein drove another petty, criminally-mind man from the Oval Office, interviewed the witnesses, examined the evidence, cross-examined the accused and reached a verdict about Donald J. Trump, the 45th president of our republic: Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty on all counts.