Set­ting a wrong prece­dent

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Loosley is a se­nior vis­it­ing fel­low at the United States Stud­ies Cen­tre at the Univer­sity of Syd­ney.

Bob Wood­ward’s new book, Rage, is based on 18 taped in­ter­views with US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, to­talling nine hours and 41 min­utes. In one of them, the au­thor talks in terms of writ­ing the first draft of history. While oc­ca­sion­ally mired in con­tro­versy, Wood­ward nor­mally achieves much with his books. It can be said that All the Pres­i­dent’s Men and The Fi­nal Days (with Carl Bern­stein) rep­re­sent de­fin­i­tive con­clu­sions.

Wood­ward has won two Pulitzer prizes for re­port­ing on Water­gate and 9/11. As an as­so­ci­ate ed­i­tor of The Wash­ing­ton Post, he has as­sumed the jour­nal­is­tic pro­por­tions of the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion, as a Wash­ing­ton point of ref­er­ence, record­ing the ebb and flow of the Repub­lic’s af­fairs.

Wood­ward’s pre­vi­ous book, Fear, was a scathing in­dict­ment of the chaos of the early Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. This time around, as with a num­ber of his pre­de­ces­sors, Trump agreed to be in­ter­viewed by Wood­ward.

Judg­ing by the tapes of the in­ter­views, the US Pres­i­dent ap­proached Wood­ward in a man­ner sim­i­lar to a de­voted fan catch­ing first sight of Mick Jag­ger back­stage at a Rolling Stones con­cert.

Trump’s in­tended charm of­fen­sive ap­pears to have been his un­do­ing, caus­ing at least one com­men­ta­tor to ob­serve that the Pres­i­dent had be­come his own whistle­blower. He is dis­arm­ingly open about the im­pact of COVID-19.

Un­for­tu­nately, he is less than can­did with the Amer­i­can peo­ple on the se­ri­ous public health chal­lenge that the virus presents. He also boasts to Wood­ward about a new Amer­i­can weapons sys­tem, one ap­par­ently un­known to ad­ver­saries.

Trump is keen to please, pre­sent­ing Wood­ward with gifts and me­men­tos that un­der­line his for­eign pol­icy for­ays, es­pe­cially in­volv­ing North Korean dic­ta­tor Kim Jong-un.

Wood­ward not only in­ter­views, he of­fers ad­vice. Trump lis­tens, but rarely does this Pres­i­dent take ad­vice kindly. His Cab­i­net un­der­stands that.

In­deed, in a search­ing in­ter­view with Wood­ward, Stephen Col­bert ob­serves that it is a pity Trump’s flaws pre­vent an able ad­min­is­tra­tion do­ing bet­ter. This is born out elo­quently by an ob­ser­va­tion from for­mer de­fense sec­re­tary, James Mat­tis: “When I was ba­si­cally di­rected to do some­thing that I thought went be­yond stupid to felony stupid, strate­gi­cally jeop­ar­dis­ing our place in the world and every­thing else, that’s when I quit.”

Direc­tor of Na­tional In­tel­li­gence, Dan Coats, suf­fered other dif­fi­cul­ties. A con­ser­va­tive Chris­tian and ded­i­cated Repub­li­can se­na­tor, Coats fell out with Trump and tried to re­sign, un­suc­cess­fully. But at the Aspen Se­cu­rity Con­fer­ence of July 2019, Coats com­mit­ted a mor­tal sin: celebrity.

While be­ing in­ter­viewed on stage by An­drea Mitchell of NBC, he was told that Trump had agreed to a White House meet­ing with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin. Coats was stunned and blurted out: “That’s go­ing to be spe­cial.”

Sit­ting in the au­di­ence, I laughed along with ev­ery­one else, in­clud­ing Coats, think­ing he would not sur­vive long. Ul­ti­mately, he learned of his sack­ing from The New York Times. As usual,

By Bob Wood­ward

Si­mon and Schus­ter, 480pp, $49.99 (HB)

By Nick Bryant

Vik­ing, 432pp, $43.99 con­fi­dence be­cause he has a deep un­der­stand­ing of Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal cul­ture.

