I spent the transformative summer afternoons of 1972 affixed to the new colour television set in my grandparents’ living room.
The Watergate hearings chaired by the drawling and laconic Sam Ervin pre-empted network soap operas to broadcast a different set of scandals and intrigues live across the continent, slowly but surely sending the U.S. administration to its grave by winter.
A few years later, by the time journalism became my post-secondary pursuit, Bob Woodward was an acknowledged deity, one-half of the combo that befelled Richard Nixon and bequeathed a new power of the press. Many before him and colleague Carl Bernstein were investigative, but no one had held the most powerful person in the world to such accountability for malfeasance. I have marvelled how over a half-century Woodward has sustained, how he has recurrently mustered the insider story – for the Washington Post, where he has worked since 1971, and for decades now with his own books about president after president that have shed light after light.
I spent many hours last week, and recommend it to others, to course through Fear: Trump in the White House, his new book on an unlikely ascension to and occupation of the U.S. presidency, and it is not exactly what you might think.
Sure, the excerpts that preceded the release were of folly, of fumbling and of fomenting a disgusting vein of America – story after story of the belittling of aides who at times swipe documents from his desk to avoid further chaos, the uncouth bigmouth who amplifies conflict out of an insecure reflex, the absence of logic or consistency or attentiveness to even basic tasks, and the utterly unapologetic and proudly ill-informed leader.
Fair enough: this was what many in his audience craved, and Woodward has put out a fulsome platter of red meat to affirm their detraction. For want of a better term, the result is tribal, convincing none of Donald Trump’s supporters they backed the wrong person while enthusing those who accept the orthodoxy of his incompetence, corruption and need to be taken down. I got as a reader what I expected in yet another long-form magazine-style chronicle, a piece of current writing that probes the most pressing issue of the day – Woodward’s books usually need to be read in their first few weeks because they report on events of the last few months. The most vivid elements arise from a controversial technique Woodward has of recreating conversations through recollections of one or more participants or someone present in the room. It is a neat but obviously flawed way to enliven a book’s narrative, but in Fear it is a regular dagger in hand. (I mean, the stuff he says Trump says!)
In greater context, though, the book does not so much explore the consequence of Trump’s blunders as it does the impact of his bluster. While its revelations do not prove the criminality Woodward found in Nixon, it is certainly evidence of what he calls a “nervous breakdown” of the most powerful office of the most powerful country – even if we cannot determine how it arose or where it might lead – and an extraordinary culture of fear in Trump’s home.
As literary journalism, Fear succeeds where Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury failed. It is broader, deeper and fairer, and there are fewer (but still some) self-interested passages from the likes of Steve Bannon. But most important, it also does not spare Trump’s foes, at times on international relations but also on his domestic perspective of an America with many left out of the spoils of success. Trump would have been wise to co-operate with Woodward; he is hardly ruined by him.
It is at its heart about a president who didn’t realize he was going to win and still can’t determine with any discipline how to exercise his clout. On issue after issue, it demonstrates an incoherence of journey, an acceptance of second-best practices, and a boss who through the complicity of his aides is protected from the wider world and from himself. It’s proof you can’t run a country the way you run a business. The longer Trump stays, the more it seems likely Woodward can furnish sequels in the same vein. •
Kirk LaPointe is the editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.