A tal­ented jour­nal­ist’s re­veal­ing take on a very odd po­lit­i­cal cou­ple

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Aram Bak­shian Jr. Aram Bak­shian Jr., an aide to Pres­i­dents Nixon, Ford and Rea­gan, writes widely on pol­i­tics, his­tory, gas­tron­omy and the arts.


By Joshua Green

Pen­guin Press, $27, 272 pages

The one con­stant of Wash­ing­ton pol­i­tics is tran­sience. Con­sider the case of pres­i­den­tial ad­vi­sor and chief po­lit­i­cal strate­gist Steve Ban­non, un­til re­cently the bete noir of the main­stream me­dia. Af­ter be­ing cast as Don­ald Trump’s evil brain in the open­ing months of the new ad­min­is­tra­tion, he now looks like a pussy­cat — es­pe­cially when com­pared to the hy­per-ag­gres­sive, foul-mouthed An­thony Scara­mucci, the pres­i­dent’s mer­ci­fully short-lived com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor.

One of “The Mooch”’s first moves was to make an ob­scene and anatom­i­cally-in­cor­rect re­mark about Mr. Ban­non in what he thought would be an anony­mous leak to a New Yorker po­lit­i­cal re­porter (in which, iron­i­cally, he de­nounced White House leak­ers). Thanks to his poor judg­ment and mega-trashy vo­cab­u­lary, Mr. Scara­mucci worked a po­lit­i­cal mir­a­cle: on the the­ory that the en­emy of my en­emy is my friend, he ren­dered Steve Ban­non al­most re­spectable in the eyes of the White House press corps. Pol­i­tics does, in­deed, make for strange bed­fel­lows.

“Devil’s Bar­gain,” re­porter Joshua Green’s in­tel­li­gent, in­sight­ful and fast-mov­ing ac­count of

Mr. Ban­non’s strate­gic role in the big­gest pres­i­den­tial elec­tion up­set of all time, was pub­lished be­fore Mr. Scara­mucci’s bar­racuda at­tack but is in no way di­min­ished by it. First and fore­most it is the story of how one un­con­ven­tional but pa­tri­otic po­lit­i­cal thinker con­nected with a not par­tic­u­larly thought­ful but pa­tri­otic ty­coon to mo­bi­lize out­side-the-beltway Amer­ica’s grow­ing con­cern — and mount­ing anger — at what was seen as Wash­ing­ton’s role in erod­ing our coun­try’s moral and ma­te­rial foun­da­tions.

De­spite the “Devil’s Bar­gain” ti­tle of Mr. Green’s book, there was noth­ing sin­is­ter or even par­tic­u­larly un­usual about this. It was sim­ply a mat­ter of a can­di­date and a strate­gist with over­lap­ping but not iden­ti­cal views — and com­ple­men­tary skill sets — work­ing to­gether to forge a ma­jor po­lit­i­cal vic­tory.

Karl Rove played a sim­i­lar role in Ge­orge W. Bush’s up­set vic­tory over Al Gore in 2000 and many other past pres­i­dents have had an in-house con­sigliere with a pri­vate line to the chief ex­ec­u­tive. Woodrow Wil­son’s Colonel House and FDR’s Harry Hopkins spring im­me­di­ately to mind.

Per­haps one rea­son so many po­lit­i­cal ob­servers have puz­zled over the Trump-Ban­non sym­bio­sis is the stag­ger­ing sur­face dif­fer­ences between the two men. Mr. Trump, de­spite his ex­cess poundage and comic comb-over, prides him­self on be­ing a snappy dresser and doesn’t suf­fer slovens gladly.

Mr. Ban­non, who of­ten looks and dresses as if his last known ad­dress was a park bench, would seem to em­body ev­ery­thing that turns The Don­ald off. But both men ap­pear to have seen through th­ese su­per­fi­cial dif­fer­ences and sensed what each had to offer the other. “It was clear the con­nec­tion was gen­uine,” Mr. Green writes, since, in the words of po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant Roger Stone, “Steve is a slob, and Trump hates slobs.”

Of course, much as Al Gore played just as im­por­tant a role in W’s 2000 vic­tory as Karl Rove, Hil­lary Clin­ton may have been the best thing the Trump-Ban­non team had go­ing for them in 2016.

Once en­sconced in the White House as a se­nior aide to a sit­ting pres­i­dent, Mr. Green writes, “Ban­non, whose wild gam­bits in the cam­paign had in­vari­ably paid off, seemed to run out of magic tricks once Hil­lary Clin­ton was no longer a tar­get. The gov­ern­ment wasn’t as mal­leable to Mr. Trump and Mr. Ban­non’s ag­gres­sions as the Repub­li­can Party and the ca­ble news chan­nels had been, and they found them­selves con­sis­tently thwarted and un­der­mined — by the courts, by right-wing hard­lin­ers in Congress, by their own in­ex­pe­ri­ence and Mr. Trump’s er­rant tweets, and by the bu­reau­cracy they were now over­see­ing. The crises th­ese fail­ures pre­cip­i­tated in the White House cost Mr. Ban­non much of his in­flu­ence and soon threat­ened Trump’s pres­i­dency.”

That par­tic­u­lar con­clu­sion, whether ul­ti­mately true or not, is cer­tainly pre­ma­ture. But, as an occasional his­to­rian, it re­minded me of a for­got­ten episode in the his­tory of a very dif­fer­ent coun­try than Amer­ica. In 1929 a pop­ulist ban­dit marched his ragtag fol­low­ers on Kabul, scat­ter­ing the reg­u­lar army of the long-es­tab­lished, com­pla­cent royal dy­nasty in their wake.

The world was as­ton­ished when the ban­dit had him­self crowned as Habibul­lah, King of Afghanistan, seem­ingly ush­er­ing in an age of rev­o­lu­tion­ary change. Be­fore the year was out, so was King Habibul­lah. He had been ca­pa­ble of seiz­ing the reins of power but in­ca­pable of hold­ing onto them. The old dy­nasty re­turned and it was business as usual in Afghanistan for the next half cen­tury.

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