It is a bleak fact of American life that a brilliant woman can publicly speak the devastating truth about a prominent man for decades without his success being affected much at all. Joan Didion had Bob Woodward’s number back in 1996. Writing in the New York Review of Books, she skewered the famous journalist and his “disinclination . . . to exert cognitive energy on what he is told.” Selling a sexily packaged “insider’s inside story,” Woodward, per Didion, did more than just spin a “crudely personalized,” Great Man narrative history of recent events: he 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:
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.
In the twenty-two years since Didion’s diagnosis, Bob Woodward has gone on to write eleven further books, seven of them about contemporaneous presidencies. America’s turn to global war has been particularly good for Woodward, not least because the inside story of leaders in wartime makes for especially sexy copy—and since the reversals and tragedies of war itself mean politicians have added need for P.R. triage of the sort Woodward happily provides.
But if his four books on George W. Bush and two on Barack Obama were case studies in proving Didion’s point, Woodward’s latest, Fear: Inside the Trump White House, drives it home with almost excruciating feats of self-parody. It’s not just that Woodward’s self-consciously Serious approach to Serious People sputters and short-circuits when confronted with the ludicrously Unserious figure of Donald Trump himself (who, unlike previous Presidents, did not make himself available for Woodward to interview.) Rather, 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.” For page after dumbfounding page, Fear reproduces, with gobsmacking credulity, the self-aggrandizing narratives of factitious scoundrels. Didion was absolutely right to class Woodward’s work as fundamentally a kind of “political pornography.” But Fear is to Woodward’s previous oeuvre of political pornography what Fifty Shades of Grey is to Twilight: vampiric fan-fiction repackaged as middlebrow smut.
The book to which Fear obviously invites comparison is Michael Wolff’s recent Fire and Fury.1Fear covers a roughly similar period of time—from the campaign trail through the first year or so of the Trump presidency. (Wolff’s narrative cuts off in August 2017; Woodward’s in March 2018). Both books take their titles from Trump’s aggressive rhetoric on foreign policy, and North Korea and Kim Jong-un loom large in each. Both rely heavily on “deep background” material from a variety of insider players, Steve Bannon in particular (he also gets the best lines in Fear). Both are full of palace intrigue, high-profile feuds, and choice lines of abuse and snark. And both are self-consciously bestseller material—political nonfiction best suited for purchase at an airport, before getting in line for Panda Express.
But this is where the similarities end. In Fire and Fury and during the subsequent press tour, Wolff luridly capitalized on the frisson of his burning bridges with Trump. Woodward, by contrast, seems almost plaintive on the subject.2 And whereas Wolff embraced his over-the-top material with a kind of gonzo glee, Woodward proceeds with a halting, ponderous seriousness.
Woodward has never been a very good writer, but his literary failures have never been more apparent than in Fear, where the mismatch between the prose and the protagonists is almost avant-garde. Many sentences are overwrought to the point of being nonsensical. (“The first act of the Bannon drama is his appearance—the old military field jacket over multiple tennis polo shirts. The second act is his demeanor—aggressive, certain and loud.”) His reliance on cliché is laughable, particularly in his descriptions of characters with whom all of the book’s readers are already well-acquainted. Kellyanne Conway is “feisty” and Reince Priebus—a source whom Woodward conspicuously flatters—is an “empire builder.” Mohammed bin Salman is “charming” and has “vision, energy,” which suggests Woodward has been reading Tom Friedman columns. Jared Kushner has a “self-possessed, almost aristocratic bearing” (possibly the most self-evidently false detail in a book full of them). And the late John McCain is (of course) “outspoken” and a “maverick.” Woodward seems to have a fascination with the bodies and demeanor of older, military men: both Jim Mattis and H.R. McMaster have “ramrod-straight posture,” and the latter is described as “high and tight,” even though he is conspicuously bald. Trump goes “through the roof” twice in a single chapter. And so on.
The abundance of such mediocre writing poses more than merely aesthetic problems. 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? Who knows! But at other times, the confusion is more fundamental. In one of numerous sections where Trump questions the merits of America’s NATO membership, the text reads:
“I think we could be so rich,” Trump said, “if we weren’t stupid. We’re being played [as] suckers, especially NATO.” Collective defense was a sucker play.
Is this last sentence a paraphrase from one of the numerous other people in the meeting (Rex Tillerson, H.R. McMaster, Joseph Dunford)? Or is this Woodward’s own voice, remonstrating over Trump’s failure to take national security “seriously” (a repeated Woodward preoccupation)? The reader has no way of knowing, and contextual clues—paragraph breaks, source attribution, and quotation marks—are completely unhelpful.
