Barton Swaim: “I Have Always Liked Woodward’s White House Chronicles But This One Is a Dud”

How Barton Swaim wraps up his Wall Street Journal review of Bob Woodward’s new book Rage:

I confess I have always liked Mr. Woodward’s White House chronicles. High-ranking officials of both parties are apt to blab to him, mostly I suspect because he allows them to speak without attribution. I find it easy to ignore the author’s consensus-liberal interpretations of events and enjoy the books for what they are: aggrieved cabinet officials and senior White House staffers anonymously grousing about each other and portraying themselves as martyrs. . . .

What ruins the book—what makes it one long retelling of what everybody already knows—is the presence, on the record, of the president of the United States. Mr. Woodward interviewed Mr. Trump 17 times for the book. This contrasts with the author’s previous White House books. Those other works, whatever their flaws, have an attractive off-the-record, I-shouldn’t-be-telling-you-this feel about them. Mr. Woodward interviewed President Obama for “Obama’s Wars” (2010), but only once, and the chief’s presence in that book is fleeting. In long passages of “Rage,” by contrast, you feel you’re getting more of what you already had too much of. Mr. Woodward puts questions to Mr. Trump and Mr. Trump responds with answers that are by turns hyperbolic or factually wrong or irrelevant. As usual, he refuses to play by the rules set for him by his questioner.

The effect is unbearably boring, like reading transcripts of White House press briefings. At one point Mr. Woodward tries—rather too obviously, if you ask me—to bait Mr. Trump into saying something racially insensitive. The president remarks, “I’ve done more for the Black community than any president in history with the possible exception of Lincoln.” Mr. Woodward: “He had said so publicly at least five times by that point in 2020 alone.” OK—but if he had said this publicly so often, why are we hearing about it in a Bob Woodward book?

A number of commentators, particularly those sympathetic to Mr. Trump, have wondered why he agreed to speak to Mr. Woodward, whose account was certain to damage the president in an election year. I don’t know, but it looks like a savvy move to me: By the simple expedient of making himself lavishly available, Mr. Trump has turned what might have been an engaging book into a dud.

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