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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

Bob Woodward's Fear: a review

About a quarter of the way through this comprehensive history of everything leading up to the election of Trump and all the current events, Gary Cohn, the former president of Goldman Sachs who is the president's top economic advisor, attempts to explain our economy to Trump. He brings him copious research and data and finally makes it as simple as possible by asking: which would you choose—to go into a mine and get black lung or to make the same salary doing something else? He is attempting to intrude into Trump's belief that our trade agreements are disgraceful because we're losing manufacturing jobs—despite the data that more than 80 percent of our jobs are not in manufacturing and that a trade deficit is not a bad thing since it allows people to spend more money on what they're spending it on anyway—services. Nothing seems to penetrate.
Several times Cohn just asked the president, "Why do you have these views?"

"I just do," Trump replied. "I've had these views for 30 years."

"That doesn't mean they're right," Cohn said. "I had the view for 15 years I could play professional football. It doesn't mean I was right." (138)
Multiply this thousands of times and apply it to all government issues (foreign policy, trade, immigration, etc.) and you begin to understand the problem of a person who never tells the truth because he lacks a basic understanding of what truth is and how one discerns it. Nor can he learn. No amount of correction penetrates: he is told repeatedly that Iran is in compliance with its nuclear weapons agreement, yet he insists on his belief about cheating; he's given the world history that makes South Korea's partnership crucial to world peace, yet he wants to disrupt the relationship; he's presented with statistics proving that steel tariffs will weaken our economy, but he wants what he wants, etc. Nor can he understand the intricate symbiotic relationships between national security, foreign policy, and immigration. In other words, we have elected a man who lives in a fantasy and who therefore bollixes the efforts of anybody who operates according to facts, and when those facts are inconvenient, he dismisses them as "fake" and the people who spew them as "stupid." He places no value in experience and expertise, ignoring advice derived from those things as he inexplicably disseminates information that is Russian-derived propaganda. And naturally this constant whirlwind of ignorance as a management style has created a whirlwind of people spinning out of control while they simultaneously try to control or please him.

There is little new news in this book (except for a harrowing account of how close Trump came to declaring war with North Korea, with no understanding of the ramifications of doing so!), but Woodward is every much the historian that Doris Kearns Goodwin is writing about past presidents, and this book is an alive blow-by-blow meticulous record that will be studied by students who have not yet been born—if we live to see that future. (I am not usually a history buff, so sometimes the details become overwhelming; but I made the choice to be a student when I read both Doris Kearns Goodwin and this book, and that choice has me applauding the value of the detail for posterity.)

There is nothing mean-spirited about this book. Everybody is presented at times sympathetically—even Trump in his albeit fleeting upset about the chemical-weapons-killed babies in Syria; Jared and Ivanka (who have a miniscule role in this book) come across on the side of DACA kids and the Paris Climate Accord; advisor Rob Porter is heroic in slow-walking terrible orders from Trump; Lindsay Graham is a great deal-maker willing to find ways to make sane things happen; General McMaster tries so hard to do a good job. And this even-handedness highlights the horror of the chaos—everybody is working against each other, undercutting somebody else, running around secretly to "save the world" or "fight for the president." The horror of this book is that our president has no understanding of truth and has evoked absolute pandemonium in the White House and subsequently all over the world, creating problems where none existed—in trade, in immigration, etc.

For me the value of this book is to better see the whole story, which for some reason makes it both more and less horrifying. It is an alarming story that will result in either the destruction of the world (via WWIII) by a child president who is incapable of learning or understanding the consequences of his hyperbole, or the activation of all of us who love the planet and want peace.

However, in my opinion, Trump and his minions are not the threat to our lives. It is the great apathetic public who refuse to vote let alone know the story that is so well written here. Those who most threaten our security are the people with fixed beliefs like Trump, who shrug and are bored by talk about the relationship between their ability to walk down the street and troops stationed in South Korea, and although I think this is a wonderful and necessary book, I know that it will never be read by those who most need to recognize their peril.

4/20/19 Addendum
The publication of the redacted Mueller Report has validated much of this book: the out-of-control ignorance of our president, his disinterest in and blatant flaunting of the law, as well as how he seems to slip away from so much legal culpability because his staff simply refused to carry out criminal orders. And as the news breaks, so too is my dismay validated by the complete disinterest of those with fixed beliefs and no interest in facts who dismiss the report without even reading it.

Because it has come up in my Goodreads review thread comments, I would like to reiterate and elaborate on my sense of the tone of this book: It is not only even-handed and steady, but there is a compassionate undertone. Woodward is not out to get anybody. In the acknowledgements and the front-of-book personal note, he shares about his researcher and collaborator, Evelyn M. Duffy, and his wife, Elsa Walsh, "known widely as the Kindness Lady." He attributes to Evelyn a noble work ethic and a reverence for authenticated fact-based journalism, which is palpable in this book. And to Elsa he acknowledges "not just an unselfish appreciation for each person but a reverence for each." This best describes the compassion I sense in Woodward's writing and his approach to even those people with whom he disagrees. All this adds to the reader's sense that he is telling truth.

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