"Indeed, I have been forced to conceal the real causes of many of the events recounted in my former books. It will now be my duty, in this part of my history, to tell what has hitherto remained untold, and to state the real motives and origin of the actions which I have already recounted. But, when undertaking this new task, how painful and hard will it be, to be obliged to falter and contradict myself as to what I have said about the lives of Justinian and Theodora: and particularly so, when I reflect that what I am about to write will not appear to future generations either credible or probable, especially when a long lapse of years shall have made them old stories; for which reason I fear that I may be looked upon as a romancer, and reckoned among playwrights." (Procopius, The Secret History of the Court of Justinian (Project Gutenberg edition; originally Athens: Athenian Society, 1896); Introduction)
Mr. Trump is hardly the first to invite a string of "Secret Histories" by former aides and officials. The difference is that other presidents have been more popular with the press which reports on such things. Thus, for example, by 2014, reporting from the Los Angeles Times noted, with respect to President Obama's former officials: "All presidents have had in-house critics. But rarely has a president faced the degree of public criticism from former senior Cabinet members that Obama has this year. The critiques are particularly notable because they have appeared while Obama is still in office, struggling with a world beset with crises. Panetta’s “Worthy Fights” has appeared as the midterm election approaches, when criticism of Obama could boost his Republican opposition." (Obama still in office, but ex-aides’ books and claws are already out). Earlier, in 2008, Daniel Schorr, reporting for NPR noted with respect to the then ending Bush II administration: "Some call it kiss and tell; some call it whistleblowing, but over the years there's been an increasing tendency for aggrieved officials to strike back with books venting their anger at the Bush administration." (Bush Administration Besieged by Critical Books).
|Pix Credit HERE|
As President Trump’s National Security Advisor, John Bolton spent many of his 453 days in the room where it happened, and the facts speak for themselves.
The result is a White House memoir that is the most comprehensive and substantial account of the Trump Administration, and one of the few to date by a top-level official. With almost daily access to the President, John Bolton has produced a precise rendering of his days in and around the Oval Office. What Bolton saw astonished him: a President for whom getting reelected was the only thing that mattered, even if it meant endangering or weakening the nation. “I am hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my tenure that wasn’t driven by reelection calculations,” he writes. In fact, he argues that the House committed impeachment malpractice by keeping their prosecution focused narrowly on Ukraine when Trump’s Ukraine-like transgressions existed across the full range of his foreign policy—and Bolton documents exactly what those were, and attempts by him and others in the Administration to raise alarms about them.
He shows a President addicted to chaos, who embraced our enemies and spurned our friends, and was deeply suspicious of his own government. In Bolton’s telling, all this helped put Trump on the bizarre road to impeachment. “The differences between this presidency and previous ones I had served were stunning,” writes Bolton, who worked for Reagan, Bush 41, and Bush 43. He discovered a President who thought foreign policy is like closing a real estate deal—about personal relationships, made-for-TV showmanship, and advancing his own interests. As a result, the US lost an opportunity to confront its deepening threats, and in cases like China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea ended up in a more vulnerable place.
Bolton’s account starts with his long march to the West Wing as Trump and others woo him for the National Security job. The minute he lands, he has to deal with Syria’s chemical attack on the city of Douma, and the crises after that never stop. As he writes in the opening pages, “If you don’t like turmoil, uncertainty, and risk—all the while being constantly overwhelmed with information, decisions to be made, and sheer amount of work—and enlivened by international and domestic personality and ego conflicts beyond description, try something else.”
The turmoil, conflicts, and egos are all there—from the upheaval in Venezuela, to the erratic and manipulative moves of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, to the showdowns at the G7 summits, the calculated warmongering by Iran, the crazy plan to bring the Taliban to Camp David, and the placating of an authoritarian China that ultimately exposed the world to its lethal lies. But this seasoned public servant also has a great eye for the Washington inside game, and his story is full of wit and wry humor about how he saw it played.
Interestingly, as for the rest, there is less here than may meet the eye (except of course to the extent it can be inflated during the course of electioneering). The second paragraph of the blurb is almost farce--a seasoned servant "astonished" at what he saw--a politician singularly focused on himself. That is hardly the stuff of revelation, even among those who view the vocation of the politician as something closer to an academic (God help us) or a religious divine. "“I am hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my tenure that wasn’t driven by reelection calculations,” he writes"" might be written about many political figures, including some dear to hearts of Mr. Trump's opponents. But that is the nature of a Secret History.
