Bolting Through the Bolton Book

The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir
John Bolton
Simon & Schuster

I confess. I haven’t read all of John Bolton’s book, The Room Where It Happened. And I likely won’t read all of it, to be honest. I’d rather page through John Milton before I’ve had my morning caffeine than wade through John Bolton.

However, until just a few minutes ago as I write this, I was sloshing around in The Room Where It Happened and stopping to read occasional paragraphs. I also was looking at news headlines saying the Trump Administration wants to block the book’s publication on grounds it contains classified information.

Then, suddenly, my screen went dark and a message popped up:

We’re sorry. You can’t access this item because it is in violation of our Terms of Service.

Likely, many others saw that message at about the same.

Until then, I had been thinking: if I see anything in this book that appears to be classified, I will close my eyes tightly and quickly page forward. Scout’s honor. Of course, I also was wondering if the Top Secret clearance I held while in the Vietnam War is still valid, just in case I accidentally glanced at something Trump’s lawyers didn’t want me to see?

To mis-summarize the ruling of Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the Federal District Court of Columbia regarding the publication of this work, Bolton’s book–the “horse” (or “horse manure,” depending on your political persuasion)–already is out of the proverbial barn. Indeed, it was available just about anywhere on the planet for a while if you had the right web links or other book review connections.  And it’s scheduled to be released June 23, 2020, according to Amazon. It was difficult to see how or why the Trump Administration was still expecting the bolted horse to be rounded up and led back to its barn.

I magically had received access to an ebook copy of The Room Where It Happened. I honestly cannot tell you from whom I got it, because I don’t know. Things like this occasionally happen when people review books online or in print. For books to sell, they must be publicized. Names make news, the old saying goes. And news headlines can help a book hit best-sellers lists even before it’s released. I had requested a review copy from Simon & Schuster and got zero response. Then, suddenly, a stray horse fleeing its barn bolted past and dropped something where I could find it (without stepping in it).

I did get to read quite a few pages before the link went dark. Bolton,  in the book, says he held some strong sympathies and hopes for Donald Trump’s now-bedraggled presidency in its early days. But an “axis of adults” surged into the Oval Office and surrounded Trump right after the inauguration. They mostly impeded him and did what they could to help themselves, rather than help shape and promote his political agenda.

“They didn’t do nearly enough,” Bolton charges, “to establish order, and what they did do was so transparently self-serving and so publicly dismissive of many of Trump’s very clear goals (whether worthy or unworthy) that they fed Trump’s already-suspicious mind-set, making it harder for those who came later to have legitimate policy exchanges
with the President.”

Of course, Trump himself receives plenty of criticism, too, in the book. Ambassador Bolton says that when he joined the Trump Administration, he had long believed “that the role of the National Security Advisor was to ensure that a President understood what options were open to him for any given decision he needed to make, and then to ensure that this decision was carried out by the pertinent bureaucracies. The National Security Council process was certain to be different for different Presidents, but these were the critical objectives the process should achieve.”

But the “axis of adults” (not all specifically named in the portions I read) kept getting in the way. And Trump’s own personality kept tripping him up, as well, Bolton states.

Because…the axis of adults had served Trump so poorly, he second-guessed people’s motives, saw conspiracies behind rocks, and remained stunningly uninformed on how to run the White House, let alone the huge federal government,” he writes. “The axis of adults is not entirely responsible for this mind-set. Trump is Trump. I came to understand that he believed he could run the Executive Branch and establish national-security policies on instinct, relying on personal relationships with foreign leaders, and with made-for-television showmanship always top of mind.”

Many on social media previously objected to the publication of this book and vowed to not help Bolton profit from it. But many also are now referring to it and quoting from it as they express their outrage toward the Trump White House. After watching the Trump impeachment hearings gavel to gavel and wishing John Bolton had been a brave patriot who showed up voluntarily to testify, I have understood the misgivings. Nonetheless, historians, presidential scholars, Trump biographers (there will be Trump biographers), screenwriters, numerous pundits, and others will have a field day digging through this book and harvesting eye-opening nuggets of ineptitude, opportunism, favoritism, and more.

