Duo-biography

Woodward RageBob Woodward, Rage (2020) [link].

This is an intriguing book. The veteran (older than Mr. Trump, younger than Mr. Biden) investigative journalist for the Washington Post returns to the subject of his 2018 book: Fear: Trump in the White House. While I think he will always be best known for his work with Carl Bernstein on All the President’s Men (1974) and his collaboration with Scott Armstrong on The Brethren (1979), this book is well worth reading as a (generally) unsympathetic account of Mr. Trump’s presidency.

Of course, Woodward provides ample evidence of Mr. Trump’s personality quirks from the unpleasant to the unnerving (fascinating, but nothing much new here if you have been awake since 2016), but he deals at length with the major crises of the last four years—Comey, North Korea, the Mueller investigation, the impeachment, the Biden-Ukraine scandal, the pandemic—in such a way that the reader has to conclude that Mr. Trump has been a reasonably effective president despite his unpleasant and unsettling style.

Many of the early advisors come off well here, especially James Mattis, Rex Tillerson and Dan Coats, and (most surprisingly) Jared Kushner. Mr. Trump himself seems just as mean-spirited and impulsive as you thought, but also vaguely lucky in how things turn out—like a drunken driver who manages not to hit anything or anyone despite veering repeatedly onto the wrong side of the road.

Though Mr. Trump has been widely mocked for being so foolish as to be interviewed on tape so many times* for this book, the jury remains out on the political wisdom of that decision.

The book is not just about Mr. Trump. Because of the emphasis on personal interviews, Woodward is a major character in the book and often seems to be trying to persuade Mr. Trump to change his mind on points of policy or character. We learn nearly as much about Woodward’s clever technique as Mr. Trump’s rambling responses. Though Woodward writes of the April 5, 2020 interview “We were speaking past each other, almost from different universes,” [300], they seem to be very much from the same universe to me—the universe of accomplished men whose success has blinded them to the fundamental contingency of their lives.

Woodward bluntly writes

When his performance as president is taken in its entirety, I can only reach one conclusion: Trump is the wrong man for the job.

[392] Nevertheless, the portrait Woodward draws is strangely compelling.

Recommended.

*Woodward lists nineteen interviews, eighteen dated in the last ten months: 03/31/2016; 12/05/2019; 12/13/2019; 12/30/2019; 01/20/2020; 01/22/2020; 02/07/2020; 02/19/2020; 03/19/2020; 03/28/2020; 04/05/2020; 04/13/2020; 05/06/2020; 05/22/2020;06/03/2020; 06/19/2020; 06/22/2020; 07/08/2020; and 07/21/2020. [450]

 

Psalm

I extolled the Most High,
and I praised and glorified the one who lives forever.
For his authority is an everlasting authority,
and his kingdom extends from one generation to the next.

All the inhabitants of the earth are regarded as nothing.
He does as he wishes with the army of heaven
and with those who inhabit the earth.

No one slaps his hand
and says to him, ‘What have you done?’

Daniel 4:34b-35 is, in effect, Nebuchadnezzar’s Psalm, as God brings him back to sanity.

It reminds us that the great Babylonian king, like Cyrus after him, and like Sennacherib before, were all used by God—either as his servants or as his tools.

His servants, if willingly submitting to God’s purposes;
his tools if arrogantly pursuing their own ends.

A caution to all who have been lent God’s authority on earth.

Still reading, gingerly

current reading and viewingRoss Douthat, “It’s Trump’s Revolution,” New York Times (June 13, 2020) [link]:

small quotes blueIn this environment, few conservatives outside the MAGA core would declare Trump’s presidency a ringing success. But many will stand by him out of a sense of self-protection, hoping a miracle keeps him in the White House as a firewall against whatever post-2020 liberalism might become.

This is a natural impulse, but they should consider another possibility: That so long as he remains in office, Trump will be an accelerant of the right’s erasure, an agent of its marginalization and defeat, no matter how many of his appointees occupy the federal bench.


