Bob Woodward is a legend, yet I had never read one of his books. His famous breakout, All the President’s Men, came out when I was too young to be reading political heavyweights (I was not yet in middle school). He’s written many books since then but I admit I was not paying more than cursory attention to politics until things got weird in the Tea Party era. Anyway, I did not know what to expect.
Woodward is very organized, cogent and always clear in his recounting, but he is in this case not a natural story teller: in Rage, he does not spin a strong narrative. He is sparing with conjecture and weaves little of his own experiences or opinions in his reporting. He leaves a lot to the reader, which is appropriate for a reporter. He does not resort to partisanship or gonzo self-involvement in order to deliver a gripping, integrated tale as Hunter Thompson* would.
The majority of his narrative construction is found in the prologue, where he starts with a very detailed vignette of the oval office meeting where Trump was first given the head’s up on the corona virus and meetings that followed. Woodward then switches to cover several public speeches Trump made soon after in order to contrast what he knew versus what Trump told to the public. Woodward then jumps forward in time to the “I wanted to always play it down” interview (p. xviii) to set up a fairly damning statement—but with no commentary from Woodward. He lets the facts speak for themselves. That part of the prologue is the most constructed to illustrate Trump’s essential duplicity.
For the most part in Rage, Woodward reports, mostly staying in a linear timeline, giving ‘Just the facts ma’am,’ sparing with the commentary. His style, as a result, is sometimes choppy, with the occasional non-sequitur foray into a new subject. But he does give a surfeit of data so readers can form their own impressions. It’s an odd book; Woodward did not appear to write the book with the intention of delivering a hit job. There are times he’s all but begging Trump to give him something redeeming and Trump just doesn’t go there. From page 358 to 363 Woodward recalls a conversation where he’s trying to get Trump to admit to his priviledge, to admit he does not have the perspective to understand Black America, to reach out to his population, to show some heart. And all Trump can do is talk about jobs and the two bills he signed (one of which was a continuation of an existing program).
Although Woodward did not, I believe, set out to show Trump in a bad light, he’s a reporter and he holds little back, such as when Trump accuses him of writing ‘shit’ about him. But Woodward did not have to skew the record to make Trump look inadequate. Given the opportunity, Trump blithely wove his own rope, tied the noose and laid it around his own neck. If anything, the takeaway from this book is Woodward’s own amazement at how eagerly Trump indicted himself.
One thing that came through strongly for me is just how much Donald Trump knew about what was going on. Woodward does not criticize but contrasts Trump’s depth of knowledge to the thin, self-serving pabulum he fed the nation. For the most part, Rage gives the reader a uniquely intimate portrayal of who knew what in the highest levels of the American executive branch. Readers are left to fill in the rest and draw conclusions from their own recollection of Trump’s pronouncements and how they contrast from what Trump and his lieutenants divulged to Woodward. And they divulged a lot. Their interviews are intensely engaging.
If not a strong storyteller, Woodward does report, and superbly. He had astonishing access many insiders and of course to the most important and, presumably, busiest person in the world, the U.S. President. How could it be that the Prez would spend so much time with a reporter when he had so many deep cares to address? Woodward does muse about that and the time Trump is giving him but, true to form, for the most part lets the readers make their own inferences about Trump’s work ethic. Trump has time to talk. And boy, does he talk. Their first interview goes for 74 minutes (p. 182).
In recounting the President’s conversations, Woodward let’s Trump’s own words paint the picture of a man infatuated with playing at the role. For example, trying to convince Woodward that before Trump, Kim Jong Un never smiled (this is important as Trump is all about getting ‘firsts’), boasting about a new weapons system, dissing Obama. Complaining about how the South Koreans are playing us for ‘suckers’ (p. 186) and in the process exaggerating the cost of our presence there by six billion dollars. (That was a single interview!) Woodward does not comment. That is very common in this book: Trump making wacky statements, and Woodward simply fact-checks, drily, without overt criticism. He lets Trump’s duplicity speak for itself.
Of the insiders, we get a lot of detail about (and from) Jim Mattis, Dan Coats and to a lesser extent Rex Tillerson. Early chapters tell the story of how they were recruited, their first impressions, their motivations. One assumes this information came from the subjects themselves, so they’ve presented themselves in the best light—honored to serve, motivated to to the best for the country, etc. Later they are seen agonizing over the dysfunction and duplicity of the Administration they are chained to.
Other players get less intimate attention. We get some great quotes from Dr. Fauci “His attention span is like a minus number” (p. 354), CDC director Redfield, and some soliloquies from Jared Kushner. Nothing from Ivanka, she’s too cagey to talk to a reporter I guess. Lindsey Graham has a fair-sized part and comes off very well (of course, he must have recounted this meetings with Trump himself). It’s clear what a good relationship Trump had with Graham. It’s also shocking how good Graham’s guidance was to Trump (assuming true). If Trump had followed Graham’s lead, he might have made a decent president. But he didn’t.
Bottom line, the book is riveting in what is conveyed more than how it was conveyed. There is no stylistic flair. Woodward’s style is very journalistic: good, solid clear and concise prose, with a minimum of commentary. He expect his readers to think and to make their own conclusions, although he does wrap the book with a strong opinion of his own, finally. Regarding the Presidency, “Trump is the wrong man for the job.”
- With regard to Thompson, his Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, ’72 was the first book I read about politics and it opened my eyes. That was a simpler era however and I’m afraid that book is about as relevant to politics now as Wodehouse novels are to society. But it’s a fun read.