The right take

I’ve been reading Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House off and on. It’s tough. It’s terribly written, this kind of gossipy gibbering, and the only thing keeping me going at all is the occasional deliciously vicious insider story that pops up at you. I think, though, that Jeff Sharlet has the right perspective on it.

A number of my fellow journalists are saying privately and publicly that Michael Wolff’s book is no big deal — “nothing we didn’t know already.” This makes me think of people who see some piece of modern art, a Jackson Pollack or an Ellsworth Kelly, and say, “I could do that.” Yeah, but did you?

Exactly. I know it’s a bad book, but why didn’t any of the excellent journalists who are sneering at it now write a better book first? Wolff is a hack and a bit sleazy, but if he’s saying what everyone already knew, at least he had the guts to actually go against the cozy insider culture that infects government and the media right now.

Which would you prefer: An asshole who relishes his access to power as an ornament with which to improve his status with other elites, or an asshole who betrays it? Wolff, who by many accounts will betray just about anybody, was the writer for the job of bringing us inside the administration that wants to screw everybody.

When you put it that way…I want the asshole that’s willing to write about the bad crap going down at the cost of getting kicked out of the White House press room. I want a newspaper publisher who is willing to go to press with the story that will cost them easy access to the spin the administration wants to give to everyone, and instead has to work to get the story.


  1. blf says

    To use an earlier instance as an analogy, where would Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, et al, fit on this two-position rating scale?

  2. gotchaye says

    People did write this already. Mostly not in book form, but still. It’s not just journalists with inside sources who knew that Trump is lazy and stupid and quite possibly in decline or whatever, and that various people inside the White House hate each other. Sure, there are new anecdotes here which are some combination of funny and horrifying, and there’s value in that, but I don’t feel like anything I’ve seen from the book has significantly improved my understanding of Trump and company.

    Like, the problem was not that we lacked evidence that Trump is awful. The problem was and is that the GOP is willfully ignoring his awfulness, and then there’s some large percentage of the population which simply refuses to take any of this evidence seriously (and they certainly won’t take this book seriously either).

    Wolff’s book seems to have had some important effects, but these are mostly own goals. Bannon’s out in part because Trump found out what he’d been saying. We’re talking about “mental stability” because Trump can’t just ignore this kind of thing and had to make a big to-do about it in a comically stupid way. So the book has done a lot as a piece of trolling, but I don’t think it’s actually very informative, even to people like me without any inside sources.

  3. DaveH says

    In Wolff’s interview with Colbert, he himself said that he didn’t think there was anything new in there, that we already knew all this already. Take such things with a grain of salt of course, but maybe it is just having so many “juicy”. Some people like their news calm and rational, others like it screamy and shouty, and still more like it gossipy and scandalous. So yes, it is gossipy gibbering and nothing new, but there area lot of people in the last two categories (too many IMHO), so it gets noticed.

  4. tomh says

    @ #2
    “People did write this already.”

    Really? Where is Bannon quoted saying all the things Wofe quotes, about Trump and his family? I haven’t seen it. There is a whole lot in the book, maybe it’s all true, maybe not, that I don’t see being laid out like this anywhere else, especially not in a best-seller. Even if some people knew all this already, so what? Airing it like this for the general public is a whole new ballgame.

  5. Pascal's Pager says

    I’m happy to have bought the book simply on the grounds that it infuriates the president. Yes, I can be quite petty.

  6. brucej says

    I really hate the blithe and stupid Jackson Pollak references. His stuff wan’t ‘accidental’, he once demonstrated that by hitting a precise spot on one of his canvases from across the room to a doubter. His paintings were deliberately made.

    Wolff may be a hack, but in the immortal words of a former defense secretary/war criminal, “Sometimes you go to war with the army hack you have!”

  7. robro says

    I’ve only read the excerpts, which is perhaps enough for now, and I haven’t seen anything that surprised me except the degree to which Trump, his family, and his cronies are aware of what they were doing. These are some seriously cynical folks.

  8. seleukos says

    Textbooks rarely contain information that can’t also be found in previously published papers. That does not make textbooks redundant.