This fundamental uncertainty rises to a matter of critical veridical concern repeatedly—particularly when Woodward is at his most vulnerable. Specifically, there are pages upon pages where Woodward reproduces extensive material from individual, high-profile sources: Bannon, Priebus, Gary Cohn, John Dowd, and, above all, Rob Porter. These sections contain some of the most salacious and provocative material in the book—White House staff shakeups, Trump’s reaction to Charlottesville, his legal team’s interactions with Mueller, and so on. They contain paragraphs of dialogue and block quotes—in quotation marks—extensive paraphrases, scene-setting, and the like. 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.
One example is worth quoting at length, since it neatly encapsulates the totality. 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. Toward the end of the book, Woodward relates the following scene.
Trump and Rob Porter were together in the President’s front cabin on Air Force One. Fox News was on the TV.
“Little Rocket Man,” Trump said proudly. “I think that may be my best ever, best nickname ever.”
“It is funny,” Porter said, “and it certainly seems to have gotten under Kim’s skin.” But, he asked, “What’s the endgame here? If we continue to amp up the rhetoric and get into a war of words and it escalates, what are you hoping to get out of this? How does this end?”
“You can never show weakness,” Trump replied. “You’ve got to project strength. Kim and others need to be convinced that I’m prepared to do anything to back up our interests.”
“Yes, you want to keep him on his toes,” Porter said. “And you want some air of unpredictability from you. But he seems pretty unpredictable. And we’re not sure, is he even well? Is he all mentally there? He doesn’t have the same political constraints that other people do. He seems very much to want to be taken seriously on the international stage.”
“You’ve got to show strength,” the president repeated.
“I wonder,” Porter plowed on, “if embarrassing him is more likely to sort of get him into submission or if it could also provoke him?”
Trump didn’t respond. His body language suggested that he knew Kim was capable of anything. Then he offered his conclusion: It was a contest of wills. “This is all about leader versus leader. Man versus man. Me versus Kim.”
It’s hard to decide what’s worse about this dialogue—its complete implausibility or its cheesiness, which would get its author banned from a fan fiction message board. And this dubiousness is obvious just on the face of things, without even considering Porter’s merits as a person or trustworthy source. But those are open questions, too. In the book’s second-to-last chapter, Woodward notes the following:
Porter left the White House on February 7 after two ex-wives went public with allegations that he had physically abused them. One released a photo showing a black eye that she said Porter gave her. Each, one to the press and one in a blog post, gave graphic descriptions of domestic abuse. Porter quickly concluded it would be best for all—his former spouses, his family and close friends, the White House and himself—to resign. He wanted to focus on repairing relationships and healing.
To which the reader presumably is meant to respond: Oh, well, OK then! before moving on, without pondering too strenuously whether the allegedly documented wife-beater might not be a credible source on other matters. Of course, Porter isn’t the only character whose heinous traits Woodward soft-pedals. (The far-right Mercer family is “a bit on the fringe,” but no more than that; Erik Prince is “founder of the controversial defense contractor Blackwater,”; Stephen Miller is introduced as “a young, hard-line policy adviser and speechwriter” with the question of what, exactly, he is hardline on only explained hundreds of pages later.) But Porter is the primary crux for vast swathes of Woodward’s account, at least before he departs to pursue “healing” (which, doubtless by sheer coincidence, is also the virtue he tells Woodward he encouraged Trump to pursue on issues of “racist tinge”).
At the center of this universe sits Trump, like the Blind Idiot God Azathoth in H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. If the self-serving narratives of personal accomplishment Woodward’s principals relate are dubious, their descriptions of Trump are not. He is impetuous and erratic, vulgar and incurious. A font of abuse, he showers invective on those around him. Per him, Giuliani is “like a little baby that need[s] to be changed”; Sessions has “no balls” and is a “mentally retarded” “dumb Southerner”; Priebus is “a little rat”; and more. As Trump’s carnivaleseque theatrics of dominance unfold, his officials contagiously turn on each other. McMaster calls Tillerson “a prick”; Scaramucci calls Priebus a “paranoid schizophrenic”; Bannon calls Christie a “fat fuck.” In a meeting in Priebus’s office, Bannon tries to cut Ivanka down to size by reminding her that she acts like she’s “in charge” when she’s just “on staff,” and she screams at him, “I’m not a staffer! I’ll never be a staffer. I’m the first daughter . . . and I’m never going to be a staffer!” Reading these tidbits, it is hard not think that all these worthless people deserve Trump, and one another.
There is little new here about Trump himself. The most interesting bit is a sequence in which Trump offers advice to an unnamed friend who “acknowledged some bad behavior toward women” (in Woodward’s words). The moment runs as follows (and note, again, the porousness between Woodward’s narration and direct quotes):
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,” he said. “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 to be aggressive. You’ve got to push back hard. You’ve got to deny anything that’s said about you. Never admit.”
