The fact Bob Woodward has written another book about the current occupant of the White House should be greeted with roughly the level of enthusiasm reserved for such annual or semi-annual non-events as the Biennial Conference of the American Hippotherapy Association or the Pro Bowl. I would be tempted to suggest that the latest affectless, indifferently written Woodward volume is a matter of at most seasonal interest, like the early September appearance of Halloween candy in supermarkets, except that unlike the former, Rage is unlikely to bring pleasure to any living American.
This is true with two exceptions. The first is the only class of persons likely to be aware of the book’s existence, namely Woodward’s fellow journalists and the rapidly aging subset of upper-middle-class white liberals who will purchase and perhaps even read parts of it. In these circles Rage will be feverishly and uncritically discussed and tweeted out in snippets — all five or so pages of a total 480 capable of arousing even minimal if still largely feigned enthusiasm — until it is promptly and inexorably forgotten. (Who now can remember a single thing “reported” in the vast shelf of books he wrote about the administrations of Bill Clinton, the two Bushes, and Barack Obama?) The second is Woodward himself, who can somehow never get over his luck at finding a vindictive FBI agent passed over for promotion willing to give him the time of day. Verily I say, he has his reward.
Hence my inability to get worked up about the 52-second snippet of conversation between two septuagenarians released amid a great deal of manufactured outrage on Wednesday afternoon. If reports are to be believed, this fragment from Woodward’s “explosive new book” (the exact phrase that has been used to describe very nearly every book the man has published in my lifetime) is evidence of a — get this — “cover-up” of the not exactly secret virus that emerged in Wuhan last fall. Here is an exact transcript of the exchange that has already given rise to to hundreds of thousands of words of meaningless commentary. As far as I can tell, the only noteworthy thing about it is President Trump’s mistaken impression that the virus, whose average victim is older than the life expectancy, poses a meaningful (as in greater than influenza, which killed nearly 2,000 Americans aged 17 or younger in its 2017-18 season) risk to younger persons.
Maybe I missed something. Did you catch it, ladies and gentlemen, the exact moment when Nixon, sorry, I mean Trump, confessed his crimes on tape to the world’s best-known political reporter, just as (remember that we spent three years pretending to believe this!) he once initiated the hacking of email accounts associated with various sordid personalities involved in Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign during a live television interview in the middle of a political convention?
There are, I suppose, people who actually inhabit this reality, just as there are people who once believed that George W. Bush was a war criminal and the worst president in American history and did so up until roughly the minute he started sharing cough drops with the wife of one of his successors. One longs for the day — who could deny its sweet inevitability? — when they rhapsodize about the decency and tolerance of the earliest eventual occupant of the Oval Office to endorse same-sex civil partnerships.
Why do presidents talk to Woodward? Is it some kind of tradition, cloying but innocuous like the White House Turkey Pardon? His modus operandi is by now fairly well established: Speak to him because if you do not he will publish hundreds of pages of decontextualized gossip from disgruntled agenda-driven current or ex-employees. He will in fact probably do so regardless of what you say to him and when, but why spoil the fun?
What Woodward does is not journalism. It is, as Joan Didion memorably put it, “political pornography.” His books rightly line the outdoor free piles of every used bookstore in the country, their unread (but occasionally signed pages) no longer fit even to gather dust, but demoted to soaking up the rain.
Maybe he should start publishing them in the spring.