The Trump tell-all actually tells us nothing
Michael Wolff's book is a tempest in a teapot
Not for the first time in my life I feel comfortable pronouncing a negative verdict on a book I have never read and have no intention of ever reading.
Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House is the latest example of what I like to think of as the "Washington book," a volume that exists not to be read in any conventional sense but to be teased, excerpted, tweeted about, microanalyzed, preordered, and, eventually, to collect dust on Ikea prefab shelves in D.C. apartments and take up space in the bargain bins in front of used book stores everywhere.
To reverse Tolstoy's dictum, every even halfway decent book is readable in its own way, but Washington books are all alike. Like its predecessors — John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's Game Change, Mark Leibovich's This Town, Hillary Clinton's last three non-memoirs — Fire and Fury is a purported piece of nonfiction that nevertheless reads like a (very badly written) novel. Like Trollope's narrators, the authors manage to be simultaneously omniscient and almost painfully intimate, depending upon what is necessary to achieve their desired effect. Everyone is aloof and witty and talks like a generic David Mamet character, even the president, who is supposed to be an idiot.
You can imagine how this must come across to experienced readers. Wolff expects us, among other things, to believe that President Trump does not know who John Boehner is, despite having, among other things, tweeted about him nearly 30 times (including mocking him for crying on television) and golfed with him. Why? Because the late Roger Ailes, who is conveniently unable to corroborate this or any of the quotes or anecdotes attributed to him here, told somebody — possibly the author, possibly somebody who told the author or somebody who told somebody who told the author — that he doesn't.
Elsewhere, we are informed that Sam Nunberg, a former aide to the Trump campaign who was fired two summers ago after some of his racist Facebook posts emerged and who was also sued last January for breaching a confidentiality agreement, had a very difficult time teaching the then-candidate about the Constitution. Apparently Nunberg, who has already admitted that he has invented stories about his sometime boss for the consumption of credulous journalists, remembers exactly what was said and when.
It is also supremely convenient that Stephen Bannon, who is definitely not mad at the White House for firing him and certainly not obsessed with his image as a kind of nihilistic Machiavellian dirty tricks maestro, comes off as exactly that in every line of the excerpt published in New York magazine. When famous people live up to their public personas 100 percent of the time, you know you are reading good journalism.
Wolff also takes some ridiculous potshots here. "'I can marry you! I'm an internet Unitarian minister,' Kushner, otherwise an Orthodox Jew, said suddenly." Obtaining a qualification to officiate at civil marriages, technically as a member of various Protestant denominations, is very easy to do. A former colleague of mine was married by a friend of ours, also Jewish as it happens, who acquired one of these pieces of paper on the internet. I have never suspected that it meant he regretted his bar mitzvah.
I am not the only person to observe that some of Wolff's "reporting" seems too good to be true. As the author of a 2004 profile of this longtime media gossip writer put it, "the scenes in his columns aren't recreated so much as created — springing from Wolff's imagination rather than from actual knowledge of events." I have no doubt that Wolff spent an untold number of hours sitting on couches in obscure corners of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., talking on the phone with Bannon and Ailes, and consuming alcoholic beverages in the presence of many of the figures mentioned in his pages, and even more people who claimed, some even truthfully, to have overheard or been relayed the details of the conversations he recounts. But sketching 300 pages of plausible scenes based on all this is basically the journalistic equivalent of letting someone else write a biography of your best friend based upon the stories you told about him you when you were both drunk in college and you were trying to help him impress that girl at the bar. It would be pretty cool if it all happened just like that, but no one who isn't plastered could ever believe it did, least of all the poor girl who spent the rest of the night pretending you and your friend didn't exist.
Which brings us to the real problem with this book and with all Washington books: Namely that, for all their promises of candor, they never tell us anything except those things of which we were all already convinced long ago. This helps to explain their bizarre appeal among a certain set of consumers — "readers" would not be the mot juste — but it should also make us ask ourselves some hard questions about their value, if not their veracity. President Trump is a reckless, vulgar, incompetent narcissist with bad hair surrounded by toadies, ninnies, buffoons, and foul-mouthed hangers-on. His administration is a shambles. Bannon hates a lot of people. Imagine that.
Fire and Fury will not arrive in airport bookstalls until next Tuesday. Don't wait. Spend your $30 gabbing with a bartender at the Hay Adams instead, like the author presumably did.