Whisper it low: Could Rage, out in bookstores this week, be the first Bob Woodward book in an age that’s actually worth reading?
My answer: Yes, but only 50 percent of the thing. Only after Woodward, at age 77, has an Alice in Wonderland epiphany halfway through, and changes the way he interviews Trump. At long last, with unusual honesty, Woodward becomes a visible character in his own decades-long story — and actually checks his own privilege.
They’re strange things, Woodward books. They invariably break news, because Mr. I-Broke-Watergate convinces every source in Washington to speak to him eventually, and they usually have something jaw-dropping to say when the tape-recorder’s on. (In the case of Rage, it’s Trump spilling his brains on COVID-19; the president kept calling Woodward because he was mad at being left out of Woodward’s previous book, Fear.)
So we buy them, anticipating some solid Pulitzer-worthy narrative. We proudly display them on the shelf for a week or a month or three, because who has the time? Then we crack them open one evening, long after the news storm has passed, and we realize: Holy cow, this guy cannot write.
Woodward admitted in a 1989 interview that good analysis eludes him. But it’s a language problem too. If you’ve ever had to re-read his pages to understand them, you’re not alone. Each paragraph contains a lead balloon of a sentence; each chapter meanders through pointless details. (Rage is the only book that will ever reveal how many Diet Cokes Trump drank as his helicopter circled a foggy landing zone in the Korean demilitarized zone: two.)
We also rediscover this inconvenient fact: Bob Woodward is an old-school establishment Republican. His political lean should come as no surprise; it’s right there in the movie about Woodward and Bernstein bringing down Nixon, All The President’s Men. (Robert Redford as Woodward says he’s GOP and voted for Nixon in ’68; Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein stares, incredulous). And it comes out in every book he writes; no matter how much Woodward claims to be an old-school just-the-facts-man objective journalist, his choices of source and subject speak volumes.
Fear, which I described in three words — bad, boring, bogus — was in many parts a love letter to Woodward’s favorite Trumpian sources. Lindsey Graham, Kellyanne Conway, and even Steve Bannon came out of it glowing whiter than white. Graham gets the occasional mash note in Rage too, but the bulk of Woodward’s ballpoint hearts are now etched next to former deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, and Trump’s former Defense secretary, retired General Jim Mattis.
I regret to report that Woodward, who admired both Mattis and Lt. General H.R. McMaster’s “ramrod-straight” posture in Fear, is at it again: “Mattis had a stoic Marine exterior and attention-getting ramrod posture, but his bright, open and inviting smile softened his presence.” Guys, get a room.
To read the first half of Rage is to believe that very little worthy of attention happened in this administration prior to the coronavirus outside of its erratic diplomacy with North Korea. Woodward repeatedly blanches at the thought that Mattis might have had to shoot down a North Korean nuke, maybe. It is to accept Russian election interference while eliding the very clear fact that the interference was to help Trump. It is to dismiss the Mueller report and all its open questions even as you report that Rosenstein deliberately set out to limit the investigation.
It is, in short, to give Trump every possible chance. Woodward is not even a Never Trumper Republican; by temperament, he seems to be a Maybe Trumper. At one point, for no narrative reason, he describes Dan Coats’ Indiana Republican wife wrestling with whether to vote for candidate Trump in 2016. While the Access Hollywood tape was “lewd,” and “she knew he was, as she put it, ‘a philanderer and a womanizer, no doubt about that,'” Trump had on the other hand “promised to fund a stronger military.” More ramrod-straight generals for the win!
Enter the Cheshire Cat
But the fact that Woodward speaks fluent old-school GOP is what makes his second-half conversion all the more powerful. And it’s why you might consider, if not reading Rage yourself, then at least mailing it to your political history-loving Republican uncle before the election.
The change comes when Woodward speaks to Jared Kushner halfway through, looking for keys to Trump’s character. Kushner takes him to Alice in Wonderland territory, literally:
He paraphrased the [Cheshire] cat: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there.” The Cheshire Cat’s strategy was one of endurance and persistence, not direction.
Kushner was explicitly saying Alice in Wonderland was a guiding text for the Trump presidency. Did Kushner understand how negative this was? Was it possible the best roadmap for the administration was a novel about a young girl who falls through a rabbit hole, and Kushner was willing to acknowledge that Trump’s presidency was on shaky, directionless ground?
In short, yes. This seems to be Woodward’s first clue that his president has no moral center whatsoever, and will say any old shit that appears in his brain, often on a repetitious loop. In the words of the New York Times‘ Maggie Haberman, another essentially sympathetic reporter, Trump will “say whatever he needs to say to get through ten minute increments of time.” Woodward is a late convert to this notion, because he is patriotically trained to expect more of presidents. He cannot believe there’s no there there, but … he finally got there.
Something remarkable happens with his Trump conversations from this point forward: Woodward actually starts fact-checking the president’s statements. It’s fact-checking of the most milquetoast sort, the kind that continually gives Trump the benefit of the doubt. There is plenty he doesn’t push back on, and alarmingly Woodward still seems to be more gung-ho on the conspiracy theory that COVID-19 was created in a Chinese lab than Trump is.
But that doesn’t stop Woodward boarding a fast train to Never Trump Town, where he will arrive at the end of the book. And no wonder. Trump has a limited number of verbal tricks to deploy, they all depend on distraction, and they look increasingly desperate the longer you keep him talking. Eventually he will try to end the debate by blurting out something pathetically, revealingly narcissistic, like this: “But the ideas are mine, Bob. The ideas are mine. Want to know something? Everything’s mine. You know, everything is mine.”
The more Trump reveals himself, and the more Woodward pushes back, the more the author becomes something he never intended but should have been all along — a visible figure in his own journalistic process. Finally, he has stepped out of the shadows where he tape-records and burnishes the legacy of his beloved sources. Finally, he is self-examining.
In the book’s most surprising moment, Woodward shares some of his own evolution with Trump: “My father was a lawyer and a judge in Illinois. And we know what your dad did. Do you have any sense that a privilege has isolated and put you in a cave, as it put me… and that we have to work our way out of it to understand the anger and the pain Black people have in this country?”
Trump scoffs and lashes out, accusing Woodward of “drinking the Kool-Aid.” Woodward persists, and finally drags Trump to a discussion about systemic racism where the president finally, briefly, reluctantly, admits it’s a thing — and has been a thing “for hundreds of years plus.” Kind of like, say, the 1619 project has been saying all along.
It’s too little too late, as far as Woodward is concerned. Trump has committed the fundamental crime of being an unserious president, and the coronavirus damns him. Mattis comes out against Trump in June 2020, describing him as a “threat to the Constitution” after Trump’s cynical church photo-op with active duty military on the streets of Washington D.C.; Woodward’s epiphany, coincidentally or otherwise, seems to have come around the same time. Finally, he abandons obtuse neutrality.
On the very last page of his epilogue, Woodward reaches his Never Trump destination. The establishment Republican who hoped for the best from Trump instead realizes he is a grifter who has “enshrined personal impulse as a governing principle of his presidency… Trump is the wrong man for the job.”
For those of us who reached that conclusion in 2016, Woodward’s plodding pace can be infuriating. But there are many white seventysomething Republicans in America in his situation right now, with the scales falling from their eyes in the wake of a virus that Trump clearly isn’t protecting them from, and reading Rage may help speed along their own epiphanies.
This should be encouraged, not scoffed at. For the sake of the country, and for us never having to read another Woodward book on Trump, let us hope they vote accordingly.
More TLDR breakdowns:
Real Life. Real News. Real Voices
Help us tell more of the stories that matterBecome a founding member
Subscribe to the newsletter news
We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe