To Out-Nixon Nixon

President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office, June 23, 1972 (The Nixon Library and Museum/Reuters)

Bob Woodward. Tapes. You’d think that the most Nixonian president since Tricky Dick himself would have seen that one coming.




NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE

J
ournalism is pretty much all I have ever done for a living. I am what they call an ink-stained wretch. I was a newspaper guy for many years and have been a magazine guy for the past twelve or so, and I take the unpopular minority opinion around here that the conservative case against the American press is, while not without genuine merit, exaggerated. I subscribe to two daily newspapers, including the big one we’re all supposed to hate.

Now that I have rehearsed my pro-press credentials, a question: Why, why, why, oh why, why in hell does anybody ever talk to us?

Why?

If I were advising a presidential candidate or a president, my advice on handling the press would be this: Don’t. Nothing good is going to come of it. If you have something to say, say it — they’ll put it on television. Or, better yet, put out a statement. Less room for error. Donald Trump has almost as many Twitter followers as Taylor Swift — he doesn’t need to talk to the Washington Post to get his message out. President Trump doesn’t need to talk to Bob Woodward.

But, apparently, he needs to talk to Bob Woodward.

Trump has his presidential dress over his presidential head about Woodward’s new book, Rage, which depicts Trump as a dishonest, bumbling amateur who is in over his head.

Woodward’s account is sure to be embarrassing. But do you know what really makes President Trump look dumb? Talking to Bob Woodward.

Again.

The tapes, at least the parts making the radio rounds, are bad. The president is by turns needy, wheedling, and sycophantic. Listening to Trump try to spin Woodward in an interview is like watching a kid with a ping-pong paddle trying to return a serve from Roger Federer. He is not well-equipped.

Why talk to these people at all?

Remember when George W. Bush finally decided he’d had enough of Helen Thomas’s crap and just stopped calling on her at press conferences? That was a good instinct. It is one that presidents — especially Republican presidents — would do well to generalize, just as a matter of pure self-interest: There’s nothing in it for them.

White House press conferences are not forums for the exchange of information — they are rituals. As a matter of republican manners, I am all for knocking down the presidency several pegs, and I suppose the ritual humiliation of the press conference is one way to do that. But I cannot for the life of me figure out why presidents willingly participate in it.

Here’s how the conversation should go:

“Hello. Is this Peter Baker from the Times?”

“Yes, Mr. President?”

“You seem like a nice enough guy. But here’s the thing: I am not going to talk to you. Ever. About anything. You can keep coming around and doing whatever it is you do, if you want. Snuffle around out there. Knock yourself out. The White House will comply with open-records laws and all that stuff. But I have no comment. On anything. Nothing personal: If your editor wants to send somebody else over for me not to talk to, I’ll play it the same way.”

“I’m speechless.”

“Me, too. Pass it on.”

Psychoanalyzing Donald Trump is a fool’s errand, but one thing he does seem to have in common with a very large number of garden-variety politicians is the need to feel important. And, for a man of Donald Trump’s generation, being interviewed by Bob Woodward makes one feel important. You’d think that a guy who already is president of the United by-God States of America would already feel plenty important. But there’s a lot of insecurity at the commanding heights.

And so Trump does 18 interviews with Bob Woodward — after having accused Woodward of manufacturing quotations in his earlier reporting about the administration. Trump called Woodward’s last book a “scam.” He raged that Woodward “uses every trick in the book to demean and belittle” him. And still he talked and talked and talked, embarrassingly eager to please.

Why?

If Trump wants to talk to a large and friendly audience, there’s a whole cable network that is overwhelmingly dedicated to producing Trump propaganda. Sean Hannity, the self-abasing monkey-butler of the Trump administration, has worked harder and longer and deeper in the bullsh** mines than any actual White House staffer has. There are various publications that are very Trump-friendly and that have (this is probably more important) Trump-friendly audiences. The people who read Bob Woodward books are going to vote for Joe Biden seven-to-one. There’s no reaching them.

And unlike the beef with what’s-his-name over at The Atlantic, Trump is picking a fight with Woodward when there are tapes. Tapes of him.

Bob Woodward. Tapes. You’d think that the most Nixonian president since Nixon would have seen that one coming.