One half of “Rage” reads like that original project, a typical Woodwardian narrative of very serious men soberly doing their duty, trying their darnedest to keep the president focused and on message. Woodward is predictably coy about his sources, saying only that he drew from “hundreds of hours of interviews with firsthand participants and witnesses to these events,” nearly all of whom spoke to him on “deep background.”
Still, it’s not hard to guess who some of the principal sources might be based on how closely the book seems to hew to their preferred versions of events. The former defense secretary Jim Mattis has “a stoic Marine exterior and attention-getting ramrod posture, but his bright, open and inviting smile softened his presence.” The former director of national intelligence Dan Coats is “soft on the outside but with a spine of steel on the inside.” (A sign of someone’s unassailable decency to Woodward seems to be this combination of hard and soft.) Along with former secretary of state Rex Tillerson (“a Texan with a smooth voice and an easy laugh”), Woodward deems them “all conservatives or apolitical people who wanted to help him and the country,” singling them out in his epilogue for their impeccable intentions. “Imperfect men who answered the call to public service.”
So far, so tedious. Enter Trump, who in his first interview with Woodward dropped hints about a “secret new weapons system,” and confirmed what Woodward calls a “hard question” about the United States coming “really close to war with North Korea.” Woodward makes much ado about obtaining 25 previously unreported letters between Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, relating the contents of a number of them in minute detail. But even he seems hard-pressed to explain their lasting significance, strenuously depicting them as “declarations of personal fealty that might be uttered by the Knights of the Round Table.” Despite all this, North Korea continues to develop “both nuclear and conventional weapons.”
For the most part, Trump turned the 17 interviews into opportunities for his rambling monologues, using Woodward as an audience, inevitably steering the conversations back to his favorite talking points: “fake news,” James Comey, the Mueller report. Woodward tried to get Trump to talk about policy and governing — “This is all for the serious history, Mr. President,” he coaxed — but Trump would have none of it. In April, as the pandemic raged, Woodward went to Trump with a prepared “list of 14 critical areas where my sources said major action was needed” to stop the mass death; what’s puzzling isn’t so much Trump’s refusal to engage with this earnest list as Woodward’s expectation that he would. “We were speaking past each other,” a plaintive Woodward writes, “almost from different universes.”
The universe that Woodward comes from is where the old-school establishment is still venerated, and where Woodward thinks he can ask a president windy, high-minded questions like “What are your priorities?” and “What’s in your heart?” in the hopes that he’ll get some profound material for his book.