Fresh Take on Bob Woodward’s “Fear: Trump in the White House”

Much has been written about Bob Woodward’s new book “Fear: Trump in the White House” and here are a few things I found striking that haven’t been as widely discussed as the more explosive revelations within it.

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Even though it is squarely about Trump, the book could have been called All The President’s Men (if that title hadn’t already been made famous by Woodward himself). It’s really about the men (with a few exceptions) that surrounded President Trump in his first year in office, and what they did to contain and prevent him from his worst impulses.  Woodward didn’t interview Trump himself, and I doubt much insight would actually be gained from the inclusion of Trump’s words here.  Interviews with Trump are long and rambling and don’t actually provide much insight into the man, besides that he is a compulsive liar and that he can’t focus on anything besides himself.  In a 2016 pre-election interview with Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter of The Art of the Deal, who painfully had to try to pin down Trump to interview him for the book, said that Trump’s key characteristic was that “he has no attention span.”  This is something that the characters in Fear not only understand but use to their (and perhaps our) advantage.  Woodward writes about “an administrative coup d’etat” where staffers would either ignore the President’s orders or would go so far as to remove letters from his desk in the Oval Office to prevent the President from signing them.

One much discussed passage in the book is about a furious Trump not understanding why the US spends money to protect foreign countries like South Korea and Taiwan and having to be told that it’s done to prevent World War III.  Another passage which hasn’t been as discussed but is nearly as terrifying recounts Trump’s aides explaining to him that China could retaliate against a trade war by refusing to sell antibiotics to the US (nearly 97% of the US supply comes from China).  

These accounts show the clear danger that Trump presents and how the strategy of containing him could be quite beneficial.  On the other hand, there is an argument to be made that this is actually just delaying the inevitable and that if there were mass resignations similar to what happened in the Nixon administration during Watergate, the stronger the case for Congress or the voters to do something about it and prevent someone like him from getting elected again.     

Some characters like Senator Lindsey Graham and Steve Bannon come across as political opportunists while others fare better, notably economic adviser Gary Cohn, White House staff secretary Rob Porter and the President’s lawyer John Dowd.  One of the criticisms of the book has been that Woodward’s sources could likely be presenting themselves in a flattering light to him so that history will be kind to them. Woodward has pushed back against this saying that he tries to get as many sources as possible and isn’t relying on just one person’s account.  In interviews he has repeatedly quoted his old editor Ben Bradlee saying that over time “the truth emerges”.  The more that is reported on this the more truth will certainly emerge.

BlacKkKlansmen review

*Warning-this review contains multiple spoilers to the plot and ending of the film*

There’s a scene at the end of Spike Lee’s documentary 4 Little Girls, about the 1963 bombing of a baptist church, where the segregationist former governor of Alabama, George Wallace is interviewed.  Wallace was quite old and visibly frail at the time (he passed away in 1998, a year after the documentary came out) and he tries to highlight the positive things that he did as governor, including providing free textbooks to African-American schoolchildren who couldn’t afford it.  An African-American man who knew Wallace said that when you were alone with him one-on-one, he was the nicest man you’d ever meet, but when the cameras and the political spotlight was on him, it was a different story. The interview ends with Wallace calling forward his caretaker and aide, an elderly African-American man named Eddie Holcey and while holding his hand repeatedly says that he is his best friend.  Holcey, visibly uncomfortable, stands there holding his hand and then tries to move out of the frame. The scene is incredibly powerful and memorable (after 20 years it’s still burned into my memory), but in a way it feels out of the place in the documentary.  You get the sense that the footage was so good, showing how broken this once-powerful man was, that Lee couldn’t resist including it in the film.  The scene also serves to humanise this racist monster of a man, who was implicit in the deaths of the four little girls that the film is about and so much more.  Wallace is practically pleading to the camera for history to remember him kindly, and even though it won’t, nor should it, you can’t help but feel empathy for him.  There’s a scene at the end of Lee’s latest film, BlacKkKlansmen that shows a montage of footage from the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia last August and the violent attack against counter-protestors where a man drove a car through the crowd and killed Heather Heyer.  Similar to the Wallace scene in 4 Little Girls it’s incredibly powerful and visceral but feels even more out of place in this movie.  Lee is trying to draw a line between the fictionalised depictions of the KKK of the 1970s in the movie and what the deadly real-life result is in the end.  The footage is undeniably powerful and Terence Blanchard’s score, beautiful on it’s own-but not quite fitting throughout the movie, is used to great effect during that end sequence.  The movie is problematic because so much of what we see before that end sequence is so sloppily put together.

The plot of the movie is the semi-true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) who was the first African-American police officer in Colorado Springs.  After suffering through working in the records room and having to deal with a particularly racist cop, Stallworth gets to do some investigative work and is assigned to go undercover at a meeting of the Black Student Union where Kwame Ture, formerly known as Stokely Carmichael, is speaking.  He meets the president of the student union, a young woman named Patrice (Laura Harrier) and a romantic plotline is built around that.  Stallworth sees an advertisement for the local KKK chapter and decides to call and pretend to be white and interested. A meeting is set up and since Stallworth obviously can’t attend it because of the colour of his skin, his partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) is sent and pretends to be him.  Their investigation into the KKK leads them to discover a terrorist plot where they are planning on bombing the Black Student Union, and in the process Stallworth manages to become phone buddies with David Duke (Topher Grace), the grand master of the KKK, who comically doesn’t realise he’s discussing white supremacy with an African-American cop.  

