September 23, 2020 5:33:24 pm
By Bob Woodward
Simon & Schuster
Rs 699 (hardback)
Twenty pages into Bob Woodward’s much hyped and discussed book about US President Donald Trump, you feel tempted to check whether the book is a work of fiction or non-fiction. Not because you doubt Woodward’s credentials. “ He is after all, perhaps one of the most famous journalists alive, renowned for his books on US Presidents and of course, part of the Woodward-Bernstein team that at the Washington Post played a key role in the Watergate Scandal reportage that led to President Nixon’s resignation. No, you may not like Woodward personally but his credentials as a journalist are impeccable.
It is just that the incidents he narrates in the typically detailed Rage are well, at times, beyond belief. Yes, we have had our share of Trump-bashing books, some by former colleagues, some by political opponents and yet others by journalists and analysts. But there has perhaps been no book that has taken such a heavy toll of the Trump presidency as Rage. And ironically, that is because the US President himself collaborated with Woodward on the book.
This is the second book that Woodward has written about Trump as President. The first, called Fear, was released in 2018. Trump had declined to be interviewed for that book, but ad evidently told his aides that he wished he had done so. Time around, he granted Woodward a series of 17 interviews for the book. Interviews that Woodward being an old-fashioned reporter, recorded for good measure.
The result is devastating. Rage is a 450-plus page book that lays the US Presidency bare. For all his attempts to collaborate with Woodward, Trump comes across as petty and dangerously self-obsessed, and when those qualities are added to the fact that he is one of the most powerful people in the world, the overall package shakes the reader to the core.
Most of the talk around the book has not surprisingly been centred on how the US President was aware of how dangerous the Corona virus but kept playing it down in public because he did not want to create a panic. And indeed, the book starts with the briefing in this regard on January 28, 2020. “This will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency,” Trump is warned by Robert O’Brien, his national security adviser on the very first page of the book. And yet, the US President did not seem to take the matter too seriously. When Woodward reminds Trump of what O’Brien’s warning in a meeting on March 19, Trump claims he cannot recall it. “You know, I’m sure he said it,” he says, though, adding: “Nice guy.” Trump in fact goes on to insist that he knew the Covid virus was dangerous but he downplayed it deliberately:
“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump told me. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
It is the kind of passage that sends a chill down your spine when you consider what has happened since. And it does not get better. Right through the book, Trump comes across as a person more obsessed with criticising and often humiliating people than addressing critical issues. His briefings make for terrifying reading with the US President often ranting at his team, often asking it to do things that contravene not just convention, but sometimes even human decency. After sacking FBI director James Comey controversially, a seemingly manic Trump insists the former director not even be allowed inside FBI headquarters to collect his personal effects, and screams at his team for letting Comey use a government aircraft to fly back home. He even insists on changing the nickname of the man he plans to make Secretary of Defence, James Mattis. Matthis’ nickname is “chaos.” But Trump does not like it and changes it to “Mad Dog” because “Mad Dog Mattis…works out great.” Small wonder many of his own team who support and want to help him have second thoughts.
What also comes right through is Trump’s paranoia and lack of trust in most people. “The world is taking advantage of us…we are the piggy bank that everyone likes to rob” he says at one particular briefing, railing against an old ally, South Korea. The height of irony is that he actually seems to have a soft corner for the country’s communist neighbour, which many feel is a dangerous nation, and even for the US’ former official (and now largely unofficial) nemesis, Russia.
And this is narrated in Woodward’s typically fluid style. Unlike some reporters, who prefer to use reported speech, Woodward uses a lot of direct speech and his books are laden with conversations. And most of them will leave you shaking your head in bewilderment. Bewilderment that something like this can happen. Worse, something like this is happening. It is brisk narration, packed with incident and although you will need to have an understanding of US administration (the designations are far too many) and the cast of characters is incredibly wide, you are unlikely to be distracted too much because your eyes will be fixed on one person: Donald Trump. And he seldom fails to deliver anything less than sheer disbelief! As we said at the very beginning, you start to wonder if this is fact or fiction – the realisation that it is the former is not a comforting one.
All of which makes Rage a must-read for anyone interested in current affairs or global politics. It is very easy to read, and leave you shaken to the core. By the time you reach the end, it is hard to disagree with Woodwar’s conclusion about the man who ironically helped him write this very book:
“When his performance as president is taken in its entirety, I can reach only one conclusion: Trump is the wrong man for the job.”
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