When it comes to information and, even more than that, when it comes to this administration, our appetite for insight is endless. This is particularly the case when the former sheds even a glimpse of light on the latter. When it does, we’re like hungry moths entranced by the flame. We simply can’t get enough of the heat. Without wings to fly but not without the insect’s insatiable curiosity to seek, we become mesmerized by the red-orange glow, in whose enticing warmth we gather, gossip, and bask until the lamp breaks. The problem is that the heat rarely enlightens and our proximity to it burns us more often than not.
Unconcerned with being singed are the innumerable writers who’ve spit out countless “tell-all” books and missives about this administration and its inner works. Burning, so to speak, all of its bridges along the way, this specialized group of scribblers and character-assassins has devoted its talent to writing about life in the White House as each experienced it. The authors are a mélange of gossipmongers and controversialists, amongst whom we find a whole gamut of personalities and journalistic pedigrees. Some are of the highest standard, others of the crudest. Some are devoted to the facts and their earnest telling, others to quasi-fictional whims and the royalties they’re sure to reap.
They include reporters, commentators, investigators, former staffers, and even a current employee. The last on this list has proven himself the most provocative of all. It’s he who’s been shrouded in a veil of anonymity in the pages of the New York Times. There, in that most widely-read and highly-esteemed of American news rags, he let his qualms flow without restraint. Insolence without reticence, exposure without fear, he made a move that—to my knowledge—is completely unprecedented in the history of the United States.
This author, otherwise known as a “senior” administration official, basically admitted to being a furtive member of an internal cabal within the cabinet in which he serves. He portrayed himself as a kind of ballast stabilizing the Oval Office when the president inevitably veers the ship off course. He’s thus been applauded as a heroic navigator and a dauntless savior, while at the same time being derided as a traitor. He’s morphed into a kind of George Washington and Benedict Arnold all bundled into one. Quite against its normal operating procedure, the Times published his editorial and attributed its contents to an unknown, yet probably soon-to-be-revealed pen. As we speak, the search for his identity is being hotly pursued.
Second only to “him” in terms of access, legitimacy, veracity and ability to provoke is Bob Woodward. Always with his ear to the cobblestone along Pennsylvania Avenue, you’ll know his name and his work well. The veteran journalist’s forthcoming book, Fear, is already being celebrated as the most in-depth look at the inner-workings, the daily squabbles, the impetuous tweetings, and the daily maneuverings of a White House in constant and delicious flux. Claiming veracity by way of intimacy, Woodward—a highly-connected journeyman of the written word and subtle observer of all things politic—was able to tap into areas and people most others were not. Sensing just how unique his level of infiltration had become, Woodward made certain to record on tape some of the book’s more damaging quotes. By doing so, much as they might try, these sure-to-be titillating passages won’t be easily disavowed by those from whom they came.
Doubtless, as was Omarosa Manigault’s, as was Michael Wolff’s, as was David Frum’s, as was Michael Nelson’s, as was Katy Tur’s, as was Joshua Green’s, as will be every book written about this presidency hence, Bob Woodward’s work is guaranteed to be a best-seller. It’s sure to top all of the charts and bring him and his publisher a handsome return for their effort. Its success will be immediate, its influence, preponderant. Everyone will be astir talking about it, dissecting it, refuting it, and so on for the weeks to come.
And while usually I’m of the opinion that more access is greater than less and that deeper penetration is well-worth the dive, I can’t help but think that we’ve gone just a bit too far in. We’ve cast our probing lines down into the bottomless dregs and all that we’ve been scooping up is fetid and gross. No longer is there a sense of veneration for the office nor an implicit rule of discretion when it comes to covering its internal disputes. All laundry, mostly dirty and rarely clean, must be aired publicly and immediately. All the lurid facts must be known in real-time, all the unprepossessing details spit-shined in front of our eyes. All the pettiness and the politics, all the imprecations and the lies, all the things that we as the public want but don’t need to hear are laid bare by this group of writers partaking in this addictive reality show.
But the question I ask is whether or not this whole game is healthy? I’m left wondering if there really is anything salutary to be gained by always hungering for and getting the inside scoop? Does it promote the general welfare to subvert the administration from within or to recount apocryphal tales that paint it in a somewhat untrue yet totally bad light? What about cabinet members (like Manigault and soon to be the Times contributor) who leap with the utmost alacrity from government-salaried positions to royalty-encrusted tell-all books? Is it good for our union to have these sorts of people, in whose better judgment as stewards of our republic our confidence lies, selling their swords to the highest-bidding publishing house and jumping ship?
There was a time when not everyone was out to make a buck at the administration’s expense. There was a certain decorum and expectation that one would hold his tongue if it meant a better chance for the administration’s success. That, at least, applied to the White House insiders and those people in whom the president confided one day to the next. Such a flock would do its work and, once released, return to private life. They wouldn’t scurry off at the drop of a hat to Simon and Schuster or Penguin Random House for a fat, imminent book deal ready and on the plate. As for the reporters, whose hard-earned publicity staves off the poor house rather than the Random House, there was at least a higher standard to which they usually adhered. Exposés were expected to be less character assassinations and more insight and plot. They weren’t supposed to be broadsides intended to sink the administration’s ship, but rather penetrating tales with nuance and tact. More than anything, fidelity to the truth was valued above all else. Now, so long as it’s salacious and it sells (think of Michael Wolff’s and Omarosa’s books) it’s fit to print whether fabricated or not.
This is a bad thing. But, like much else we find odious in our world of news consumption today, the books and the essays are a product meeting a demand. We Americans simply can’t divest ourselves of our insatiable desire to know what’s going on. And, sensing our boundless inquisitiveness, a special group of maligned staffers, audacious insiders, and connected journalists has opted to toss its collective discretion to the wind in order to feed our appetite. Heavy with rubbish, we consumers continue to stretch our tummies and our limbs for more tripe and more “light”. Sooner or later, we’ll tumble and burn.