Jennifer Szalai on John Bolton: “His wonkishness and warmongering can make him seem like an unlikely hybrid of Ned Flanders and Yosemite Sam.”

From a New York Times review by Jennifer Szalai headlined “In ‘The Room Where It Happened,’ John Bolton Dumps His Notes and Smites His Enemies”:

There he was last January, commanding an enormous share of the public’s attention with news of a forthcoming book that reportedly included an “explosive account” of the Ukraine scandal at the center of President Trump’s impeachment trial. At the time, the National Security Council was conducting a routine review of the manuscript for classified information. The book was set to publish in mid-March — but the date kept getting pushed back, and eventually there was chatter about whether it would get published at all. . . .

Bolton, who refused to testify at the House impeachment hearings, may be the last person many Americans wish to hear from right now — not that he would ever deign to make any concessions to what a reader might want. “The Room Where It Happened,” an account of his 17 months as Trump’s national security adviser, has been written with so little discernible attention to style and narrative form that he apparently presumes an audience that is hanging on his every word.

Known as a fastidious note taker, Bolton has filled this book’s nearly 500 pages with minute and often extraneous details, including the time and length of routine meetings and even, at one point, a nap. Underneath it all courses a festering obsession with his enemies, both abroad. . . .The book is bloated with self-importance, even though what it mostly recounts is Bolton not being able to accomplish very much. It toggles between two discordant registers: exceedingly tedious and slightly unhinged.

Still, it’s maybe a fitting combination for a lavishly bewhiskered figure whose wonkishness and warmongering can make him seem like an unlikely hybrid of Ned Flanders and Yosemite Sam. His one shrewd storytelling choice was to leave the chapter on Ukraine for the end, as incentive for exhausted readers to stay the course. . . .

In another book by another writer, such anecdotes might land with a stunning force, but Bolton fails to present them that way, leaving them to swim in a stew of superfluous detail. Besides, the moment he cites as the real “turning point” for him in the administration had to do with an attack on Iran that, to Bolton’s abject disappointment, didn’t happen. . . .

In an epilogue, Bolton tries to have it multiple ways, saying that while he may have found Trump’s conduct “deeply disturbing,” it was the Democratic-controlled House that was guilty of “impeachment malpractice.” Instead of a “comprehensive investigation,” he sniffs, “they seemed governed more by their own political imperatives to move swiftly to vote on articles of impeachment.”

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