As a book reviewer, I have to give The Room Where It Happened some credit for being useful to readers in those categories. I also can see it serving as one of the textbooks in a graduate-level course on how not to run an American presidency.

Bottom line, we’ve known things definitely have been bad inside the White House between January 2017 and now. Bolton’s White House memoir shows how some things actually have been worse than many of us imagined. Even a cursory look, a quick bolt through Bolton’s book, is enough to make anyone who cares for two-party democracy in America, and the rule of law, wince and wish tomorrow was Election Day.

Si Dunn

Hard Lessons Learned Inside a Steel Union’s Battles to Save Jobs and Benefits

Homestead Steel Mill: The Final Ten Years

USWA 1397 and the Fight for Union Democracy

Mike Stout

PM Press

Now more than ever, with some 40 million Americans unemployed, the nation’s economy stalled by protests and a deadly pandemic, and federal leadership failing, we need to review and draw again from hard lessons learned during major events in our nation’s labor history.

Mike Stout’s well-written new memoir, Homestead Steel Mill: The Final Ten Years, should be a must-read for labor leaders, labor activists, labor academics, labor lawyers, and labor specialists at all levels of local, state, and federal government. It deserves attention as well from libraries and general readers interested in American labor history, how unions operate, and what roles unions will play in the nation’s difficult economic recovery.

The author has walked the walk of a Pittsburgh area blue-collar steelworker and union leader. Stout’s credits are too numerous to summarize here, but include writing for and editing an influential union newspaper, helping found one of the first and largest union food banks, and organizing several community coalitions aimed at trying to help save steel mill jobs. He also is known internationally as a labor and social activist, as well as singer-songwriter.

The Homestead steelworks already had earned a prominent and disturbing place in American labor history when Mike Stout began working there for U.S. Steel in 1978 as a utility crane operator. Indeed, as one of his well-researched book’s sources, Brett Reigh, has noted in a master’s thesis: “In its 106 years of operation, the Homestead Works [had] witnessed some of the greatest battles ever waged between labor and capital in the United States.”

In 1892, for example, disputes between the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers and the Carnegie Steel Company exploded into a lockout and then the infamous “Homestead Massacre” that claimed at numerous lives. In an attempt to break the union, Carnegie’s leaders had brought in some 300 Pinkerton guards to try to overwhelm the strikers. A violent battle ensued, and some strikers and Pinkerton guards died. The Pinkertons eventually surrendered, but the strike ended after 6,000 troops from Pennsylvania’s state militia arrived, sided with the mill’s management, and stood guard while strikebreakers were brought in to replace union workers.  

Working at Homestead

Mike Stout was one of some 7,000 employees at Homestead and believed he had found a job for life in one of America’s most essential industries. His area also had several other U.S. Steel mills and a total of about 30,000 steelworkers.

In a chapter titled “Homestead–Forge of the Universe, Heart of Industrial Unionism,” Stout recounts some of the Homestead mill’s historical significance:

“Homestead, Pennsylvania, has been synonymous with steelmaking since 1880. For over one hundred years, the Homestead mill, seven miles southeast of downtown Pittsburgh on the south side of the Monongahela River, made the steel that helped shape the Industrial Revolution in America, producing armor plate during America’s involvement in both world wars, as well as the Korean and Vietnam Wars. It made structural beams for skyscrapers, including the St. Louis Arch, the Home Life Insurance Building in Chicago, the Pan Am, Empire State, Rockefeller Center, and United Nations Buildings in New York City, and the shafting for the power plant at the Hoover Dam. It made the steel for every major bridge and waterway back in the day, from the Panama Canal through the Golden Gate and Oakland Bay Bridges in San Francisco out west to the George Washington and Verrazano-Narrows Bridges back east.”

