During Election Week 2020 my struggle to keep my bearings involved burying myself, when I’d seen too much for the day of the Electoral College numbers, in two gripping books that happened to be on top of my bedside stack. One was a comforting and inspiring book about an obscure man who has been dead for many years; the other was a disturbing book about an infamous man who is too much alive right now, but may have taken one giant leap toward dying—so-to-speak—that fateful week. That book fed the fire of my anxieties, while the other doused it. I couldn’t have made it through the week without them.
The dousing book about the obscure man is James Castle Memory Palace, by John Beardsley. It’s not quite a book yet. I was reading the galley proofs for Yale University Press (due January 2021) that John lent me in a brown Staples bag when we visited him in Virginia just before Election Week. John’s distinction, aside from being my college roommate, is in writing stirring books about folk artists whom nobody else has heard of. James Castle was born deaf in 1899 and remained mute his whole life in Idaho, but his prodigious memory and his talent for rendering what he saw led him to a daily ritual over forty years of creating drawings, paintings, collages, and sculptures out of home-made and scavenged materials. At the end of each day he packed up his creations, tied them in bundles with string, and stacked them in the walls of his studio, like insulation between the two-by-fours. In the shelter of his family’s home in Boise, Castle lived a cloistered and artistically productive life, mostly unrecognized by his community and the art world of the twentieth century. Memory Palace is one of a number of efforts over the past 20 years to bring Castle’s art to life and to help us understand this modest man and his struggle to share his inner world, to be known by anyone who might some day untie one of his bundles.
The other book I could not stop reading during Election Week was Rage, by Bob Woodward, published in September this year, also about a man who longs to be known. Could James Castle and Donald Trump be more different in character and lives lived? One we’ve heard too little of, the other too much. The question that drew me in and kept me at it, while I wasn’t watching his political fate play out on the tube, was, Why did Trump talk to Woodward, 17 times?
When Bob Woodward approached Trump in 2017 for his first book about him, Trump declined to be interviewed, a decision he later regretted. Woodward works for the Washington Post, one of Trump’s pet targets for “fake news,” and Fear had portrayed Trump as “an emotionally overwrought, mercurial, and unpredictable leader,” far from a flattering picture. And Trump knew Woodward’s books had hardly been kind to George W Bush. So why in December of 2019 when Woodward approached him about a second book, did Trump, who was facing impeachment, agree to be interviewed on the record? Was this the about-face of a desperate man, or was Trump now confident enough to think he could persuade Woodward to show his true colors? After all, Woodward had written plenty of books about living US Presidents, many of them bestsellers. Trump deserved a place in the presidential canon, right? He decided to take a chance, 17 times. If any of Trump’s press team knew about this arrangement, they were unable to keep him from these risky and often lengthy conversations over the next eight months.
Eisenhower is reported to have said that the White House is “the loneliest house I’ve ever been in.” And it’s not hard to imagine how the loneliness of our leaders has led to many White House seductions—Mimi Beardsley Alford’s by JFK and Monica Lewinsky’s by Bill Clinton, to name a few of the documented ones. Given all the pending lawsuits against Trump by women he has mistreated prior to 2016 and all the improprieties he has been accused of since 2016, it’s curious that seducing a woman as president has not been one of them. Rage tells us Trump had another more pressing need on his mind.
All outward appearances during 2020 suggested that Trump’s most pressing and all-consuming need was to win re-election, at almost any cost. Yet on the quiet he was participating in one of the most daring journalistic seductions ever recorded. Woodward handled Trump artfully enough to sustain the conversations deep into the summer, just before the manuscript was submitted for publication. Woodward always called him “Mr President,” and Trump addressed him as “Bob.” Within the bounds of good manners and good journalism, Woodward frequently challenged Trump on has handling of COVID, the Ukraine affair, and racial justice. And instead of exploding or firing him, Trump seems to have liked that pressure, responded with more bluster, and sometimes with revelations. When Trump was not listening, Woodward persisted and repeated himself until Trump finally answered the question or Woodward gave up. Perhaps more than anyone else during this period, Woodward became Trump’s confidant.
On Friday, May 22, 2020 Woodward gave Trump a call at the White House. It was 9:18 pm. What else did each of these guys have to do on a Friday night during lockdown? Woodward opened with asking him how he was feeling about China, and Trump said, “You know, I’ve very much hardened on China. So, I’m not happy. Let me tell you, I’m not a happy camper.” Then Trump confided his suspicion that the Chinese intentionally let the virus out of China. “I think what could’ve happened, Bob, is it got away from them and he [President Xi] didn’t want to contain it from the rest of the world because it would’ve put him at a big disadvantage.” Just two guys talking shop on a Friday night.
Then Trump said, “You’re probably going to screw me. You know, because that’s the way it goes. Look, Bush sat with you for hours and you screwed him. But the difference was, I ain’t no Bush. Boy oh boy, what a mess. I’m trying to get out of that mess he got us into in the Middle East.” The man couldn’t help himself. He continued to have more conversations with Woodward in June, July, and August. During one June conversation he said, “I hope you’re truthful. If you’re truthful, you’ll write a great book. And if you’re not truthful, you’re going to hit me.”
Donald Trump is not alone in these acts of apparent self-sabotage. Think of all the people who will endure shame for fame on the Jerry Springer show, confessing their sins so some imagined public might know them or at least some piece of their story, no matter how sordid. Think of the fugitives who turn themselves in and the death bed confessions by criminals who have nothing to gain but the chance that they might finally be known.
The Guardian and CNN reported in September that Trump claimed he read Rage in one evening—which would make it the only book he claims to have read during the past four years—and he dismissed it as “boring.” When asked why he participated with Woodward, he said, “Because I assumed he was a little bit fair…There was not much in that book….That’s a boring book.” Rage shows us that our nation’s outgoing president had an affair in office, and perhaps he got what he most needed. In spite of all his loud efforts to hold on to power, did his unconscious need to be known trump his need to win?