Trump sought Chinese President Xi Jinping's help to win re-election, reveals Bolton’s book). And, indeed, the book appears to add fuel to the speculation that this is a very personal administration, one centered on the3 ego of the leader. But this is nothing new--except perhaps for the extent to which ego drives decision making. With respect to the governing style, there is nothing much there either that is not well known. Many of both his friends and critics have long noted that Mr. Trump brings a merchant's perspective (his critics would suggest the exaggerated caricature of a persona of Mr. Trump's last television show) ("Let's Make a Deal" as Economic Policy: Thoughts on President Elect Trump's Intention to Abandon the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP)). And many have long shared a disagreement about the focus and thrust of American foreign policy in a number of respects. As well, the aroma of the sort of talk that was once fashionable about the Reagan presidency appears here at least in shadow form (Reagan Aides Once Raised the Possibility of Invoking the 25th Amendment). This is old ground with a new demon.
At the end, Mr. Bolton's recollections work best as burlesque, "from French burlesque (16c.), from Italian burlesco "ludicrous," from burla "joke, fun, mockery," possibly ultimately from Late Latin burra "trifle, nonsense," literally "flock of wool" (a word of unknown origin)." (Etymology Online "burlesque") It is at its best--as one can be when casting a careful glance at virtually every member of the political class today--when it holds up the man against the office. That is a theatre that Mr. Bolton exploits here but one he did not create; though he was more than happy to play a supporting part in this burlesque as long as he was allowed a role. That is also burlesque, one in which Mr. Bolton plays the leading role. Both the form, and the nature of Mr. Bolton's style was best described by Addison:
Burlesque is therefore of two kinds; the first represents mean Persons in the Accoutrements of Heroes, the other describes great Persons acting and speaking like the basest among the People. Don Quixote is an Instance of the first, and Lucian's Gods of the second. It is a Dispute among the Criticks, whether Burlesque Poetry runs best in Heroick Verse, like that of the Dispensary; or in Doggerel, like that of Hudibras. I think where the low Character is to be raised, the Heroick is the proper Measure; but when an Hero is to be pulled down and degraded, it is done best in Doggerel. (The Spectator, No 249 15 December 1711 (Vol 2 London 1891; Project Gutenberg edition).
One can supply analogies to suit one's taste; and politics. But there is plenty of the heroic, high and low characters, and doggerel to suit all tastes. Why does burlesque work, especially in American "Secret Histories"? Because the object of the burla (the joke) is himself thin skinned and likely to react in ways that appear to confirm the judgment at the heart of the burlesque. It is not to be read for its facts--that is the burra (the trifle, the fluff) of the opus. It is instead to be read for its judgments, for its opinions--the essence of the burlesco (what makes for the ludicrous). But the joke is one the reader--especially the ones who would then take the joke, the opinion, the judgement--as fact. Thus the essence of the burlesque is to incorporate the intended audience as an essential part of the joke. The essence of the joke that is burlesque is the way it takes its audience in, only (in its classic form) to bring them up short and cast a light of their own salaciousness. Mr. Bolton's burlesque--like all Secret Histories--works only to the extent that The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, the Democratic Party become as essential a part of the joke as Mr. Trump and the Republican establishment. The former for their willingness to treat ridicule as fact, the latter for making it possible to treat them as farce.
The Name of the Rose (the effort to hide Aristotle's second book of poetics on the virtues of laughter) to the film V for Vendetta (2005) (the parody of the leader sketch).
It might follow, then, the impact of the book may have as much to do with the reaction of Mr. Trump, than with the opinions and facts paraded through the book's narrative. That is the mark of a successful "Secret History." That alone will cast a very strong light on the character of all of the major players leading up to the November elections--both the high officials and their retainers in the Administration, and the opposition who see in works like this an opportunity that is really worth exploiting. . . .and it is. The work provides a useful window on the cultures of administration, of politics, and of the presidency at an interesting moment in American history. But it also provides substantial material to assess the character, motives, and integrity of all of those actors drawn to politics in this era. Beyond that, the Secret History adds flavor to what is likely to be a very long and vigorous debate about this presidency long after it is over.