The Ten Books of Christmas: Between Christmas and New Year’s FlaglerLive customarily reduces production. It helps us, and no doubt you, exhausted reader, to take a break from outrage and lurid politics. This year I’m doing something a little different. Instead of only running the usual end-of year sum-ups and fillers, I’m launching the Byblos column and offering the Ten Books of Christmas: every day I’m publishing an original piece of mine on one of the books of the year I found most notable—books old and new, fiction and nonfiction, whether inspired by covid, confinement, covfefe or just the libidinous, inebriating pleasure of reading. No doubt only six or seven readers out there are interested in this sort of thing. That's OK. They’re ignored the rest of the year, so this is for them. I hope they find these, ahem, brief reflections (rather than reviews) at least a little provocative. The days' installments are listed below.
We don’t have court historians, those stenographic courtesans embedded in power’s antechambers to write regal history’s first draft. But we have Bob Woodward: the PR man with selective access to vanity Machiavellis.
His years as an insurgent reporter who could bring down a president didn’t make it past the 1970s. His 80s and 90s drifted between targets that never matched his earlier hype–John Belushi, the CIA, the Pentagon, Bill Clinton, all of it more salacious than scandalous, none of it so insightful as to be more than curiosity footnotes once the books lumbered past the bestsellers’ list. By the time he wrote Maestro (on Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan) and Bush at War after 9/11, Woodward’s transformation into a propagandist was so complete that State of Denial four years later was as much about Bush’s self-destruction as it was about Woodward’s, whose tongue hanging at Bush’s footstool begged for a lashing.
Woodward knows his limitations as his readers may not. “I can’t write those big cosmic analyses,” he told Playboy in 1989. “I read things by various people that I wish I could replicate, weaving fact and judgment, the kind of sophisticated calls that really help the narrative. But I am just not capable—and this is a grave fault—of taking A, B, C and D and saying, ‘OK, now E.’”
So we get the transcripts. The use of direct quotes gives his books the feel of immediacy, but the quoting is at once so promiscuous and so obviously selective that it comes across no differently than a reality TV show, as a kind of voyeurism. Without the E, there’s not much there there. The illusion of being on the inside is sustained only to the degree that the quoting is attached to headliners’ names. But what is said is remarkably uninteresting. You excuse it in hopes of learning something about the sausage-making behind policy.
In Peril, there’s not even any sausage-making. Peril is the third panel in Bob Woodward’s triptych of Trump’s iconography. It’s unprecedented chattiness from Woodward’s workshop for a president’s lone term. George W. Bush got four books for eight years’ work, Barack Obama just two. Woodward had help this time from fellow-Washington Post reporter Robert Costa, so the book is better constructed than usual Woodward: fewer cliches, quicker pace, and that Plutarchian attempt at parallel lives.
The book is as much about Joe Biden as it is about Trump, though neither comes off as a heroic figure. By the time Woodward and Costa are done reporting Trump’s plunders of the executive as a functional branch of government, Anybody But Trump sounds Olympian. Biden is made to look like a savior only by default. We should’ve done better. We couldn’t. A nation’s cancerous political class that enabled a Trump couldn’t possibly have a very deep bench, Left or Right. Trump isn’t the cancer. He’s its more tumorous bulge, making Peril more prelude than ending even if its authors don’t recognize their own writing on the wall, though who can blame them.
There’s a black hole at the center of the psycho-fiction of this Trump universe: not a single policy discussion is reported in Peril’s 418 pages. Not even about the pandemic. Trump doesn’t have them. He’s not interested. Covid-19 posed the single-gravest threat to national security since World War II. The word pandemic doesn’t appear until page 55, and only in reference to what Biden was doing. It first appears in connection with Trump on page 80, only in reference to something William Barr, the attorney general, was doing. The first direct reference to Trump and the pandemic is on page 81, only in contrast to what Biden was doing: “Biden’s lead widened to double digits as the president continued to mismanage the pandemic.”
For something to be mismanaged, there would have had to be some coherent attempt at management. There was none. (“Woodward asked, was there a moment where you said to yourself, this is the leadership test of a lifetime? ‘No,’ Trump said.”) It’s not a Woodward-Costa blind spot. Lawrence Wright in The Plague Year, a better reported and more comprehensive analysis of that year, found none either, not above the cabinet level. It was spotty even there.
Governance is a no-show in Peril. Even ideology is absent. Trump nominated Amy Barrett to the Supreme Court, but that computerless receptionist who used to toady to him in “The Apprentice” for years could have nominated Barrett and gotten the same result with Mitch McConnell’s Automat majority and democracy-crushing hypocrisy. Anyway Barrett, arguably Trump’s biggest (successful) coup of his final year beside getting a vaccine, is a no-show in the book. Not one mention. Not even in connection with Trump’s superspreader party when he announced her nomination.