  9. screechymonkey says

    I better not catch any of the writers who say this is all “stuff we knew already” writing stories about how Trump has just “pivoted” or “become president today” or is really playing 11-dimensional chess by intentionally distracting us with his juvenile tweets. What Wolff seems to have done (I haven’t read the book yet) is pull together a lot of this stuff “everybody knows,” substantiated with actual quotes from Trump insiders, and put in a comprehensive framework: i.e. Trump never expected to win, his team didn’t even think he was capable of being president, then they were as surprised as most people on election night and had to scramble, hence a lot of stupid shit like playing footsie with the Russians, they aren’t playing 11-dimensional chess but are really that disorganized and squabbling internally…. a Grand Unified Theory of Trump, if you will.

  10. kayden says

    Here’s hoping that Wolff’s book will lead other journalists (looking at journalists at NYT and Washington Post) to write similar books. I don’t need to read another article about Trump supporters sticking by their man. We need more stories exposing the many ways in which Trump is demeaning the office of the presidency and using it to grift. There is no downside to going after Trump given that his favorability ratings are in the dump.

  11. screechymonkey says

    I keep hearing that Wolff is unreliable and his methods shoddy, but the specific inaccuracies I’ve seen cited so far are rather underwhelming. Apparently he mixed up or misspelled the names of a couple of Washington insiders, and boy, are they sneering at it over breakfast at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown!

  12. cartomancer says

    Stylistically it does seem rather more Historia Augusta than Lives of the Caesars. Which, now I come to think of it, is quite worrying in the context of a democratically elected leader rather than a series of autocratic tyrants raised up in a semi-hereditary monarchy. Not that old Suetonius was lacking for salacious gossip and palace intrigue, though at least Hadrian noticed him and had him kicked out of the Imperial Archives before he could write anything slanderous about his own reign…

  13. brucegee1962 says

    Also,, Wolff seems to have attached actual names to some of the “high-placed sources” who were talking off the record before.

  14. Owlmirror says


    [Jackson Pollock’s] stuff wan’t ‘accidental’, he once demonstrated that by hitting a precise spot on one of his canvases from across the room

    The anecdote I read was that he hit the doorknob of the door out of the room.


  15. methuseus says

    @Brucej #6:

    I really hate the blithe and stupid Jackson Pollak references.

    I don’t personally like his artwork any more than my kid’s scribbles, but I can appreciate that he had a mastery of sorts in his art. I also don’t necessarily like some objectively talented musicians’ work, though I can appreciate how hard they work.
    If it helps, I don’t think Jeff Sharlet was making any stupid Pollock reference, but was making a point about how the people who do are stupid. Maybe I could make something that looked like a Pollock piece, but, if I did, there would be something “off” about it compared to a true Pollock, the same as if any other random yahoo (yes, I’m a random yahoo in this case) did the same thing.

  16. Derek Vandivere says

    Scientific American had a cool analysis of Pollock’s work years ago – they measured its fractal complexity against fake Pollocks and against “Pollocks” generated by natural motion (i.e., tying a bag of paint to a tree branch in a breeze).

    And to compare Wolff with journalists is a bit of a mistake, in that Wolff didn’t bother to use factcheckers for the book. He claims to have tape to back everything up, but I have the feeling it’s as accurate in the details as, say, those Kitty Kelley biographies from the 80s and 90s.

  17. Doc Bill says

    Check out Wolff’s interview with Colbert. Wolff says that there is nothing really new in the book, rather he was in a position to observe, take copious notes and report on the events. Colbert asked, “Which parts should I believe?” and Wolff said, “All of it.” Wolff reported on events from the perspective of the participants, each of whom had a slightly different take. So, what you get is a multifaceted, distorted view of the “truth.”

    The bottom line is that the WH administration is a real mess. No duh!

  18. Reginald Selkirk says

    but why didn’t any of the excellent journalists who are sneering at it now write a better book first?

    Because fact-checking and quality copy-editing take time.
    I’m sorry, was that a rhetorical question?