During Stout’s times at Homestead, however, steel mill owners were refusing to modernize and increasingly sending jobs and steel investments to cheaper sites overseas. Many workers, including Stout, were laid off repeatedly and not all were called back to work. As Homestead’s workforce shrank, union leaders and union members continued battling to maintain jobs and benefits and to keep employees as safe as possible in dangerous working conditions.

How dangerous? According to Stout:

“Working in a steel mill was dangerous beyond description. You worked in extreme temperatures. Heavy equipment and machinery were flying all about you. You could be working in front of rolling red hot steel where the temperature in the front of your body was 2,300 degrees, but your back would be freezing. You worked a different time shift every week, working 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., then 4:00 p.m. to midnight the following week, then midnight to 8:00 a.m. the third week. Also, every week your two days off would change; you’d be off Sunday and Monday, then the next week Monday and Tuesday, etc. Your entire life outside of work was determined by your life in the mill. There wasn’t much time or energy for anything else.” 

Union members and leaders also fought among themselves over what was the right balance of “union democracy,”  how trade unions are governed–an important focus in Stout’s new book.  A key concern of the rank and file (the union members) was that union executives would accurately represent the members’ interests when dealing with, and negotiating with, mills’ executives. Much of Stout’s memoir is devoted to his time navigating and leading some of the inner workings of union activities, politics, and activism. Many readers who have no experience with unions may find these chapters both eye-opening and surprisingly engrossing.

After the plant was shut down in 1987, a shopping mall was built on its site. In a review of Stout’s book, written by a former steelworker at a nearby mill, Mark Fallon recalls: “The union at the Homestead mill, United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1397 and its Rank and File Caucus, was an ‘insurgent’ local that often took vigorous issue with the policies not only of U.S. Steel, but those of its parent United Steelworkers of America International union.”

Fallon adds that while Stout served as the union’s “Grievance Chair for the entire mill between 1981-1987,” he won a significant victory for more than 3,000 former workers: more than $12 million in back pay, severance pay, pensions, and unemployment benefits. “He was the last union official out the door when the mill closed and stayed on for another four years fighting for workers’ pay and rights without receiving a dime from the union.”

After Homestead, What Lies Ahead?

The future of work in America is frighteningly uncertain as this review is being written. In the ongoing pandemic, millions have lost their jobs, businesses, and even careers, while millions of others are now working from home with no certainty that they will have workplaces, positions, or employers to return to in the future. 

As Charles McCollester emphasizes in the foreword to Stout’s book: “The coming generation of workers faces a radically changing world of artificial intelligence, robots, drones, pervasive surveillance, genetic engineering, insidious pollution, and accelerating climate change. Mike’s account of a grassroots democratic labor insurgency fighting for economic survival remains relevant, even as the nature of work changes.” (McCollester is former chief steward, UE Local 610, Switch and Signal plant and former professor of Labor Relations at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.)

Stout hopes to see a future where disparate groups unite and create a larger and more powerful social and political force. He urges: “There is commonality in all movements out there—be it Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo women’s movement, health care, immigration rights, worker rights, the environmental movement, or the movements against the many unjust wars our government is waging. Everyone needs a decent job, reasonable benefits, a democratic voice, a healthy environment, equal treatment, dignity, and a peaceful life. Until organized labor joins in a sustained coalition with these movements as one voice, as well as with our elected representatives, we will remain isolated, picked off one by one.”

How to Get the Book

To purchase the book, contact: PM Press, Oakland, CA. www.pmpress.org
$24.95 (paperback), $60 (hard cover), $8.95 (ebook) + shipping & handling.
For a signed, First Edition copy at a discount price, contact the author at:
miststout629@gmail.com
$25 (soft cover) including shipping and handling
$40 (hard cover) including shipping and handling.

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Si Dunn is a novelist, nonfiction author, poet, photojournalist, screenwriter, and book reviewer in Austin, Texas. His books include Dark SignalsJumpand Erwin’s LawSee also his credits in the Internet Movie Database.