Keeping in mind that Donald Trump came forward to dismiss this book as “fake news” before it was released (of course he did), let’s set up this review with a reminder (as if anyone needs one) of a little inconsistency straight from the subject himself:
The book begins with an anecdote involving a document dated September 5, 2017. It was, according to this book, stolen off the Resolute desk in the Oval Office by Gary Cohn. The document reflected Trump’s desire to drop from KORUS, the treaty and economic deal between the US and South Korea. To Trump, it was a bad deal, wherein the US was getting hosed economically. He had been repeatedly told that this treaty was a matter of national security, the highest and most secret arrangement this country had, the details of which are withheld from this account in the name of national security. A nuclear attack from North Korea — the most immediate direct threat to the United States — could reach Los Angeles in 38 minutes. In the event of such a launch, the bases in Alaska could detect that launch in 15 minutes, leaving 23 minutes in which to stop the incoming missiles. The arrangement with South Korea closed that window considerably: a launch could be detected in 7 seconds. Any fool can see the incredible military advantage to this, and yet…
Let’s put this into perspective. In October 1962, the world quaked over the Cuban Missile Crisis while Kennedy and Khrushchev brokered a deal behind the scenes in defiance of their mutually hawkish governments to secure peace. In September 2017, our elected president actively tried to exacerbate nuclear war with an equally toddler-like world leader because he was having a temper tantrum about saving a few dollars.
At the beginning of this year, I reviewed Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. It was less about journalism and more about sounding the alarm to anyone who might listen. The result was predictable, with audiences divided along party lined. Most of those, with few exceptions, who supported Trump typically didn’t bother to read the book, and I don’t expect that to be any better with this book. It would be easy to make some slanderous remarks there, but this has never been about taking pot shots. I lamented that the line of separation was credibility. Trump supporters have none to those who don’t support him. Anyone who stands against Trump has no credibility in the eyes of Trump supporters. Wolff had virtually no real credibility either way, writing in an alarmist, tabloid style as he did. When it comes to journalistic integrity, Bob Woodward is the first name on that list of notables, not only in our time, but quite possibly in the history of the United States. Give that a think and really let it sink in as to why that is. What does it take to achieve that acknowledgment of professionalism against all odds, especially in today’s environment where everything someone doesn’t like is instantly branded “fake news?” It’s the same professionalism that allowed him, in conjunction with Carl Bernstein, to uncover the “Watergate” scandal that ended Richard Nixon’s presidency and political career. It’s the same professionalism that has led Woodward to continue his quest in pursuit of fact at The Washington Post as an associate editor, focusing on institutions such as the Presidency, the Supreme Court, the Pentagon, and the Federal Reserve. It’s the same level of research and determination that has produced books on Nixon, Bush, and Obama. His journalistic awards are high and numerous. In 2014, Robert Gates former director of the CIA and Secretary of Defense, said that he wished he’d recruited Woodward into the CIA, saying, “He has an extraordinary ability to get otherwise responsible adults to spill [their] guts to him… his ability to get people to talk about stuff they shouldn’t be talking about is just extraordinary and may be unique.” Regardless of who doesn’t like what he has to say, the fact of the matter is that much of our political history in this era is going to be built on the foundations of Bob Woodward’s journalism for all the right reasons. And that’s why this book is so very important. It’s now a part of the official human record, for all intents and purposes.
It’s not to say that Woodward is immune to the negative criticism du jour. Indeed, Trump is an equal opportunity offender, and his base have proven to have zero moral scruples when it comes to lining up behind him in the name of “anything but Democrat.” It’s gone so far that some supporters have claimed loyalty to Russia before admitting to anything that smacks of agreement with the Democratic National Convention. That is the broken system at work, pushing all sides to extremism. Trump is a symptom of that, elected on a broken populist vote.
The people of the United States invested in a bill of goods. Bob Woodward has chronicled what it we’ve gotten in return, and how much it has cost us.
Everything in this book is researched and confirmed under the auspices of deep reporting, meaning that people didn’t come forward with intent to take credit, but rather everyone who did come forward remained anonymous and pointed fingers at everyone else, thus allowing names to be named while not revealing sources of who said what about whom. These stories, in turn, were corroborated with other people, and so on down the line per the standards of investigative journalism. Trump himself, of course, declined to be interviewed. The end result is a book that reads a bit like a novel, partly because of the intrigue involved, and partly because of the license taken in the writing style. For example, there’s no humanly possible way Woodward could have known what anyone was thinking, but there are lines of text telling us otherwise. It’s pretty easy to pick that apart and attribute it to a poor writing decision. On the other hand, direct quotes confirmed time and time again, combined with the public record, are rather difficult to dismiss… by anyone who still respects the concepts of fact and truth.
