The Power of the Printed Word
It’s almost fifty years since Walter Cronkite, most venerable of America’s golden age news anchors, delivered a piece to camera to his regular nightly audience of many millions that finished with the words, “it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honourable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”
He was talking to the American people, but he knew one of those people would be President Lyndon Johnson, who was indeed watching in the White House. At the end of the item, according to legend, Johnson turned to his aides and said, “if I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America”.
That night changed many things. Johnson stopped trying to pretend that the United States was winning the war in Vietnam and began to suggest that the only sane way out was some form of orderly withdrawal.
At times of national soul-searching and upheaval, America used to look to its prominent TV newsmen. They were all men, they were all white, they all looked like your first bank manager, they all looked as though they had gazed into the eye of chaos and not flinched. The audience at home would scan the impassive faces of these men for signs that this latest item of news was something worth stopping and really getting worried about or merely business as usual. When Cronkite came right out and said that Vietnam was a fight America had better get out of, no matter what the cost to the country’s prestige, they took notice. More to the point, Johnson took notice. “Losing Cronkite” meant losing public trust.
There is no Cronkite any more, nor is there anyone with a claim to that kind of heft. Nobody in broadcasting has that kind of capital any longer. Particularly not in the United States where network news has been outperformed by partisan services like MSNBC on one side and Fox News on the other, services that exist primarily to maintain the spirits of the people who share a particular way of looking at the world.
What’s been notable during the last year of Trump is there hasn’t been one public figure who’s been able to look into the camera and address a wide-ranging audience and assert the idea that, regardless of where you happen to stand on border walls, non-gendered bathrooms and the rest of the distractions, isn’t it a problem that the American political system and, by extension the world’s, seems to have handed the sacred trust of Abraham Lincoln to a man who is arguably the least qualified citizen of the United States to hold that office and that furthermore maybe this problem can’t wait for the next election to be ironed out. There is no Cronkite. Nobody in broadcasting is in a position to say that.
Flushing out Trump
The two most striking things about Fire And Fury: Inside The Trump White House by Michael Wolff are: 1) it’s the first media reaction to Trump that’s forced him to come out and say “no, I’m not mad”, which you would have thought could be the start of something, and: 2) it’s a book.
Furthermore, the story within that book is what anyone in the trade would recognise as an extended piece of what we used to call magazine journalism. It’s the kind that American news journalists tend to turn up their noses at. It’s the kind that PR staff tend not to understand, which is how he got permission to do it. What Michael Wolff did was hang around the White House and talk to as many staffers as possible. When they asked what he was doing it for, they seemed mollified when they learned it was for a book, presumably reasoning it would come out too far in the future to make any of it traceable back to them.
His book may not have produced the smoking gun or the missing link in the Russia investigation but its portrait of a man who goes to bed at 6:30 with a cheeseburger and three TVs, who cannot be made to read anything longer than an A4 sheet of bullet points, a man who, despite having access to the most sophisticated information gathering systems on earth, thinks he already has all the answers, is more devastating than any set of fingerprints. It has “sent President Trump into the most publicly visible meltdown of his presidency” says David Frum, a conservative and former Bush speechwriter, in The Atlantic.
Michael Wolff is a magazine journalist by trade. After this book, it’s reasonable to assume that he’s one of the wealthier magazine journalists in the world. Most of his career has been spent writing for people like Vanity Fair and the Hollywood Reporter. He likes being near fame and power as much as his readers like reading about fame and power. His speciality is being able to explain power to media and media to power. Here is where he has an advantage over the standard hard news guys who have been trying to fit Trump into their idea of a politician.
If ever you needed proof that the pen is mightier than the You Tube clip, then the bombshell success of Wolff’s book is it. Hard news men might have thought they didn’t have enough to go on. A magazine man like Wolff knew that he had more than enough. He knows that in the world of the rich and powerful and egotistical, no subject is going to sit down and tell you the story. He also knows that in this world, there isn’t one version of the truth that’s more important than the others. Wolff understands that Trump is not a politician nor even a businessman. He’s a TV star and therefore he is the sum of all the things that people think about him.
And it’s this that Wolff’s written about. How all the people in Trump’s orbit, from grizzled players like Rupert Murdoch through wannabes like Steve Bannon to body servants like Hope Hicks, deal with a man who is incapable of understanding just how little they think of him. If this book is made into a film, and let us hope that the events depicted in it end happily enough for that to happen, its signature shot will be of each supporting character exchanging looks of horror and amazement behind the lead actor’s back.
Classic magazine journalism
In fact, the reason this book is so readable is that, like many a classic magazine feature, it’s put together like a film. It pulls back for the wide shot. It goes in for the close-up. It artfully glosses over the parts of the story it doesn’t know too much about and implies that the glimmers of access were more prolonged than they actually were. It introduces quotes at points in the story there they help to serve the writer’s narrative rather than at the points where they were actually said. He plays fast and loose. But then he also goes long and literal when it has dramatic effect. In that sense, there’s nothing in the book more powerful than his verbatim transcript of Trump’s remarks on day one of his presidency when he turned up to make nice with the CIA and then just rambled about himself in a way that would have the average company chairman facing a vote of no-confidence before you could say knife.
Trump may well be, as Wolff says, the first “post-literate” president, “total TV”. Certainly, he was elected because of TV, by people who get the overwhelming majority of their information about the world from TV, and he governs while watching TV. Nothing Wolff has written will bring this state of affairs to a close but I take a certain grim satisfaction from the fact that the best response to the unprecedented enormity of his presidency has come in the form of 100,000 words and spaces of gripping storytelling in a book. By a magazine journalist. It’s not losing Cronkite but it’s a start.