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