This book does more than expose Trump. Much more. It outlines the populist campaign and how it works — how it has always worked, according to Steve Bannon, going all the way back to second century BCE Rome. It outlines what the political parties are offering, what voters are saying they want to hear, and how Trump’s campaign played in to that, defying party and gaining approval despite amoral actions and inconsistency. It outlines how our policies after the election were built on single sentence clichés, the sort of thing that works on a headline news soundbite or a bumper sticker. And that’s just the foundation. From there, the entire administration is put under the microscope, examining the events that unfolded over the first couple of years since the election.
The key difference between journalism and tabloid sensationalism is in the questions and how they are answered. A true journalist asks all of the following: who, what, where, when, why, how, with whom, how much, how often, how far, how high, how low, and under what circumstance. The answers to these questions are checked, double checked, triple checked, verified, and locked into place at all turns. This is Woodward’s stock in trade, and I’m certain he can tell me which questions he asked in addition to these that I overlooked. Yellow journalism, or anything less than that, is what we’re accustomed to seeing in headline news today, where the story is mutable to political agenda and spin, where fact checking is a victim of ratings and of simply being first. It preys upon emotion, just as most political campaigns do. In understanding journalism — and journalists — the average citizen can greatly improve their understanding of how the processes work for and against each faction, and how to reclaim an art that’s seemingly lost to the public at large: thinking for oneself. I would go so far as to say that it is the responsibility of citizens to know this, but a republic in a state of decline relies on “bread and circuses” to appease and distract the masses while those in power wrest more power in the name of lining their wallets. This is what we’ve been given as a result: politics as reality television entertainment. Is it any wonder Donald Trump is in the White House? Both sides of the political spectrum, and all points in between, are to blame. We are all to blame. All of us, regardless of who any of us voted for. We as a collective are the problem for allowing any of this to go this far. We can fix it if we want to. But we have to pry ourselves away from our 24 hour headline news cycle, our social media, our video games… you get the idea. We have to care about more than ourselves and party lines.
Our country has been compromised by powers foreign and domestic, political and corporate. We’ve turned our backs on our allies and have embraced autocratic dictators with a history of brutality. These points are undeniable. Irrefutable. And yet… the Jedi mind tricks continue in the name of party over country because people believe what they want to believe, are easily led because of it, and can’t be bothered to do anything that requires continued education outside of our personal bubbles or that upsets the routines of our day to day lives.
This is either the beginning of the end, or it’s a new beginning. The choice is up to us. The latter option requires reaching across the political divide and getting over our pet causes in the name of healing the country. We’ve done it before, we can do it again. Ideally, we’d do it this time without a civil war, but I honestly think that as lazy as most of us are, such a war would be limited to a few extreme militia groups anyway. That’s cold comfort in the face of decline and divisiveness. People became upset with the process of government and with politicians. It’s understandable. We ignored the lessons of history and voted our emotions.
How’s that working out?
This book lays out that answer in black and white. No matter where in the political spectrum you sit, no sane and rational individual will be pleased by that answer.
It’s no coincidence this book was released on September 11. It’s a different kind of emergency, but it’s potentially a bigger one with more dire and longer lasting consequences.
“Real power is fear. It’s all about strength. Never show weakness. You’ve always got to be strong. Don’t be bullied. There is no choice. You’ve got to deny, deny, deny, and push back on these women… If you admit to anything and any culpability, then you’re dead. That was a big mistake you made. You didn’t come out guns blazing and just challenge them. You showed weakness. You’ve got to be strong. You’ve got be aggressive. You’ve got to push back hard. You’ve got to deny anything that’s said about you. Never admit.”
— Donald Trump, giving advice to a friend who faced accusations from women
“Fear. Fear attracts the fearful, the strong, the weak, the innocent, the corrupt. Fear. Fear is my ally..”
— Darth Maul, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace “tone poem” teaser advertisement
“Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. I sense much fear in you.”
— Master Yoda to Anakin Skywalker, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace