Michael Wolff, Rabbi Warshaw, and the Washington Press establishment

Approximate Reading Time: 16 minutes

So, given the vagaries of surfing on the web (yes, I’ve been doing it that long that I still call it that… I started doing it in 1994; when did you start?) I ended up reading filtered accounts of the new Michael Wolff sensation of a book. I am speaking, of course, of Fire and Fury, just published, filled with “insider” revelations of the true tenor of life not only in the Trump White House, but the inner workings of his campaign leading up to the election. I’m not here to flog those confidences, though. There’s enough of that still going on.

I’m not even here to flog the reputation and working methods of Michael Wolff, whose reputation as a professional journalist among those who know his work long precedes him apparently. I am not ashamed to admit that I didn’t know his work. However, his reputation is not so great, especially among his presumptive colleagues, one would gather in the cataractous light of hindsight. His fellow scribblers had pretty much been keeping mum about his flagrant breaches of decorum, to hear them tell it, until he, in effect, opened his mouth with what is turning out to be a red-hot bestseller—no thanks to them and their overwrought efforts to subdue their anguish, especially once the president’s Tweets hit the fan. American journalists are particularly adept at not sounding like they’re choking, as they contort themselves into strangulated postures to retain their air of restrained dispassion. What they love to call the hard won perspective of “objectivity.”

Even as Wolff has been branded now variously a “liar,” “unprofessional,” “devious,” “mendacious,” etc. etc., there is a still barely audible counterpoint, call it a trickle of true neutral observation, that one must accept that book, having come through the apparatus of established publishing protocols by a reputed, if not an esteemed, publisher, has been vetted as far as a rushed account can be (it is still, after all, less than a year, if only barely, since the inauguration of our 45th chief executive). Presumably, and no doubt as will turn out reliably, it has been largely fact checked, gone over for the legal niceties that publishers – especially – worry about, and edited as well as a substantial book of nonfiction, 335 pages of it, can be in what is relatively short order, especially given its topicality and even more given the slipperiness, shall we say, of the sources.

Rather, my subject, as little attention as it deserves in this specific instance, is the attitude evinced by that aforementioned establishment press, especially in Washington, and in particular the so-called White House press corps – let’s face it, the heart of the monster that Trump has anointed with the epithet, used as much as an abstract noun as anything more precise, of “fake news.” Let me just observe for a moment here that, in the latest figures I can find from what I am satisfied is a more than reasonably reliable source, the U.S. adult public, with regard to the information they get, wrings this level of trust out of themselves for “national news organizations” as determined in a survey by the Pew Research Center in March, 2017 by political affiliation:

  1. Democrat: 34%
  2. Republican: 11%
  3. Independent: 15%

It should only be noted, and I add this significant detail somewhat bemusedly, that the question posited the level of trust being queried as “a lot.” There was no indication of what amount a “lot” is in either relative or absolute terms. The only sources that fared worse on this question of trusting the information to be derived “a lot” were “friends, family, and acquaintances” and “social networking sites.”

It is clear enough from the remarks I have seen in the casual conversation pits that form on Facebook of working journalists, past and still working, including many who worked national and international beats, including the Washington DC bureaus of their organizations, with a sprinkling assigned to the White House itself (I have not personally seen any remarks from present members of the Washington press corps) that Wolff has evoked a lot of feeling among his putative colleagues. Not a few people, and most of them are men, have had not merely exposure to the dispatches of Michael Wolff in the past, and not merely immersion in the gossip and scuttlebutt about his work, his methods, and the arc of his career, but had some acquaintance, most of it nodding or purely transitory, with the man himself. And very little of the first person accounts of any of the substance of these points of contact with either the person himself, or merely his work, and certainly of the unsubstantiated remarks shared about his character or his modus operandi, indeed possibly none, were what I would characterize as commendatory.

Few of these critics, as there’s nothing else to call them, have anything really revelatory to say that would represent a concrete argument for refuting the assertions of the book, as they’ve been reported in summary in the first news reports from leaked copies or as the actual text quoted in the usual places online or in print, sometimes at length. Rather, the remarks hint vaguely, I would call them rumblings of disquiet clearly meant to discredit without actually venturing into the territory of bald accusation and condemnation. His would-be censors apparently feel free to call him a “known liar,” but stop way short of calling any of what is in the book outright fabrication. Whereas, of course, the president himself and his usual corps of defenders have no problem concentrating their wrath on the veracity of the published accounts, rather than worrying the character of the author of them. Curiously, of course, and this is duly noted by the “fake news” sources, very few, possibly none, of the sources quoted in Wolff’s book have denied what was said.

The New York Times published one account that opined there was nothing particularly original about either the book or its purport – suggesting that it conforms readily to a genre of political confession that is not new, except to the extent that one would expect such embarrassing revelations to see print years after the first inauguration of a sitting president. In the case of George Bush one such book by an insider in his White House was published not too far into his second term. Thereby such books, meant to provoke readers at least to the level of fueling significant sales figures, but not to stir its most invested publics up to the pitch of kicking a hornets’ nest. Hence, Wolff has not so much created a new game, as he’s moved the goal posts – however one might state the objectives, beyond the realm of moving the book into the status of bestseller strictly for the financial rewards entailed – a lot lot closer.

However obscure the objectives of Mr. Wolff, his agent, his publisher, et alia, it is more fun, though admittedly no less unexplained, to speculate on the state of mind, at least, of his apparent detractors.

