A Review by Cathy Smith*
It was 1974, and we were all standing around a small television in the lobby of a hotel in Mexico City. President Richard Nixon was resigning from the office of President of the United States. My uncle turned to my mother and asked her thoughts about Watergate and President Nixon. Mom was not a big supporter of Nixon. For her, it was personal. During the 1950s, we lived in Bolivia. My father was one of the chief advisers to President Paz Estensoro and was involved in all the diplomatic meetings with any state officials from the United States. It was during one of Nixon’s visits to Bolivia as Vice President of the United States that things got very personal for my mom, and both my parents lost all respect and support for Nixon.
It is funny how the mind works, and how certain memories come back when watching current events in the news. In this case, all the memories of Watergate, Nixon, and my parents surfaced as I followed, and continue to follow, the drama of the Trump administration from the elections leading up to 2016, the midterms of 2018, the Mueller investigation, and Bob Woodward’s latest book Fear: Trump in the White House.
Bob Woodward is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist whose most notable work was with colleague Carl Bernstein when the two men blew the lid off the Watergate scandal with their investigative reporting. Their book, All the President’s Men, chronicles their work on Watergate. Woodward has worked for the Washington Post for over 45 years. Of his 19 authored or coauthored books, 13 have been number one national non-fiction bestsellers, and nine have been on recent U.S. Presidents (Woodward, n.d.). Fear: Trump in the White House was sold out before the book’s actual publication date. I initially bought the Audible version of the book, and later picked up a hard copy I found hiding in a stack of books at the local Costco. When going through checkout, the cashier told me I was lucky to have found the book because all the local bookstores sent representatives into Costco on the release date to purchase the Costco copies. He was surprised they had missed one. According to Woodward (n.d.) Fear: Trump in the White House has “sold more than 1.1 million copies in its first week in the United States and broke the 94-year-first-week sales record of its publisher Simon & Schuster” (para. 1).
Fear: Trump in the White House presents readers with a report of the Trump White House based on “multiple deep background interviews with firsthand sources” (Woodward, 2018, “Source Notes” pp. 363-390). Woodward presents readers with an inside look at what seems to be a White House in chaos. The story starts eight months into Trump’s term as President of the United States. Woodward opens with an account of a letter draft to the President of South Korea which would pull the United States out of KORUS, the United States – Korea Free Trade Agreement (Woodward, 2018, p. xvii). Woodward (2018) continues to explain in detail how Gary Cohn and Rob Porter “worked together to derail what they believed were Trump’s most impulsive and dangerous orders” (p. xix). From this example, Woodward takes his readers back to the beginning of the Donald Trump story, his rise to power, and how the White House drama of this administration continues to unfold in the headlines today.
Before the campaign, there was Steve Bannon, a scruffy looking, unkempt, right-wing media executive and strategist who was executive chairman of Breitbart News prior to becoming a chief strategist and senior counselor for Donald Trump. Bannon is a nationalist and holds to his America-first viewpoints. Bannon’s America-first viewpoint became the foundation for Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign, which included three points of focus: (1) to end mass illegal immigration (2) bring manufacturing back to the United States, and (3) get out of unnecessary foreign wars (Woodward, 2018). Bannon also encouraged the Trump campaign to focus on the fact that Donald Trump was not a politician, and that the campaign should focus the attention mostly on the Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. Throughout the book, Woodward provides example after example as to how Bannon influenced the campaign and the policies that laid the foundation for the White House we see today. However, even Bannon’s influence was limited when it came to Trump’s real inner circle, which is inclusive of the Trump family that include his wife, Melania; his son, Donald (Don) Trump, Jr.; his daughter, Ivanka; and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. In an article from CNN, Betsy Klein (2018) reports, “In a White House where the loyalty of some is in question, family members are among the very few Trump trusts completely” (para. 4).
In the first part of his book, Woodward describes a situation where Melania strongly refuses to sit to one side of Trump, with Ivanka on his other side while he makes a tearful apology about misogynist comments made years earlier. Although Melania did not sit next to Trump for this staged apology recommended by Kellyanne Conway, Melania did release a statement to the public expressing her dissatisfaction with his comments, but also shared her forgiveness in hopes that the public could do the same (Woodward, 2018). As I read this section of the Woodward’s book, I remembered the Clinton/Lewinsky affair. I thought about how this played out in the media when this story broke and how it continued to haunt Hillary Clinton throughout her Presidential campaign. Later in his book, Woodward then describes the West Wing’s views of Melania Trump and President Trump as having “sincere affection for each other” even though “she operated independently” (p. 174). According to Woodward (2018) “They ate dinner together at times, spent some time together; but they never really seemed to merge their lives” (p. 174).
