"The end of man is knowledge, but there is one thing he can't know. He can't know whether knowledge will save him or kill him. He will be killed, all right, but he can't know whether he is killed because of the knowledge which he has got or because of the knowledge which he hasn't got and which if he had it, would save him." – Narrator Jack Burden in "All the King's Men," by Robert Penn Warren
These days, I increasingly feel about the press the same way Robert Penn Warren felt about knowledge. In the face of Trumpism, most days I feel certain that the only thing standing between us and total authoritarianism (or at least deep and quasi-permanent dysfunction), is our free and vigilant press.
On other days, I am certain the press will be our doom.
Consider this week's coverage of the bombshell account by author Michael Wolff of the early months of Trump's presidency. Granted extraordinary access to the West Wing by none other than Trump himself, Wolff wrote an account that includes nasty comments by former presidential adviser Steve Bannon about Trump and his family. Most explosively, Bannon said it was "treasonous" for Donald Trump Jr. to invite Russian officials into Trump Tower in hopes of getting dirt on Hillary Clinton.
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That's worthy of media attention. Trump has downplayed the meeting for months, and defended his son, who claims his father didn't know about it.
Big news, yes. But not the story. Instead of focusing on the exciting feud between Bannon and Trump, why didn't we journalists keep our focus on the jaw-dropping descriptions from within the West Wing of the Trump White House?
Wolff's book offers a devastating portrait of a dangerously ill-equipped president and deeply disorganized White House. For instance, the book reports that:
Neither Trump nor his top aides, even his family, ever expected to win. Speaking a week ahead of the election, Trump told former Fox News titan Roger Ailes that a loss was as good as a win for him, because of what it will do for his brand and worldwide exposure.
Wolff reports this explains why Trump refused to release his taxes. Why risk it when the goal was never to win anyway? Another example: When cautioned that his receipt of payments from Russia was bad form for the campaign's top national security aide, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn brushed off concerns: That's only going to be important if we were to win, he said. (Trump named Flynn national security adviser. He has since been fired and indicted, and he pleaded guilty to lying about his relationships with Russia.)
When the tech giants from Silicon Valley left a White House meeting with Trump, Trump phoned media mogul Rupert Murdoch to brag about how much they loved him over Barack Obama. Murdoch pushed back. They loved Obama because he gave them everything they wanted. "They don't need you," he told Trump. Trump insisted they did. Murdoch hung up the phone. "What a f-ing idiot," he muttered.
Together these and many other revelations show the utter incompetence of Trump's first six months in office and of a commander in chief whose own psychology is dangerously unstable.
If this picture isn't accurate, the White House should provide evidence.
Instead, Trump has lashed out at Wolff and at one of his many sources, Bannon.
Unfortunately, the media has allowed Trump to shift the focus of the story away from his own incompetence and toward the lack of loyalty on the part of Bannon. It's example No. 732 of how Trump plays the press, and some days I think it's going to doom us all.
Besides, even if we were to let the president change the subject to Bannon – a mistake, granted – but even if we did, why not turn his attacks on Bannon back against him? Let's ask why, if Bannon was such a loser, why in God's name did Trump entrust him with such enormous power? Why did he hire him to run his campaign? Why did he install him as chief strategist in the White House, giving him equal status to his chief of staff? Why did he initially put Bannon on the inner committee of the National Security Council, breaking precedent, before reversing himself after flummoxed critics roared?
If Bannon was so awful, why did he let him steer Trump's dreadful course in Alabama, where he and the Republican National Committee went all-in for Roy Moore?
A hundred whys. But instead, we get coverage of the fight. Trump blisters Bannon, and oh goodness, that could be trouble for his former Rasputin.
But so what? The real story isn't about Bannon at all, or even about Trump's bad judgment in trusting him. Instead, the story is the portrait that Wolff's book paints of a dangerously ill-equipped president who has his fingers on the nuclear arsenal, whose every word or tweet is being consumed by allies, adversaries and outright enemies all over the world. No president can know everything, and any leader will tell you that delegation is key to success. But Wolff's account shows Trump knows so little that even his aides are shocked to find him in charge.
Of course, Trump doesn't want to talk about that. But he doesn't want us talking about it either, and to a large degree he's winning. We're too busy talking about Bannon and his betrayal. He's busy bullying the book's publisher, and its author, instead of dealing with it on its merits. His attorneys have even demanded the book be canceled, and that Wolff apologize. What ridiculous theater!
Thankfully, the publisher stood up to this bully tactic, and how. The book was in bookstores by Thursday night, and judging by the long lines in Washington's DuPont Circle, it's going to be read widely.
So maybe the free press, books included, really will save us. But Lordy, only if it doesn't kill us first.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Michael Lindenberger is a member of the Dallas Morning News editorial board.