Bob Woodward's "Rage" reviewed by former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark.
Bob Woodward is one of the United States' most respected political journalists. He has written about American presidents from the time of Richard Nixon on. He is a thorough researcher, he is fair and he writes exceptionally well. A Woodward book is always a compelling read and this latest publication, "Rage", does not disappoint.
"Rage" is Woodward's second book on Donald Trump's presidency. The President was not made available for interview for the earlier book, "Fear: Trump in the White House", and reportedly was not happy with it.
But when the opportunity arose for the President to be interviewed for the sequel to "Fear", Trump took it. That says something about both Trump and Woodward. Trump recognised Woodward as a fair journalist. Woodward, in turn, reported what Trump said to him faithfully and in full.
The result is a remarkable volume, based not only on hundreds of hours of interviews with key players in the Trump presidency, but also on 18 conversations between Trump and Woodward. Some of these were scheduled in Trump's diary; others occurred when Trump dialled Woodward for a chat, knowing full well that every conversation was recorded. Clearly the President wanted to get his version of events out – or, to be more exact, his versions - for, as Woodward reports, Trump - who describes his approach to governing as flexible - was capable of turning his views on the proverbial dime.
The book records Trump's mantras in detail, from his fixed ideas about other countries ripping off the United States on everything from defence to trade, to his having been the greatest president ever for the economy and jobs and even as the president who had done the most for African Americans since Abraham Lincoln who led the abolition of slavery. Lyndon Johnson and the 1964 Civil Rights Act apparently didn't count at all and nor was any achievement of the Obama era acknowledged.
The conversations between Trump and Woodward are perhaps better described as monologues by Trump as he defended his record. Nothing that had gone wrong on his watch was apparently his responsibility but rather that of the rather large number of senior personnel in the Administration and the White House, whom he dismissed or who left of their own accord during his time in office.
A number of the men who served the Trump Presidency but who failed to please are profiled in some detail in this book. There was Jim Mattis, the Defence Secretary, who on December 6, 2019 had pledged to American allies that the United States would stay the course in the fight against Isis in Syria. On December 19 he, like the rest of the world, learned via a presidential tweet that the United States was withdrawing its troops from Syria. Mattis immediately offered his resignation and it was accepted. He later said: When I was basically directed to do something that I thought went beyond stupid to felony stupid, strategically jeopardising our place in the world and everything else. That's when I quit."
Others, like the relatively short term Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, also found that it was very difficult to run their portfolios when policy by tweet cut across the relationships they endeavoured to build with other nations and when their advice was unheeded.
One of the most fascinating aspects of "Rage" is on the friendship that flourished for a time between Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Woodward had access to 27 letters that passed between the two men and describes them as "florid and grandiloquent". They were a far cry from the rhetoric of Trump's first year in office when he described Kim as a madman, derided him as "little rocket man" and threatened him and his country with what amounted to nuclear annihilation.
But in 2018, Trump decided that he would meet with Kim. There were eventually three meetings – one in Singapore, one in Hanoi, which was widely described as a failure and one in the Demilitarised Zone between the two Koreas, where Trump took the historic step across the line to stand on North Korean territory.
In a letter to Kim after their Hanoi meeting, Trump wrote: "You are my friend and always will be." Kim responded: "Every minute we shared 103 days ago in Hanoi was also a moment of glory that remains a precious memory." There is much else in that vein in the correspondence. Woodward reports that CIA analysts were never able to identify who wrote Kim's letters but that they marvelled "at the skill someone brought to finding the exact mixture of flattery while appealing to Trump's grandiosity and being corner stage in history".
Woodward interviewed Trump right up until and even after his manuscript went to his publisher in late July this year. For months, the President had been preoccupied by the unfolding tragedy of the Covid-19 pandemic, the reaction to the horrific killing of George Floyd, and his re-election campaign. The Administration's handling of the pandemic has been well covered in the news media; the insights about that in the book come from Woodward's persistent and unsuccessful attempts to have Trump define what the strategy actually was.
When major protests broke out against the treatment by police of African Americans, Trump saw an opportunity to turn the national conversation away from the pandemic, telling Woodward: It's law and order, Bob, law and order. We're right where I want."
Writing this review just days before the presidential election, there remains uncertainty about what the public verdict on this most unusual of American presidencies will be. Woodward, the veteran and dispassionate observer, however, has made up his mind.
"Rage" ends with his assessment that: "When his performance as President is taken in its entirety, I can only reach one conclusion: Trump is the wrong man for the job." The outcome of November 3 will reveal whether American voters agree with that judgment.
Rage, by Bob Woodward (Simon & Schuster, $55, hardback) is available now from all good NZ booksellers.