Don Trump, Jr., who took over his father’s private businesses when his father took office, is said to be Trump’s most vocal advocate (Klein, 2018). Woodward’s mention of Don, Jr., focuses on his meetings with the Russians at Trump Tower in the middle of the presidential campaign. Closer to the inner workings of the Trump White House are both the first daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner. Woodward references this power couple throughout his book, illustrating the influence they have on President Trump. Woodward clearly leaves his readers with the impression that although Ivanka was on the President’s staff, she did not see herself as a staffer. Woodward describes an altercation between Bannon and Ivanka when Bannon calls her out on working around the Chief of Staff, and not following protocol by working through him. Woodward (2018) states that Ivanka was not shy about using her title as the first daughter when she assertively shouted at Bannon that she was not a staffer, but the first daughter. According to Maxwell Tani (2017), Jared Kushner, as one of Trump’s senior advisors, was “tasked by his father-in-law to solve some of the world’s most complex and confounding political problems domestically and abroad” (para. 2). Throughout Fear, Woodward makes mention of Kushner and his involvement in the Trump White House.
Outside of Trump’s immediate family, Woodward’s list of players, who seem to come and go, is extensive. Woodward does a great job weaving the narratives of the various players into the story of this White House administration. Woodward discusses the campaign, the Mueller report, immigration, trade, and the role this administration plays in the world and at home. Woodward paints a picture of how Trump was selected as the Republican candidate and then molded into the image of what the powers in control of the money wanted as the President of the United States. The chaos exposed by the reports from Woodward’s deep background interviews reflects not only the fear that some Americans may feel from reading his book, but is also reflective of the fear that individuals may have from working in and with the current White House administration.
After I finished listening to the book, I found that I needed some time to process and digest everything that I had just listened to. I decided to turn on the radio. The 1968 Simon and Garfunkel song “At the Zoo” was playing.
The monkeys stand for honesty | Giraffes are insincere| And the elephants are kindly but they’re dumb| orangutans are skeptical | Of changes in their cages | And the zookeeper is very fond of rum | Zebras are reactionaries | Antelopes are missionaries | Pigeons plot in secrecy | And hamsters turn on frequently | What a gas, you gotta come and see | At the zoo… (Simon, 2018, lines 16 – 29)
The timing of the song was a perfect ending to a well-written book. The Trump White House, as Woodward describes it, was (and still is) a zoo. As I continue to follow the news and the current state of the nation, I remember Watergate, and the scandals of a President my parents did not respect. I turned off the radio and sat in silence for a few seconds until another song/poem came into mind titled “‘The Ballad of the Skeletons’: Allen Ginsberg’s 1996 Collaboration with Phillip Glass and Paul McCartney.” I wondered about the agelessness of the songs and poetry of the Fifties Beat Generation and the Rock music of the Sixties. My mind finally wandered to Bob Dylan and I asked myself are the times “A-Changin”?
Klein, B. (2018). How Don Jr. became the President’s most vocal defender. CNN Politics. Retrieved on December 10, 2018 from https://www.cnn.com/2018/09/15/politics/donald-trump-jr-defender/index.html
Simon, P. (2018). At the zoo. Paul Simon. Retrieved on December 5, 2018 from https://www.paulsimon.com/song/zoo/
Tani, M. (2017). Here are all the duties Jared Kushner has in the Trump administration. Business Insider. Retrieved on December 10, 2018 from https://www.businessinsider.com/what-does-jared-kushner-do-in-trump-administration-2017-4
Woodward, B. (2018). Fear: Trump in the White House. Simon and Schuster: NY, NY
Woodward, B. (n.d.) Bob Woodward. Retrieved on December 5, 2018 from http://bobwoodward.com/
*Cathy Smith is a Full-time Faculty member at the University of Phoenix. She has taught at all grade levels, from kindergarten through college, as well as ESL. She herself is a bilingual citizen and advocates for Dreamers and DACA. She has many Things to Say about politics and the current Agent Orangenikov currently invading the Oval Office.