Alan Jacobs, “more on the mania for unanimity,” Snakes and Ladders (June 11, 2020) [link]:

small quotes blueHow exactly does a narrative coalesce such that “silence is violence” about some forms of suffering but not others, even if the others have greater scope?

This post is not a simple criticism so much as an actual answer to the question raised.


Peggy Noonan, “On Some Things, Americans Can Agree: George Floyd’s killing was brutal. Good cops are needed. And Trump hurt himself badly this week.” The Wall Street Journal (June 4, 2020) [link]:

small quotes blueAs to the president, this week he altered his position in the political landscape. Something broke. He is no longer the force he was and no longer lucky. In some new and indelible way his essential nature was revealed.

I am proud of Peggy Noonan and George Will and others for being willing to speak truth to the political powers that were their home fans. George Will famously left the Republican Party before the 2016 [link] election, and has continued to write bluntly (not protectively) about the Administration (his opinions are behind the Washington Post paywall).

It’s not all clickbait . . .

current reading 2small quotes blueThe less you know about a person, the easier it is to venerate them, which is why you generally don’t want your children writing your biography. My favorite parts of biographies are not the quotes from the person being written about, but rather from those who knew them well — or — too well.

Josh Retterer, “Stories Told Behind Auden’s Back,” Mockingbird (Oct. 24, 2018) [link].

It is also true that the less you know about a person the easier it is to demonize them, which probably goes for everyone we read about in the “news.”


Sarah Willard, “The Pilgrim Soul,” Blind Mule Blog (Oct. 17, 2018) [link] writes about dementia and memory:

small quotes blueIt can be very hard when someone you love is losing their memory, not to lose yours too. It’s easy to only see who they are in the moment, and not who they are really, which includes who they have been and who they will be.

One anodyne for dementia is the shared memory of the ones who give care.


Gavriel Rosenfeld, “How Americans Described Evil before Hitler,” The Atlantic (Oct. 9, 2018) [link], raises the interesting question “Who was evil incarnate before Hitler?” and suggests some history lessons germane to our current discourse:

small quotes blueOur present moment is a tricky one: Some commentators feel more justified than ever in invoking Hitler, yet many feel a bit numb to the comparison. The solution, it seems to me, is not to ban comparisons to the Nazis—as if such a thing were possible—but to grant that analogies have always been a tendentious business, and that only the future can tell which ones were valid. Commentators should proceed with a little more humility, a little more circumspection, and, perhaps, a little more creativity.


From Søren Kierkegaard, via Alan Jacobs:

small quotes blueThe Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly.

Alan Jacobs, Snakes and Ladders (May 6, 2013) [link].

This is a hyperbole, of course, but I often wonder how much we will eventually be shown that our careful exegesis was really carefully hidden eisegesis.

The Trump Divide

current reading 2Interesting article (and rebuke) by a Catholic writer about the tension Mr. Trump has created within what was once a more unified evangelical community:

Trump’s candidacy and presidency have bitterly divided . . . evangelicals of all stripes, all of whom continue to address each other in harsh tones and with dismissive rhetoric. It is curious to see communities formed by grace show so little of it toward fellow believers. Given their theological kinship and belief in a transcendent and knowable moral order, evangelicals have deep resources for modelling sound deliberation about the common good. Yet deliberation can take place only if evangelicals grant each other room to exercise the core political virtue of prudence. Prudence will not lead all believers down the same political path, but it is best demonstrated in deliberation rather than in incrimination and excommunication.

Darren Guerra, “Donald Trump and the Evangelical ‘Crisis,'” First Things (Jan. 5, 2018).  He suggests that Catholics, Mormons, and mainline Protestants have been dis-stressed in much the same way, but have been less divided by the Trump phenomenon.

Let us strive to show grace even in politics.

