I’ve been asked by several people why I would even read this book. After all, we already have two sensational, and likely self-serving, books on President Trump (that I didn’t read). We already have mainstream media’s constant attacks on the President. We already have Trump’s Twitter feed. What more can I get from this? The answer and goal I always have is the same: the truth. The question is, does this book provide the truth? I’m not sure.
by Bob Woodward
Simon & Schuster
I did a lot of research on Woodward. The stuff he became known for is before my time: I wasn’t alive during Watergate. I was a child during Reagan and a young adult (who wasn’t paying attention) during Clinton. I wanted to make sure I was reading a “real” journalist’s account because I was tired of the sensational and self-serving. According to his press, Woodward seems like the real deal and one who may be above the squabbling and divisiveness of the current culture wars, which is important to me.
Over the last decade, our shared American culture has fractured. Social Media echo chambers reinforce and magnify myopic views that ignore the big picture, like someone taking and posting pictures of the hub caps on their beater car. The rise of citizen journalism, a good thing, has given bad actors a new platform to abuse the truth that along with the open political advocacy of publications – right and left – has worked to degrade trust in fact-based reporting. Pundits and opinion “journalists” have only made it worse as we seem to have more activist pundits than actual journalists in media and print. Bill O’Reilly may have made “the no spin zone” a popular phrase for a generation of watchers but he did so while continuing to spin himself. Everyone spins. Everyone is biased. But like the detective of old, what we really need, I think, is “just the facts, ma’am.”
In this culture of fear, suspicion, and distrust, I want to know what to believe. I’ve heard Trump give speeches. I’ve read transcripts. I know what he says and what he didn’t say (but is reported to have meant, which is dangerous to assume.) I know his voice and how he speaks. I think I know his character. What I’d like to know is if what I perceive is accurate of the President. Woodward is the best shot we have, I think, of finding that out.
But can we trust Woodward and his anonymous sources? On the plus side, we get information that we probably wouldn’t get otherwise for fear of reprisal. Anonymous sources drive most of the insider investigative reporting I’ve read or listened to. Not knowing the name of the leaker doesn’t mean it isn’t true. But on the negative side, I see several really big drawbacks, the biggest of these is if the journalist or the sources are driven by agendas. This is the one I’m most concerned with. If Woodward wanted to cash in his reputational chips, he could do a ton of damage to Trump here and maybe even justify to himself that the lies are worth it since he may believe something like “Trump is damaging the dream of America more than any terrorist attack ever could” (Joe Scarborough, published by the Washington Post on 9/11/18, the same paper that Woodward is an associate editor at and on the same day his book was released). We would never know that he was lying, if he did.
We have no assurance that the people he interviewed weren’t lying. For instance, there are scenes where we read the thoughts of people, like Lindsey Graham’s when talking to Trump. Something like, “Graham thought that [fill in the blank]…” Assuming this is actually happened, we could only know his thoughts if Graham was the source or someone who Graham told his thoughts to was the source. Graham has not been a fan of Trump and has made his feelings very clear during the 2016 campaign. Many of the stories with Graham make him out to be reasonable and willing to work with people he doesn’t like/agree with, and a few more make him look like a callous political elite who is fine with a million people dying in South Korea rather than in the US (according to one story.) Is someone trying to make Graham look a certain way? Is he? We don’t know. It is likely that many, if not most, of the people interviewed for the book no longer work at the White House (it seems likely that Bannon is a source since there are several Bannon and Trump private conversations recounted), or never did and maybe never were a fan (see Graham as an example.)
The only thing I know for sure is this: if these stories are accurate then there is a lot to be concerned about. I’m no politician, but I know NATO is one of the most important alliances in the history of humanity. I don’t get briefed by national security advisors, but I understand that strategic positioning of troops and military assets, including THADD installations, in South Korea are more important than the cost of upkeep. The list goes on. Trump’s statements, if true, are significantly more dangerous to national security than Gary Johnson’s “what is Aleppo?” comment, but in the same vein.
But what does all this mean? Joan Didion, in 1996 (New York Review of Books,) called Woodward’s reporting “political pornography.” While vulgar, it’s hard to say that this book can’t fit that description. Woodward recounts a series of stories, told by people we don’t know and we can’t know how they spun the stories according to their unknown agenda, that readers who already despise Trump will get a perverse pleasure from reading what may be true but what is certainly gossip. Others, who want to know the truth about what’s going on, will ultimately end up with a lot more information, but no more certainty.
While reading this, I was reminded once again of Proverb 18:17, “The first to speak in court sounds right–until the cross-examination begins.” This is Truth. Woodward’s book is… maybe true or maybe not.
My friends were right. Why did I read this book?