So WC’s most revealing reporting, at least about Trump, is by omission. (The pages about Biden are duller but more turgidly substantive in a Federal Register sort of way.) The nation’s peril was as much the result of what Trump ignored as what he did. The country was as leadersless as it’s ever been, sustained by the strength of its bureaucracy, the institutional gridwork that would enable the national machinery to plough on possibly for years even with an invalid at the helm, as it in fact did in Woodrow Wilson’s stroked out final years, as it did to for the majority of Donald Trump’s tenure by Twitter as cabinet secretaries turned over at two, three and four times the rate of presidencies going back even to the Reagan-Bush I revolving doors.
In that context, the phone call Gen. Mark Milley, the nation’s senior military officer and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, placed to his counterpart in China’s People’s Liberation Army two days after Trump had fueled his mob’s attack on the Capitol during that attempted coup was nowhere near the scandal Trump’s other mob on TV and social media made it out to be. It certainly wasn’t treason, as Trump’s sabotaging behavior since Election Day had been. It was a safeguard, essential and belated. It was “pulling a Schlesinger.”
Thanks to John Kennedy and Robert McNamara, we live in the only country on earth where a single man can order a nuclear strike. As Nixon wandered the White House drunk on booze and prayer, clinically depressed and enraged at his loneliness in his grimmest Watergate days, Defense Secretary James Schlesinger worried that Dick’s last trick could be a mad lunge for the nuclear football. Schlesinger told the head of the joint chiefs to get his approval before considering “any emergency order coming from the president.” Admiral William J. Crowe, chairman of the Joints Chiefs under President Ronald Reagan, had the same backchannel arrangement in 1987 with Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, the chief of the Soviet General Staff, as Reagan was self-destructing during the Iran-Contra scandal and the Soviets’ Gorbachev looked none too sure of his own power.
Milley feared Trump was pulling a Nixon in his White House quarters, drunk on delusions and dictatorial schemes. (“The scenes of a screaming Trump in the Oval Office resembled Full Metal Jacket, the 1987 movie featuring a Marine gunnery sergeant who viciously rages at recruits with dehumanizing obscenities.”) The Chinese were panicking, their military was “on high alert,” convinced that Trump could pull off a diversionary folly to hold on to power. Trump was not going to reassure them himself. So Milley pulled a Schlesinger. Big deal. Or rather, thank god.
Lacking memory or context and hunting for nonexistent scents of treason, the media focused on Milley’s phone call to General Li Zuocheng. The phone call between Milley and Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House, is more interesting. We all knew how little Pelosi thought of Trump, but not the extent to which Trump’s own appointees thought him a danger to the nation and the Constitution: “Milley believed January 6 was a planned, coordinated, synchronized attack on the very heart of American democracy, designed to overthrow the government to prevent the constitutional certification of a legitimate election won by Joe Biden. It was indeed a coup attempt and nothing less than ‘treason,’ he said, and Trump might still be looking for what Milley called a ‘Reichstag moment.’ In 1933, Adolf Hitler had cemented absolute power for himself and the Nazi Party amid street terror and the burning of the Reichstag parliamentary building.”
The sacking of the Capitol was enough of a Reichstag moment that the Chinese weren’t the only ones panicking. So was Russia. So was Europe. So were most democracies, let alone Democrats. But yet another no-show that gives Peril its name is the vanished panic, quickly replaced by more Reich-like cowering, among Republicans, and portrayed by “once-admired senators such as Mr [Lindsay] Graham, whose fawning over Mr Trump is especially dismal,” as The Economist described Trump’s second-most strident sycophant. The first, in Peril as elsewhere, remains Rudolph Giuliani, who outdid Trump’s Big Lie with his his fabrications about dead voters, out of state voters, voters from vacant homes, voters who weren’t citizens and all sorts of other inventions leaking from his skull like whatever that was that dribbled down his temple at one of his news conferences after the election.
Trump himself is really the least interesting part of this book. Nothing we read about him is new. So much of Trump is vacuous. In 2018 Amazon listed Bob Woodward’s Fear, the first in the Trump trilogy, along with Stormy Daniels’s Full Disclosure as “frequently bought together.” It was more than a pun. I read the two books in quick succession at the time and found the pairing essential if either is to make sense, though it says something that a porn star’s autobiography is better written and more informative than Fear or Peril of Trump’s politics and character (it has nothing to do with his penchant for Old Spice and Pert Plus, or his “huge mushroom head” penis, which Daniels described as being “like a toadstool”).
He is more strategic when he chases after women, chooses his telegenic backdrops or choreographs his eerily Mussolini-like gestures than when deciding to pull out of the Paris climate accords, risk a nuclear war with North Korea, prepare for the pandemic of the century or detect the difference between saving lives and protecting his image. He is unimaginative at the moment of conquest. That’s as true of bagging Stormy Daniels as winning the election. He reverts to juvenile ruse when the aftermath differs from his fantasies about it–whether it’s inventing inauguration crowd sizes and election victories or disinventing his encounters with Daniels by sending a goon to threaten her–as he would attempt to disinvent his electoral loss by unleashing different kinds of goons on airwaves, in courthouses and at that Arizona recount.
On Nov. 12, election security groups from the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and the National Association of State Election Directors, which included Escambia County Supervisor of Elections David Stafford, released a joint statement: “The November 3rd election was the most secure in American history. […] All of the states with close results in the 2020 presidential race have paper records of each vote, allowing the ability to go back and count each ballot if necessary. This is an added benefit for security and resilience. This process allows for the identification and correction of any mistakes or errors. There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.” (The bold type was in the original statement.)
Trump’s response: he accused Department of Homeland Security’s cyber chief Chris Krebs of providing a “highly inaccurate” statement about the election, and fired him by tweet. The Trump universe being what it is–the cube-footage Trump’s corpulence occupies–there is no room for reflection, fact, big picture. There is only Trump’s image. There is only a difference of degrees, not methods or motives, between the ways he went about silencing Stormy Daniels and fabricating the fraud of the 2020 election. Daniels eventually had the best of him. But a third of Americans still buy the lie even though “about 90 judges, including Trump appointees, would end up ruling against Trump-backed challenges,” WC report in Peril.
The very last line of Fear–“You’re a fucking liar,” words John Dowd, one of Trump’s legal advisers, wanted to say to the president’s face but couldn’t–cannot be said of Stormy Daniels. They can be of Trump. That’s all you need to know about our Republic’s unmoored moral center.
That, and the most sinister account in Peril that got little attention: the Jan. 2, 2021 memo by John Eastman, one of Trump’s lawyers, laying out a step-by-step procedure for a coup–as WC describe it, “a procedural action by the vice president to throw out tens of millions of legally cast votes and declare a new winner,” falsely conjuring the vice president as “the ultimate arbiter” of the election.
“Why wasn’t the Eastman memo treated as what it is: a flashing red alert, signaling that Trump’s allies were (and almost certainly still are) plotting the end of free and fair elections in America?,” the columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote three months ago. That memo was the origin of Trump’s assaults on Mike Pence in the run-up to the Jan. 6 vote (also detailed in the book) and part of the now incontrovertible evidence that Trump planned the Jan. 6 insurrection and expected it might work. Of course he’s not done.
Rather than get into those weeds, Woodward turns concubine. You can tell who Woodward’s good guys are from the number of times he quotes their angst. Dowd was one of his good guys in Fear. Lindsay Graham has been Trump’s–and Woodward’s–Greek Chorus since Fear, too, where Sen. Rob Porter, James Mattis, the secretary of defense who would eventually call Trump a threat to the Constitution, Gary Cohn (briefly Trump’s chief economic adviser) and Reince Priebus (Trump’s chief of staff for a few weeks) all use Woodward as Woodward’s sources usually do: to salve their conscience. In Peril, it’s again Graham, who adorably thinks he can be Trump’s enabler without demolishing his own legacy. It’s William Barr, the attorney general and latter-day constitutionalist who discovers just in time that Trump really is nuts, and of course Milley, whom WC try to cast as a moral lodestar, a cavalry of one.
It’s not convincing. All of Woodward’s people–to use the way Mencken described Ring Lardner’s people–“share the same amiable stupidity, the same transparent vanity, the same shallow swishiness; they are all human Fords in bad repair, and alike at bottom.”
There are impressive displays of heroism, if that’s what you’d rather call men and women doing their job and preventing Trump from subverting the republic. Even Mitch McConnell thought “January 6th was a disgrace,” an act of “terrorism” fueled by people “fed wild falsehoods by the most powerful man on earth because he was angry he’d lost an election,” as he said on the floor of the senate. “There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible,” McConnell said. “It was also the entire manufactured atmosphere of looming catastrophe, the increasingly wild myths about a reverse landslide election that was being stolen in some secret coup by our now president.”
But why did Trump survive two impeachments? Because for all their calculated indignation, McConnell and his party excused him just as the revolving cast of Trump’s cabinet, Barr and Milley among them, excused him as they used him far more than he used them. (Trump used the machinery of government to benefit his Trump Organization, and his image, a different sort of malfeasance.) And because, as Peril and numerous other books about Trump’s genius for dysfunction illustrated (Mary Trump, Michael Wolff, Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig), he isn’t that smart. Or rather, he isn’t so smart that he knows how not to let his will to power trip him up. He was his own worst enemy.
Which leaves you with the most depressing, unspoken take-away from Peril. It reveals how shoddy the political infrastructure’s safeguards against authoritarian malevolence are. Trump is a fool. But to the extent that he got away with as much as he did suggests a wilier president, Trump’s lessons in hand, can and will get away with a lot more. Peril isn’t history. It’s tragicomedy. It’s a chronicle of trash foretold. It’s prediction. The worst is ahead.
Pierre Tristam is the editor of FlaglerLive. Reach him by email here.