Woodward-mania Hits Washington, But to What Affect?
Winston Churchill, the quotable Americanophile, once reportedly said, “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” The notion that the author dictates the perception of history is front and center in Washington this week, though perhaps not as Churchill intended.
Bob Woodward has written 19 nonfiction books since his days investigating Watergate in the early 1970s. Eighteen of those 19 books found their subject matter in Washington, D.C. (Woodward took a break from the Beltway in the early 1980s to write Wired, which detailed the culture that led to the untimely death of actor John Belushi.) As Woodward himself pointed out on MSNBC this week, as a reporter and author he’s covered one-fifth of America’s presidents. Ever.
As we’ll see in just a bit, none of Woodward’s subjects are typically pleased by the anecdotes and insights he’s been able to report throughout his career. (Nixon perhaps least of all.) But has any headline-grabbing expose written while the subject is still in the Oval Office had a lasting effect on a presidency? It’s hard to find one. A look at bestseller lists around the time of several blockbusters indicates these books sell well, but have little practical impact beyond their use as fodder for talking heads, even when the author’s last name is synonymous with top-tier investigative journalism.
Woodward’s latest book was released this week and is about the current U.S. president and the aides who surround him. Simon & Schuster, the book’s publisher, announced Monday that it has already printed one million copies of Fear: Trump in the White House. That’s an astonishing number. One of the bestselling nonfiction books of 2017 was Hidden Figures, which told the story of the female African-American mathematicians who helped launch John Glenn into space. The book was adapted into an Oscar-nominated, blockbuster movie. It sold just 416,000 copies during the whole year.
The White House certainly is not pleased about Fear and is working to get aides named in the book to distance themselves from it. On Tuesday, former National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, whom Woodward features prominently, said the Watergate reporter got certain facts wrong. (Cohn carefully didn’t say which ones, including the Woodward story getting the most press – that Cohn stole documents from the president’s desk in an effort to prevent a trade war.) The same day, former Trump White House official Rob Nelson said the book is “misleading.” The president himself called the book “a joke” on Twitter.
Past administrations have found themselves in similar situations. Woodward’s The Agenda hit the market in 1994. As The New Republic remembers, the book portrayed Bill Clinton’s first two years as “freewheeling and dysfunctional.” The book also detailed the former president’s so-called “tantrums.”
The Agenda was published in June but was off the New York Times bestseller list well before the midterm elections that November. President Clinton, of course, easily won reelection two years later and left the White House with impressive, near-historic approval ratings.
Woodward wrote four books about George W. Bush’s presidency while the 43rd president was still in office. When the third, State of Denial, about the Bush administration’s management of the Iraq War, was published the White House accused Woodward of bias, saying he “already formed some conclusions even before the interviewing began.”
The book was published in September 2006, but it never sat atop the bestseller list and by November Americans were reading The Audacity of Hope by an emerging political star from Illinois named Barack Obama. President Bush left the White House with low approval ratings, but this past January, CNN reported his favorability has reversed despite continued skepticism about the efficacy of the Iraq War.
Even first-person accounts written by former staff members typically have little lasting effect.
In June 2008, former George W. Bush press secretary Scott McClellan published What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception. The Washington Post’s Dan Balz explained that McClellan described his former boss, “as intellectually incurious, politically shrewd, occasionally dense, sometimes disingenuous, often charming and always cocksure.” McClellan’s book was off the New York Times best-seller top 10 within two months.
Recent history also is a guide for how impactful these exposes are. After three weeks, former Trump White House official (and “Apprentice” standout) Omarosa Manigault Newman’s expose, Unhinged: An Insider’s Account of the Trump White House, remains on the bestseller list, but it’s dropping steadily, supplanted by Aware, a book about “the science that supports the effectiveness of meditation.”
It’s hard to believe, but it was just eight months ago that Washington watchers were asking whether Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff would “bring down a president.” The book reportedly sold 1.7 million copies in its first week on the shelves, but mid-May it was off the best-seller list. It did not bring down a president and Wolff, who had been a frequent cable news guest, is no longer as ubiquitous on television sets as he was early this year.
While these presidential exposes tend to dominate the headlines and cable news channels for days – sometimes weeks – when they are first released, they’re generally eventually lost to history.
Conspiratorialists may believe that Fear’s release was timed to influence the mid-term elections. While Woodward’s revelations may still be talked about in November, history tells us that it’s a safe bet to be out of the conversation by spring.