Congratulations, Peggy!

peggy-noonan-illo-0213-jqdkhr-xlgPeggy Noonan, who once wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan, just won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary.  It is well-deserved.

For a list of her pieces that won, go to “The 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Commentary,” The Pulitzer Prizes (Apr. 10, 2017) [link].  My favorite is “Imagine a Sane Donald Trump,” Wall Street Journal (Oct. 22, 2016).

The other winners are also listed at http://www.pulitzer.org.

“A religion of losers.”

ScreenShot164Matthew Schmitz wrote this back in August, but I just read it today.  It is an interesting take on Donald Trump’s “faith,” and attempts to trace the influence of Norman Vincent Peale on Trump.  Apparently Trump once said that Peale “thought I was his greatest student of all time.”  Schmitz goes on to explain why that might actually be true.

But the best thing in the article is this description of Christianity:

“Christianity is a religion of losers. To the weak and humble, it offers a stripped and humiliated Lord. To those without reason for optimism, it holds up the cross as a sign of hope. To anyone who does not win at life, it promises that whoever loses his life for Christ’s sake shall find it. At its center stands a truth that we are prone to forget. There are people who cannot be made into winners, no matter how positive their thinking. They need something more paradoxical and cruciform.”

Matthew Schmitz, “Donald Trump, Man of Faith,” First Things (August 2016) [link].

That seems pretty thoughtful, though to my way of thinking it does not go far enough:  The penultimate line should probably read: “People cannot be made into winners, no matter how positive their thinking.”

There is none righteous, no, not one.

“We do not serve idols . . . .”

From Andy Crouch:

But there is a point at which strategy becomes its own form of idolatry—an attempt to manipulate the levers of history in favor of the causes we support. Strategy becomes idolatry, for ancient Israel and for us today, when we make alliances with those who golden-calfseem to offer strength—the chariots of Egypt, the vassal kings of Rome—at the expense of our dependence on God who judges all nations, and in defiance of God’s manifest concern for the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed. Strategy becomes idolatry when we betray our deepest values in pursuit of earthly influence. And because such strategy requires capitulating to idols and princes and denying the true God, it ultimately always fails.

*    *    *

In these closing weeks before the election, all American Christians should repent, fast, and pray—no matter how we vote. And we should hold on to hope—not in a candidate, but in our Lord Jesus. We do not serve idols. We serve the living God. Even now he is ready to have mercy, on us and on all who are afraid. May his name be hallowed, his kingdom come, and his will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.

Andy Crouch, “Speak Truth to Trump” Christianity Today (October 10, 2016) [link].

The entire article is well worth reading.

A kind of hope

ScreenShot142An opinion piece from The National Review with is worth reading in full:

It’s hard to ignore the hideous character failings at the core of the man, and for this purpose maybe especially his fundamental infidelity toward all who rely on his word, which makes it hard to take seriously any assurances. He has sometimes shown himself capable of sticking to script or obeying the teleprompter, and when he does that he raises the possibility that he may be containable. But when Trump is given a chance to reveal something of himself, he without fail reveals a terrifying emptiness. The idea that such a man would be improved by being handed immense power simply refuses to be believed. Even wishful thinking supercharged by a justified dread of what a Hillary Clinton administration could do to the American republic can only go so far—certainly far enough not to vote for her, but for this voter not nearly far enough to vote for him. Neither major-party option in this election is worthy of affirmation, and no amount of wishing it were otherwise is likely to change that. All we can do, it seems to me, is hope and work for a Congress able and inclined to counterbalance a dangerous executive.

*     *     *

But whoever wins in November, this will not be the launch of a new political order in America. It will rather be the reason we decide it’s time for a change, and turn our politics into an argument about what that change must be. 2016 should leave Americans of all stripes thinking that our great nation can surely do much better than this.

Yuval Levin, “The Final Stretch,” National Review (Sept. 7, 2016) [link].

Any ideas on who we are going to be writing in?