Bryant be­gins his jour­ney in Los An­ge­les in 1984, the year of the Olympics. Rea­gan is pres­i­dent and Viet­nam, Water­gate and the Iran hostage cri­sis are ap­par­ently be­hind the US.

Rea­gan’s cam­paign slo­gan that year per­haps sums it up best: “It is morn­ing in Amer­ica.” Of course, Rea­gan had also rou­tinely used the ex­pres­sion ‘‘Make Amer­ica great again’’ in 1980, a rhetor­i­cal de­vice Bill Clin­ton reused in 1992.

At times, Bryant writes with an arch­ness wor­thy of Vi­dal. A good ex­am­ple is his dis­cus­sion of the can­ni­bal­ism in Congress af­ter the im­peach­ment of Clin­ton. Speaker Newt Gin­grich lost his of­fice when the Repub­li­cans suf­fered a set­back in the 1998 midterms. Oh, and he also ad­mit­ted to an ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fair him­self.

Then Gringrich’s re­place­ment, Bob Liv­ingston, also re­signed af­ter an ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fair was ex­posed. “... [H]e was im­paled on his own pe­nis,’’ Bryant writes. “A grotesque irony was that the speak­er­ship then passed to Den­nis Hastert, a for­mer teacher con­sid­ered back then to be ir­re­proach­able, who was later ex­posed as a child mo­lester.”

On Trump’s elec­tion to the White House, Bryant quotes the in­sight­ful Alexis de Toc­queville, who wrote Democ­racy in Amer­ica in 1836. De Toc­queville ar­gued that the French Revo­lu­tion of 1789 was in­evitable but un­fore­seen. How­ever, Bryant traces the ar­rival of Trump back to Se­na­tor Barry Gold­wa­ter’s in­sur­gent cam­paign for pres­i­dent in 1964, which brought Rea­gan to the na­tional po­lit­i­cal arena. Rea­gan de­liv­ered ‘‘A Time for Choos­ing’’, also known as “The Speech”, ar­gu­ing in sup­port of Gold­wa­ter.

Rea­gan is seen by Bryant as the god­fa­ther to po­lar­i­sa­tion in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. Run­ning for pres­i­dent in 1980, Rea­gan chose to open his cam­paign in Neshoba, Mis­sis­sippi, de­lib­er­ately build­ing on the suc­cess of Richard Nixon’s ‘‘South­ern Strat­egy’’. Neshoba was not far from where three young civil rights ad­vo­cates were mur­dered in 1964 by Klans­men.

Rea­gan ran against Wash­ing­ton and against govern­ment it­self, which had a cer­tain irony to it, given he was the gov­er­nor of Cal­i­for­nia at the time. But as pres­i­dent, fol­low­ing Jimmy Carter, Rea­gan re­vived the Im­pe­rial Pres­i­dency in style and fan­fare, while de­liv­er­ing up­lift­ing and op­ti­mistic speeches, cen­tred at times on Amer­i­can myths. How­ever, he was weak on the de­tail re­quired by the of­fice, once quip­ping, ‘‘hard work never hurt any­one, but hey, why take the risk?’’. Bryant draws much of the Trump era from the Rea­gan years.

How­ever, he ap­pears to have missed the im­pact of Nixon’s vice-pres­i­dent, Spiro Agnew, in forg­ing ‘‘the silent ma­jor­ity’’, which has been sketched in un­de­ni­able de­tail in Repub­li­can Pop­ulist by Charles J. Holden, Zach Mes­sitte and Jer­ald Po­dair.

These three books per­cep­tively an­a­lyse the con­tin­u­ing shifts in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. Trump’s un­fore­seen elec­tion in 2016 showed the world the point that Amer­ica had reached. Novem­ber 3, 2020, will be a glow­ing in­di­ca­tor of its fu­ture.

Three books an­a­lyse the con­tin­u­ing shift in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics from Ron­ald Rea­gan in the 1980s to Don­ald Trump today

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