Woodward’s book about Trump reveals truths about us

Summary: Woodward’s latest book has seized the imagination of Trump’s foes, giving them lurid tales about Trump’s incapacity as president. It is rich with lessons about Woodward, about journalism, and us.

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Before considering Woodward’s latest, understand the genre of his work.

The Deferential Spirit

By Joan Didion at the New York Review of Books, 19 August 1996.
A review of Woodward’s oeuvre.

Study of these pages suggests the deferential spirit of the enterprise. …As any prosecutor and surely Mr. Woodward knows, the person on the inside who calls and says “I want to talk” is an informant, or snitch, and is generally looking to bargain a deal, to improve his or her own situation, to place the blame on someone else in return for being allowed to plead down or out certain charges. Because the story told by a criminal or civil informant is understood to be colored by self-interest, the informant knows that his or her testimony will be unrespected, even reviled, subjected to rigorous examination and often rejection.

The informant who talks to Mr. Woodward, on the other hand, knows that his or her testimony will be not only respected but burnished into the inside story, which is why so many people on the inside, notably those who consider themselves the professionals or managers of the process—assistant secretaries, deputy advisers, players of the game, aides who intend to survive past the tenure of the patron they are prepared to portray as hapless—do want to talk to him. Many Dole campaign aides did want to talk, for The Choice, about the herculean efforts and adroit strategy required to keep the candidate with whom they were saddled even marginally on target, on message, on the program …

Similarly, many Clinton foreign policy advisers did want to talk, again for The Choice, about the equally herculean efforts and strategy required to guide the President, on the question of Bosnia, from one of his “celebrated rages” (“‘I’m getting creamed!”‘ Clinton, “unleashing his frustration” and “spewing forth profanity,” is reported to have said on being told of the fall of Srebrenica) to a more nuanced appreciation of the policy options on which his aides had been laboring unappreciated …

This is a cartoon, but not a cartoon in which anyone who spoke to the author will appear to have taken any but the highest ground. …Those who talk to Mr. Woodward, in other words, can be confident that he will be civil …, that he will not feel impelled to make connections between what he is told and what is already known, that he will treat even the most patently self-serving account as if untainted by hindsight …

In Washington, however, a community in which the management of news has become the single overriding preoccupation of the core industry, what “fairness” has too often come to mean is a scrupulous passivity, an agreement to cover the story not as it is occurring but as it is presented, which is to say as it is manufactured. …

That this crude personalization works to narrow the focus, to circumscribe the range of possible discussion or speculation, is, for the people who find it useful to talk to Mr. Woodward, its point. What they have in Mr. Woodward is a widely trusted reporter, even an American icon, who can be relied upon to present a Washington in which problematic or questionable matters will be definitively resolved by the discovery, or by the demonstration that there has been no discovery, of “the smoking gun,” “the evidence.” Should such narrowly-defined “evidence” be found, he can then be relied upon to demonstrate, “fairly,” that the only fingerprints on the smoking gun are those of the one bad apple in the barrel, the single rogue agent in the tapestry of decent intentions.

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For a harsher evaluation see …

Dupe Throat: Bob Woodward’s self-parody

By Patrick Blanchfield at N+1.
Review of Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward.

{Woodward} offered his powerful subjects near limitless opportunities for comprehensive image rehabilitation. For all his self-proclaimed rigor and attention to detail, Woodward’s work was at core defined by its “deferential spirit” – a basic, transactional pact in which he would be allowed access as long as he maintained his unquestioning credulity …

Fear showcases Woodward in his most abject and pathetic role as what Christopher Hitchens, who also saw him for what he was, called a ‘stenographer to power.’ …

Throughout the book, Woodward does not clearly or consistently distinguish between when he is quoting people, paraphrasing them, or editorializing. At times, this liberal use of free indirect discourse is merely befuddling. Is Ivanka Trump a “charming huntress” in Priebus’s eyes, or Woodward’s? Is Trump “in great physical shape” and Paul Manafort’s wife a dead ringer for Joan Collins per Bannon, or Woodward himself? …

In every single one of the episodes, Woodward’s sources emerge as singular voices of wisdom, prudence, and moral clarity, and, above all, as always having the conversational upper hand. All this despite the fact that these figures have all left the White House in various states of disgrace or ignominy, and have a clear interest in narrating their experiences in the most self-congratulatory ways. At no point does Woodward evince a moment of skepticism vis-à-vis the material he has reproduced in bulk. …

