It’s just as well that Bob Woodward’s latest exposé seems to have already faded into irrelevancy. The news cycle has briskly lunged forward to new outrages (real or perceived). His supposedly game-changing revelations have been left behind. Still, Woodward’s brief time in the limelight proved highly profitable. His dramatically titled Fear sold 1.1 million copies in just a week, and once again Woodward was bathed in cultural adulation. ‘Seriously Bob, you seem to outdo yourself every time,’ swooned ‘Morning’ Joe Scarborough, as if expressing gratitude on behalf of the collective punditocracy.
His newest work’s short-yet-lucrative shelf-life is in some ways perfectly emblematic of the entire late-career Woodward bibliography: upon release, these books generate a quick spasm of hype and intrigue, fueled mostly by strategically-timed scintillating excerpts. Circular debates then ensue over Woodward’s methodology, and his sales receive an additional boost when implicated politicians come forward to disclaim their inaccurate portrayal. Woodward proceeds to do a victory lap, and we are told that this book will forever change how we understand such-and-such. But then a few days pass, the initial sugar high seems to taper, and one is left wondering: was that really worth all the fuss? Aside from some juicy quotes of dubious provenance, what lasting contribution to public understanding did Woodward really make? Might it be that the notion of fabled Woodward swooping in to the journalistic rescue, rather than the actual substance of the journalism he produces, is what stokes such adulatory frenzy?
Reading Fear is a tedious exercise and it’s amazing that so many people are apparently willing to do so on their own volition. Or maybe they just buy and don’t read.
More illuminating than the book itself has been Woodward’s whirlwind promotional tour. His pretense to above-it-all impartiality restrains him from making overtly normative judgements in the book, but in media interviews, Woodward has been prodded into offering opinionated commentary.
During an obligatory Morning Joe appearance, for instance, Joe asked Woodward for the book’s big-picture takeaway, and Woodward lamented first and foremost that Trump has rejected the advice of ‘financial experts’ and ‘national security experts’ within his own administration. From this Woodward deduced that Trump is guilty of waging a ‘war on truth.’ Every sentient being on Earth knows that Trump often has a strained relationship with reality, but that’s not what Woodward is getting at here. By invoking ‘war on truth,’ Woodward conflates Trump’s frequent aversion to established fact with Trump’s reluctance to abide elite wisdom. The former is comprehensively demonstrable, but the latter is a loaded political claim, and Woodward never pauses to consider whether the ‘expertise’ of these people is well-founded in the first place. He simply portrays them as unassailable, and Trump’s hostility to them as inherently discrediting. It doesn’t occur to Woodward that their ‘expertise’ could be rightly rejected.
That, ultimately, was the function of Woodward’s book and publicity offensive: to paint Trump’s heterodoxies, especially on foreign policy and trade, as the fruits of his erratic personality and therefore as ‘impulses’ which the ‘adults in the room’ must ‘rein in’ to save the Republic from ruin. Woodward, in his own peculiar way, has used Trump as a vehicle to solidify establishment maxims.
On the New York Times ‘Daily’ podcast, to take one example, Woodward described his shock that Trump had expressed wariness of the need for 28,000 US troops permanently stationed in South Korea. Woodward recounts that it fell to Defense Secretary James Mattis to remind Trump that the continued presence of these troops is a matter of grave, existential importance. ‘I was really jarred by this,’ a shaken Woodward recalled on the podcast, ‘that the secretary of defense has to remind the president that part of the job is preventing World War III.’ Left unexamined is whether the tens of thousands of American military personnel in South Korea genuinely does anything to ‘prevent World War III,’ or whether the sacrosanctity of this military initiative could ever be legitimately challenged. ‘This isn’t about Democrats or Republicans, or left, right,’ Woodward continued, ‘It’s about the stability of the country.’ Of course, the most effective pundits always couch their analytical judgments in this way, to place themselves above the taint of partisan mud-throwing. But there are few more weighty political claims than that the US has an obligation to keep its military deployed in foreign countries for perpetuity.
Woodward continued this theme with an appearance on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, which basically amounted to an infomercial for the THAAD anti-ballistic missile program – one of the US government’s biggest boondoggle expenditures. Woodward described THAAD as ‘a terrific missile system,’ and seemed to take personal offense at Trump’s reported negative reaction to the program’s price tag. Of course singing the praises of this massively expensive expenditure – a favourite of the defense contractors – is yet another politically-loaded claim on Woodward’s part. But his air of ‘just the facts’ reportorial seriousness obscures this.
Take finally the depiction of Trump’s skeptical attitude toward continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. In the book, Woodward treats this as yet another example of Trump’s crazy impulsiveness, which has to be constrained the generals and other ‘expert’ advisers who pleaded with him not to withdraw troops from the 17-year-old war. Eventually Trump does jettison his ‘instincts’ and capitulates to Mattis, who is portrayed as a saviour-like figure. So this is the effect of deferring to these supremely serious ‘experts’ who are supposed to be the only thing standing between Trump and civilisational catastrophe: more war. Which side of this dispute was irresponsible and impulsive, exactly?
In 2013, Rick Perlstein described Woodward as having evolved ignominiously into ‘a barometer of Washington conventional wisdom’ who is ‘utterly useless in explaining how Washington works.’ Rather, Perlstein suggested, Woodard had become the grand wizard of elite punditry, expressing the anxieties of the upper-crust opinion-making class in reportorial form. Perlstein’s assessment is just as valid with respect to this Trump book.