This rings true: if Trump has any maxims at all, deny anything and be aggressive must rank chief among them (along with, if he even needs to formulate it consciously, treat women like shit). And as Woodward’s sources document, Trump lies constantly, about everything from his voting record to his political contributions to things he’s said in front of people on the record; when corrected, he simply agrees, and, undaunted, continues, momentum undiminished. Both Cohn and Dowd, his lawyer, frankly call him a liar.
But if Trump has a foremost sin in Woodward’s eyes, it’s that he is Not A Serious Person. With a characteristic fetish for matters of human intelligence and national security, Woodward faults Trump for being feckless and indifferent on matters of foreign policy, the stenographer’s ultimate litmus test of Seriousness. Woodward seems to sympathize with figures like Cohn and Mattis and Porter, who try to “smother” Trump in “facts and logic,” and, failing that, do end-runs around him to prevent him from making disastrous trade proclamations or signing off on reckless assassinations. Never mind that Mattis, the famously celibate, so-called “warrior monk,” seems positively priapic at the prospect of war with Iran and its “raghead mullahs.” At least, Woodward seems to cede, Mattis is Serious.
Unsurprisingly, Woodward has brought up the question of seriousness in his promotional tour for Fear, which he’s hawked as a kind of wakeup call. “People better wake up to what’s going on,” he told CBS Sunday Morning. “You look at the operation of this White House and you have to say, ‘Let’s hope to God we don’t have a crisis.’” One has to wonder what constitutes a serious crisis in Woodward’s eyes. To take just one example, the death toll resulting from the government’s botched response to the Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico has risen to 2,975—more than the number of Americans who died on September 11, and orders of magnitude more than the “sixty-four” that was the government’s official toll in the aftermath. This episode goes unmentioned in Woodward’s book.
It’s not just Puerto Rico. Key episodes of the Trump tenure—the type of thing you’d think a connoisseur of backroom politics and high-profile scandals like Woodward would be all over—go unmentioned, or hardly mentioned at all. The Neil Gorsuch Supreme Court nomination is mentioned offhand, as a fait accompli. The effort to repeal Obamacare is barely touched on, and the first Stormy Daniels news, which occurred during the period of Woodward’s focus, never comes up. (Michael Cohen is name-dropped twice, both times in passing, and narrowly in relation to dealings with Russia.) Even the full scope of politicking between DC and Riyadh, and Mohammad bin Salman’s purges in May 2017, get more thorough treatments in Fire and Fury than here.
Any reader who has encountered a working television over the last year can recite the litany of interpersonal insults and staffing changes Woodward catalogues in this dull and shallow book. Throughout the Trump presidency, the mainstream press has functioned much like Woodward has in Fear, granting anonymity to the same sources and publishing “beat sweeteners” untraceable as such to most readers. If Woodward’s methods are at once more obvious and unscrupulous, it is only a difference of degree.
Like the New York Times’s White House coverage, Fear is remarkable above all for its profound hermeticism. It would seem that writing a book that fails to take into account not only the real consequences of the Trump Administration’s policies, but also those very policies themselves, requires more effort than simply describing, in broad yet selective detail, exactly what has unfolded over the last year and a half, or letting White House staffers spin histrionic yarns in which they’re always the Smartest Guys in the Room and talk like half-pint Sorkin characters. In his refusal to describe anything beyond the details of what we already know in broad outlines, Woodward is DC’s very own Georges Perec, his fetish for self-constraint a key aspect of his establishmentarian style. Why narrate when you can regurgitate? Less than even the stenography of power, this is stenography of power by the numbers.
And why, for that matter, write this book at all? If the “insider’s inside story” promised by Woodward’s earlier presidential books had any value, it was strictly as a response to scarcity: before social media and the Trump era’s all-consuming political coverage, some details really might have been missed. But now everything is predigested, and what’s missing is precisely what Fear lacks: deep historical context, narratives that place the human costs of Trump’s actions above his rhetoric. This writing exists across magazines and the internet, but it hasn’t yet emerged in book form. For now, all we have are the books we don’t need but that suck all the air out of coverage for weeks—and get plenty of cynical attention from Trump, too.
It is telling that Wolff’s Fire and Fury and Omarosa Manigault Newman’s Unhinged—both treated with disdain by a press corps that has allowed Woodward to publish unscrupulous book after unscrupulous book for decades—are both more urgent and consequential books than Fear. Woodward’s vacant high-mindedness has always been a charade, but it has never felt less appropriate to its moment. His 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. So it is unsurprising that some of the sentiments Trump voices in Fear carry a kind of bracing, from-the-mouth-of-idiots clarity. “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.