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BOOK REVIEW: FACING "FEAR" ITSELF

 

By Philip Revzin

CHICAGO, 30 OCTOBER 2018—In today‘s dizzying news cycle in the U.S., Bob Woodward‘s latest book, Fear: Trump in the White House, shot into everyone‘s consciousness briefly in September and then vanished from the news, if not from the Bestsellers list.

It shouldn‘t vanish.

From the opening story of Trump aides Rob Porter and Gary Cohn snatching from the President‘s desk an order terminating the U.S.-South Korea trade agreement – a really bad idea – and reasoning correctly that he‘d just forget about it, to the closing story of White House lawyer John Dowd quitting and thinking of his boss: "You‘re a fucking liar," the book is packed with worrying tales of a President in over his head and a White House out of control.

The "fear" in the title should be ours.

Yes, Woodward as always creates vivid scenes with great quotes and generally anonymous sourcing, raising doubts about the objectivity of some of the now departed and justifiably disgruntled aides in selling their own cases. Did it all happen exactly that way? Probably not.

But scary story after scary story piles up into one hell of a scary story.

And through it all runs a little-remarked on thread. Woodward at times seems to be pulling for some of Trump‘s instincts – against invasive U.S. wars, wanting to get out of Afghanistan and Iraq, pro-business – to win out, but finds himself overwhelmed by the incompetence and duplicity of it all.

There are also valuable insights into how Trump came to run and win (Thank you, Steve Bannon) the origins of the Russia investigation (Thank you, James Clapper) and some suddenly very-relevant details of Trump son-in-law and aide Jared Kushner‘s dealings with Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sultan that will prove useful fodder for future historians writing the second and third and fourth drafts of history.

But what‘s most striking is the day-by-day-by-day depiction of chaos which Trump has dismissed – "The White House is a well-oiled machine – but not refuted by any visible evidence.

To cite a few examples from the book:

  • Aides including now departed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried and failed to stop Trump from backing out of the Iran nuclear deal which had been painstakingly negotiated with allies (and yes, we do see Tillerson calling the President "a fucking moron," as had been widely reported at the time).

  • Aides including Secretary of Defense James Mattis presented in easy-to-digest slides a canned history of why the Western Alliance was important to the U.S., but got hit time after time with questions from Trump about how much it cost. That these lessons didn‘t work was shown the other day in a TV interview when Trump said the European Union was conceived as an economic rival to the U.S. (Wrong: It was designed to prevent Germany and France from ever again going to war against each other, as they had done twice in the first half of the 20th Century. It has worked for 75 years and long may it reign.)

  •     The debate over tax cuts pitted serious economic advisers (Thank you, Gary Cohn) against a president with a lot of fixed and intractable ideas. (Round numbers: 10%, 20%. 30% for the brackets!) And while Trump seemed to be against a lot of the details of the plan that eventually narrowly passed Congress, the advisers figured out that he didn‘t actually care about any of the details. "he just wanted a win," which he got.

  • We actually came perilously close to provoking North Korea into a war, saved, it seems, by Sen. Lindsay Graham (Thank you, Lindsay Graham) cleverly manipulating Trump into falling "in love," in the President‘s words, with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un.


There are dozens and dozens of scenes and examples. Do the "victories" (the tax bill, no war with North Korea, a renamed NAFTA that left it substantially unchanged) outweigh the danger of these heroic aides (Everybody who talked to Woodward) maybe missing an incendiary memo on their day off?

Woodward‘s pretty sure they don‘t, and given his straight-arrow persona and Watergate background, it‘s clear he‘s most troubled by all the ignorance, laziness and above all the lying.

It‘s not by accident that the final words of the book are attributed to the thoughts of John Dowd and directed at his former boss: "You‘re a fucking liar!"

 


Fear: Trump in the White House
By Bob Woodward

Hardcover: 448 pages
Simon & Schuster; 2nd edition (September 11, 2018)
ISBN-10: 1501175513
ISBN-13: 978-1501175510
$30.00

 

Philip Revzin is an award winning journalist and former editor-at-large for Bloomberg News. Previously, he was a long-time reporter, editor and publisher for The Wall Street Journal Europe in London, Paris and Brussels. Later, Mr. Revzin was named publisher and editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review and the publisher for The Wall Street Journal Asia in Hong Kong. Philip Revzin is the author of Just One Before I Die: A Cubs Fan‘s Chronicle of a Championship Season, currently available in a Kindle edition on Amazon.com. 



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