For easily a third of the book, Woodward leans heavily on the testimony of Rob Porter, Trump’s former White House staff secretary. Porter, weirdly, emerges as a kind of hero for Woodward, conspiring with Cohn to prevent the President from signing documents that will have disastrous effects on trade and foreign policy and counseling Trump (or so he says) to pursue “unifying and taking the high road of racial healing” after Charlottesville. Trump may be abusive and crude and tempestuous to every other person in the book, interrupting them constantly, but in every scene in which he and Porter interact, he seems docile, hanging on the 40-year-old lawyer’s word, and even letting him pursue downright Socratic question-and-answer sessions. …

{Readers shouldn’t be} pondering too strenuously whether the allegedly documented wife-beater might not be a credible source on other matters. …But Porter is the primary crux for vast swathes of Woodward’s account. …

His {Woodward’s} facile obsession with aggressive foreign policy – an obsession shared by most of Washington DC’s elite – is this book’s most revealing and damning aspect. Trump’s rhetoric on foreign policy is often grotesque, but so is the bipartisan consensus – and the wars it has started and sustained since Woodward began his journalistic career. …

“I’m tired of hearing that we have to do this or that to protect our homeland or to ensure our national security,” Trump whines at one point. And on the legacy of George W. Bush – a President whom Woodward took so seriously he devoted thousands of pages to him – Trump speaks with an even-a-broken-clock-is-right-once-a-day frankness: “A terrible President. He was a warmonger. He wanted to exert American influence and take democracy all throughout the world and wanted to be the world’s policeman and started all these wars.” On this point, he is not wrong. But this is the reason, more than any other, why Woodward cannot take him seriously.

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Another perspective on Woodward’s view of the world

For More Information

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Classic books about propaganda

The first and in many ways still the best: Propaganda by Edward Bernays (1928).

Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda by Noam Chomsky (1997). One of his best.

"Propaganda" by Edward Bernays.
Available at Amazon.
"Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda" by Noam Chomsky.
Available at Amazon.

7 thoughts on “Woodward’s book about Trump reveals truths about us

  1. I was told that real historians will not examine president until they have been out of office for 50 years so that we can see the long term effects of their actions.

    1. Sven, that is an excellent idea. We didn’t really get a decent understanding of the effects of FDR’s decisions during the Great Depression until the early 1990’s. In another 10-20 year I hope we’ll have a better understanding of the Vietnam War.

    1. Honeypone,

      “What are you talking about we don’t have an understanding of Vietnam?”

      These things are not binary. We don’t understand or not understand events. Which is why Pluto said time will give us a “better understanding of the Vietnam War.”

      The big driver of improved understanding is the release of more data. Secret archives are opened. Researchers get access to the other side’s records and people. Historians get private diaries and correspondence.

      The other driver is time itself, which gives us perspective. Issues cool down over time. Generations later, after the participants and their children have passed away, events can be considered dispassionately — and formerly forbidden things can be thought and said.

      Everything takes time.

  2. Is Woodward just a symptom of the increasing polarisation of politics, as one large group lurches right ward Trump can do no wrong and the other lurches left he can do no good.

    Trump is for me a man who speaks his mind, sometimes a little more reflection and a secretary to check for typos would help, but he has faced up to realities few have dared to tackle, so yes I am one of the lurched right group, in some ways forced to defend him when not defendable, as the left attack him when he is perfectly defendable and I believe correct.

    I live in Australia and as I look at our political pantomime, I sometimes think it is just a smoke screen distraction for the powers that be (Top 1%, but added by the next 4 – 9%) to do what they really want:

    1. Stop paying their fair share of taxes, like us small business owners, Teachers and Nurses, doing a second job.
    2. Use immigration to cut wages and set us against each other, just like a real life version of the movie Blue Collar.
    3. Stir the Islam pot to shift too many from peaceful Islam to radical Islam to cause the countries to actually act for drone protection, Mali is a great example of this and just happens to be a strategic hub in Africa, plus oil, gas and mineral rich.
    4. Tell us that due to an ageing population we must have less pension, work longer and have massive immigration to create a tax base to support ageing. But if we are working longer and getting less, isn’t it obvious the extra tax base is to cover a little of what the richest 1 to 10% no longer contribute, debt covers the rest.
    5. De-industrialisation and mass immigration is leaving the next generation poorer than the last, I know many “interesting” gen y and Millennial, But as a part time trainer I know some guys working like dogs to get ahead in three casual part time jobs.

    Or maybe I am a Conspiracy nut, but I feel Woodward like many on the right as well, is almost encouraging 1950’s Communism to met 1930’s Fascism head on, and the thought is not a pleasant one, unless you are truly a war monger or mad.

    1. Alex,

      “Can’t they come up with something new to market books about Trump?”

      So long as they sell, publishers are happy. Much like car companies, with their endless number of TV ads showing cars driving fast on country roads. It works, so why change?

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