One of the main problems of the movie is that the filmmakers take such liberties with the actual facts of the story that most of the plotline feels completely implausible.  In real life Stallworth did speak to the KKK and Duke on the phone, while his partner pretended to be him in person but in the film the two actors sound almost nothing alike.  Flip’s character has none of the charisma that Washington’s portrayal of Stallworth has which makes them pretending to be the same person even more implausible.  The depiction of the klansmen are almost all played for laughs and most of them are presented as painfully stupid or at the very least inept. This depiction of them strangely serves to render them harmless.  The characters are saying the most vile racist things and planning out terrorist attacks, but because they’re presented as so comically inept, their sense of danger is removed.  As the climax approaches with the attempted bombing, the stakes are surprisingly low because you don’t think these fools can actually pull it off (and of course they don’t, some of the more vile KKK characters end up getting killed and another is arrested).  

Topher Grace’s performance of David Duke is a great light-hearted mockery of the man and there is something to be said for stripping a dangerous person of his power by making him slightly buffoonish, but it’s then quite striking when you see footage of the real David Duke at the end of the film.  The real Duke is dangerously charismatic (you don’t climb the ranks of an organisation like that without a real sense of charisma) but to see the juxtaposition of the real Duke and Topher Grace’s version of him is quite jarring. Imagine if Chaplin showed actual footage of Hitler at the end of The Great Dictator?

The biggest problem of the movie is that it plays directly to the liberal audience that’s watching it and doesn’t challenge them at all.  There is a scene in the middle of the film where a white police officer is telling Stallworth how David Duke is trying to change the perception of the KKK to normalise it so that eventually they will have someone sympathetic to their cause as the President of the United States.  Stallworth says that will never happen and the other officer chastises him and tells him to wake up. The scene is played for cheap laughs given the current occupant of the Oval Office but it feels completely out of place in the film. Are we to believe that a black man in 1970s America doesn’t think that America could produce a racist president?  These events are taking place while Richard Nixon is the sitting president after deploying the “Southern Strategy” to gin up support by appealing to racism against African-Americans like Stallworth.  The scene isn’t meant to make logical sense and is so ham-fisted that it wouldn’t be out of place if the characters turned to the camera and winked to the audience.  There is also a subplot of a token “bad cop” named Andy Landers, (Frederick Weller) that doesn’t seem fully thought-out. Landers seems to take pleasure out of roughing up African-Americans and in one scene he goes so far as to feel up Patrice after he pulls her over.  Stallworth asks his colleagues why they don’t report Landers and Flip says they’re a family and they protect their own. True enough, but then inexplicably towards the end of the film there is a scene when the cops, Flip included, set up Landers and take him down. When Stallworth shows up to work the next day, he struts down the hallway and his fellow cops are giving him high-fives.  Are we to believe that there is only a single truly racist cop in a Colorado Springs police department in the 1970s and the only African-American officer takes him down and is treated like a hero? This scene and so much of the movie completely lets the audience off the hook. A liberal audience member (the only people that would likely see the movie to begin with) watches that scene and can be happy that the one “bad apple” cop has rightfully received his comeuppance.  

The movie is meant to be an homage to the blaxploitation movies of the 1970s and the liberties taken with the story and presenting Stallworth as an unparalleled hero fit that but the more heavy-handed connections to present day America are what make this movie so problematic.  America, and so much of the world, is clearly going through a racial crisis at the moment and Spike Lee could be the perfect artist to address this, but unfortunately he fails spectacularly with this movie. The visceral montage of the Charlottesville rally at the end of the film highlights what a missed opportunity the film that came before it represents.  Similar to what he achieved with 4 Little Girls or his documentaries about Hurricane Katrina (When the Levees Broke and If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise), if Lee used his skills as a documentary filmmaker instead it might result in a more focused artistic effort tackling the same issues head-on.

Sideshow Act or Actual News?

Trump biographer Timothy O’Brien has a good opinion piece in Bloomberg about the Omarosa story that is currently dominating the news cycle.  O’Brien calls Omarosa and Trump “kindred spirits” and that while he was interviewing Trump for his book “Trumpland” he seemed to be endlessly fascinated by Omarosa, particularly her “self-absorption and nastiness”.

Of the barrage of daily news stories regarding this administration it’s difficult to choose which ones to stay focused on and a lot the time events that seem to not have much merit surprisingly turn into important stories.  At first glance everything about Omarosa’s story seems to be something that could and should be ignored, until it’s not of course. Thinking like that is entirely missing the point. The Omarosa story is the new Stormy Daniels story or Michael Cohen or the endless other ones that are demanding our attention by their sheer absurdity.  O’Brien theorizes that “Trump tweets relentlessly when he feels cornered or obsessed” and by all accounts Trump is definitely obsessed with Omarosa. Trump refuted Omarosa’s claim that he used the n-word during a taping of “The Apprentice” and said that Mark Burnett called to tell him the tapes she alludes to don’t exist.  Then a day later Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she can’t guarantee Trump didn’t say it.  Omarosa said that the Apprentice tape was discussed during the 2016 campaign on a call but his aides denied that ever took place.  The next day Omarosa released a recording of that meeting causing Trump’s aides to walk back their original statements.  Frank Bruni writes that Omarosa’s tapes reflect Trump’s long history of recording or threatening to record conversations, “Imitation isn’t just the sincerest form of flattery. It’s the cleverest kind of revenge.”  Politico reports that there are some similarities between the fear of Trump’s staff worried about what will come out in subsequent recordings to the fears Hillary Clinton’s staff had during the Wikileaks daily release of John Podesta’s emails.  A key difference was spelled out by Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s former communications director, “Nobody had to be worried that there was an email where Hillary used the N-word.”

Time will tell how long this story will dominate the news cycle and whether it actually does anything to impact change.  That people are yet again openly wondering what Trump’s views are on race and how it is that he has such a terrible track record of hiring people like Omarosa in the first place is a dialogue worth continuing to have.