Have you ever stayed up until midnight to read a book? I have before and I intended to do so for Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward. I didn’t have to, since the eBook of the nonfiction work was released at 9 PST on September 10th, letting me sink my teeth into this whirlwind political drama as soon as possible. This is my review:
Bob Woodward is an associate editor at the Washington Post, where he has spent 47 years as a journalist. Woodward and fellow journalist Carl Bernstein were the first reporters to break the Watergate scandal in 1972. Since then, he has published 8 books about sitting presidents. In short, he is the presidential reporter. And Fear: Trump in the White House (Aha, I see what he did there) is the next in this pedigree.
Woodward is famous for the sheer amount of research that he puts into his presidential books and this creates a distinct style. Fear is a distant book, with a god’s eye perspective. The best and most interesting comparison to be made might well be to Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury. Fire and Fury was regarded as a lurid, tell-all about the Trump Administration, especially because it was released so soon after the 2016 election. In contrast to Woodward’s more distant style, Wolff wrote as a fly on a wall. In many ways, Fear reinforces some of the themes of Fire and Fury. On the former’s publishing, critics lambasted it and Wolff for exaggerating both his own importance and the events he depicted. And while the first is up for discussion (Wolff has claimed that he essentially had free reign in the chaotic White House of 2017), the second one is somewhat put to rest by Fear. The Trump White House was in a ongoing state of chaos in 2017. That said, while Woodward’s writing reflects the same climate as Wolff, he rightly avoids some of the more salacious elements that the former touched up. Wolff drew flak from critics for his focusing on the relationship between President Trump and former Press Secretary Hope Hicks, as well as a controversial comment near the end of his book about the relationship between Trump and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley.
The result is that while Fear does reinforce several of the observations made in Wolff’s book, it also shows the difference between good reporting and great reporting. Woodward goes to great lengths, in Fear‘s preface, to outline his system of Deep Background, wherein a full picture is assembled from hundreds of hours worth of interviews. This dedication to research has always been lauded by Woodward’s readers but in this particular instance, a new form of criticism has emerged. Many notable news sources like the Columbia Journalism Review have commented on the efficacy of using Deep Background when focusing on the Trump White House. If the members of the Administration are as self-serving as they appear to be, goes the logic, then why trust what’ll they have to say? And there’s something to this argument. The book itself is structured in a series of anecdotes, tied together in chapters based on themes. And between stories, certain figures come off as different, clearly indicating different sources. John Kelly, for instances, goes from being an island in the sea of chaos that is the Administration to being a hard-line member of the faction within the White House focused on immigration. Not all characterization is like this. Gary Cohn and Rob Porter (the former Director of the National Economic Council and former Staff Secretary) are the closest things to “protagonists,” in the overall story of the Administration’s first two years. That is to say, the book’s perspective is frequently sympathetic to Cohn and Porter more often then it isn’t. But Cohn and Porter are the exceptions that prove the rule. The anecdotal nature of the book mean that most of stories and the people involved in them are mercurial. And while this inconsistency is noteworthy, it’s always worth remembering that these are real people and not characters in a fictional story.
And I think that gets to the heart of why Fear isn’t just a good book but an important one. When I read Fire and Fury, the thoughts that went through my mind were ones of justification. It was an indulgent book, selling the idea that the Trump White House wasn’t just an ill-organized house of horrors but a living soap opera defined by the base nature of the actors. At the time, I was willing to accept those characterizations because it was the first book out of the gate to catch America’s imagination (and terror) about the current president and his cabinet. What’s more, it seemed to confirm what many people were already willing to believe, myself included. But Fear isn’t about selling any particular vision of the Administration. Like all good journalism, Fear is about elucidating the truth and building upon it. The few times that Woodward inserts himself into the story play into this. Woodward admits his own regret in regards to how he handled the initial release of the infamous Steele Dossier in mid-2016 but not before elaborating on why he went on CNN and admitted (then credible) doubt as to the Dossier’s veracity. Similar is the book’s take on the ongoing investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. At first the book seems to be ambivalent on the investigation and uses the viewpoint of Trump’s then personal lawyer John M Dowd to tell the story of its progress. Dowd himself doesn’t believe there was any collusion with Russia and since his is the viewpoint these sections of the book inhabit, it’s hard not to see sympathy within this assessment. But the book ends with Dowd’s resignation and a final denouement that casts the whole thing in a different light that I’ll refrain from spoiling here.
It took me a lot longer than I would’ve preferred to write this piece. Fear gives the reader a lot to think about. This has certainly been the most difficult review I’ve written since I started this site. We live in a world right now where we want to news to confirm to our beliefs. I mean, that’s the entire origin of the Fake News controversy, the idea that if we don’t agree with it or if it doesn’t fit our worldview, it’s “Fake News.” So along comes a book by one of the most influential journalists ever and it opens with a shocking scene of what the book itself calls “an administrative coup.” It’s the perfect opening for a book about the incompetent Trump Administration. But as the story progresses, the opening becomes almost forgotten under an ever growing rap sheet of smaller moments of dishonesty, selfishness and amorality. Sobering is perhaps the best word to describe Fear: Trump in the White House. Incisive in his honesty and unrelenting in his reporting, Bob Woodward’s book will go down as one of the most insightful windows into a dysfunctional government. When we look back on this period of history, Fear will form the bedrock on which we build our perspective.
Thanks for reading.
Fear: Trump in the White House is available through Simon and Schuster.