Heather Mallick: U.S. presidents presented two ways — whole and cracked
You can’t say I don’t do my time at the coalface. I read The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House by President Obama’s deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes. It raised interesting questions about the limits of American power and the choice of a president to advance or to step back in times of strife.
Then I read Fear: Trump in the White House by Washington journalist Bob Woodward. It reads like a Grade 6 sleepover where every loot bag had handguns and there was blood and curly things — tendons? — in the drapes, in the drywall, in the toaster, which started a fire, and then Chad puked in Tucker’s eyeball, which was gross, and Vance jumped off the roof on a dare, broke every bone in his body snap crackle pop. Then Dad came home and said, “That’s the way I like it, kids!” and dropped a nuclear bomb on Iran.
I won’t dwell on Rhodes’ book, mainly because everyone had actual jobs with duties, and there were systems in place. You did not stroll into Obama’s office — he called you in — and staff were constantly asked for facts and data to an intricate level of detail.
In other words, it was normal, although when Sarah Palin entered the McCain presidential campaign in 2008, hillbillies were let loose to eventually elect Trump to avenge the pain of having endured a Black president. Obama understood this.
There were limits to what he could do, because he was Black (he was actually of mixed race, which is not white enough for Americans) and because he thought American overreach had often been a mistake. Americans childishly think bombing solves all problems, as in mangled Laos, but it worsens them.
Obama was constantly urged to bomb other countries, but he had little faith in it. “Civilization,” Obama used to tell his staff, “is just a thin veneer. We like to think that we, as Americans, are different. But we’re just human beings.”
Rhodes describes an extraordinary moment in a Middle East crisis meeting when one expert “interjected with an edge in his voice, ‘You have to bomb something.’”
“‘What?’ I asked, taken aback.”
“It doesn’t matter. You have to use military force somewhere to show that you will bomb something.”
That’s the most American thing anyone could say. I imagine it’s heard hourly in the Trump White House. After the deliberative The World As It Is, Fear is a cacophony, an omelette.
Woodward, known for his lumpen writing, provides so little context and flow that Fear reads more like a list of exit interviews with desperate White House staffers trying to look good, having realized the job was a career killer. Rob Porter, the former aide who allegedly beat two ex-wives, is the hungriest Woodward supplicant, eager to be known for slipping papers from Trump’s desk.
Most of Trump’s staff despise him, Woodward writes, but remain to pump their own causes. Betsy DeVos wants to pulverize the public school system. Ex-EPA chief Scott Pruitt aimed to kill all environmental regulations to please chemical and mining giants. The famous grifting for a cheap used hotel mattress was an interim measure until Big Rock Candy Mountain (the coal industry) called out to him.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, a billionaire riven with conflicts of interest, plus ideologue Trade Rep. Bob Lighthizer and famously ignorant trade adviser Peter Navarro really are The Men of Tariffs.
Whatever their lack of merits, here’s what they say about Trump. Rex Tillerson called him a “f---ing moron,” Defence Secretary James Mattis says he’s at fifth- or sixth-grade level, Chief of Staff John Kelly called him an idiot and lapsed into a black funk, saying, “This is the worst job I’ve ever had.” A Trump lawyer told special counsel Robert Mueller that “Trump was so unable to tell the truth that they considered him mentally disqualified from testifying.”
Incurious, easily led, ignorant of the modern world, incoherent, ill-taught, uncomfortable with English (“I’m a popularist.” “No, populist.” “Yeah, popularist”), he beggars belief. He doesn’t understand simple economics or weather or even conference calls.
There are more books to come, which will be amusing if the Democrats win the mid-terms. If they don’t, next up, a military coup.
Heather Mallick is a columnist based in Toronto covering current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @HeatherMallick