They all don the tone and demeanor, as I hope I’ve suggested, of the sang-froid for which the most trusted newscasters and reporters of our cultural past as a nation were always praised. Through blitzes (literally), through battle, through disasters, through political debacles, American reporters and the later phenomenon of the news anchor (who came to prove his –usually “his” – or her mettle by unchaining from the news center desk and going into the field, even unto the mouth of hell) were always expected in a stalwart way to appear imperturbable. Further, in a way that is uniquely American in terms of the canons of neutrality and objectivity that are the core of curricula in professional schools of journalism, at least through the 20th century, that imperturbability extended to an ethos of never revealing either a bias, never mind an opinion. I, never bound by such constraints, am willing to venture the observation that it was not until the advent of a Trump presidency, first in prospect as his candidacy became legitimate and then in fact, as it became, well, a fact, one that cannot be denied by a sane person, that any visible cracks appeared in the cloak of neutrality donned most steadfastly by the foremost adherents of the papers of record—it has always been papers, specifically newspapers, the only surviving artifacts of our national cultural history that constitute their own fully anachronistic existence. Something cracked, for sure, when the grimly determined policies enrobing the grey lady were loosened sufficiently that the most exalted of poobahs of the press, the editors, permitted in print (and, for sure, in pixels) and not merely buried below interior “folds,” but emblazoned in headlines on the front page, that the lies of our president be labelled as such.

It is in the same spirit of impartiality that, in time, rendered the practitioners of this noble craft (to paraphrase Fielding, one may say that the professional pursuit of truth fills a person with nobility, and it does, as long as it’s filling a noble person… it’s an ocean away, but we should remember that Grub Street is readily the counterpart to Times Square) susceptible to a tendency to tendentiousness, and hence, given any bona fides as a reliable practitioner, being halfway there, an inclination to suffer the pangs of sanctimony. It’s a danger in those of weak character, in that it becomes sometimes impossible to keep mum about one’s own purity, if not piety—which leads to the intriguing possibility, which I will just hang out here and move on, that perhaps, like conjoined twins, perfecting the pose of utter neutrality can so easily be mistaken for having attained to a purely pious nature.

I say all this, because I am reminded of nothing so much as what follows below when I read the twisted impostures of writing with utter coolness and a disinterested air – a hard thing to do in the cramped confines of a Facebook comment, which, after all, has an optimum length, short enough, for effective impact – even clearly while seething with contempt, and stewing in the juices of sanctimoniousness.

I am left with no other impression than this: on two counts, Wolff has made myriad enemies among his brethren (again, I have to say, though without trying to be definitive or absolute, that it seems mainly to be men; men of a certain age, some retired, some about to be, some still in harness, so to speak, with equally notable but unremarkable careers until now). First he has, to use the lingo, scooped a great many people trying to report, and somewhat fitfully and fragmentarily so, dating from the beginning of the Trump tenure, about the internal mayhem of the administration. Second, he has done so, clearly, by winning the trust of those whose mouths should have never opened in his presence, especially given the presumed tenor of his prior reputation—assuming you accept that he is nothing but a mountebank himself, a sensationalist, and a liar, and no journalist. Even as he presents no outward signs, in any event, of the same piety, if not sanctimony, in which they have wrapped themselves, like judicial or academic or liturgical robes (is there any other gowned profession I am forgetting whose stature is so entwined with its relation to defining the nature of truth?).

What I am finally reminded of – to tell the truth, and now that I’ve introduced the clergy to the discussion, however slyly – is the satirical rage of a hero of the Age of Narcissus, specifically of the 60s in the United States, Alexander Portnoy, created by a master vocalist of satire and rage in virtuoso recitals, Philip Roth. At a certain point, stuck on the hypocrisy of his boyhood rabbi, Warshaw, who shepherded our hero through his triumph (to hear him tell it) of a bar mitzvah, as a first step on a path to the glory of exalting justice and truth in a career in law, Portnoy lets loose. I hope my pulling together so many seeming disparate strands here is not irrelevant to what I have chosen to comment on, from here in the bleachers, looking down on the spectacle occurring at this moment with such topicality – and whose freshness is no doubt as fragile and evanescent as a perfectly ripe berry. I am sure what I’m trying to convey here concerns a fruit of somewhat greater longevity, paradoxically durable, given that it’s borne by the trees of one of the orchards we call knowledge.

I am no less passionate about not abandoning the quest for truth in our very misshapen times, even as the pathways to it become more twisted and convoluted, than Portnoy is about he has discovered in his tortured dismay—that surrendering to anxiety or wallowing in a narcissistic pool are no means of shelter. Finally, I’ll leave you with this anguished, if comic, condemnation in absentia of the rabbi, from Portnoy’s prolonged monolog to the ever silent Dr. Spielvogel. Read it slowly, as it’s filled with resonant allusion to matters that are proving, minute by minute literally, in these first few days of the new year to be the stuff that will prove, ultimately, to be either some kind of dreadful apocalypse or of some kind of redemptive salvation:

Ah-hah, I knew it. It’s no Devil in the proper sense, it’s Fat Warshaw, the Reb. My stout and pompous spiritual leader! He of the sumptuous enunciation and the Pall Mall breath! Rabbi Re-ver-ed! It is the occasion of my bar mitzvah, and I stand shyly at his side, sopping it up like gravy, getting quite a little kick out of being sanctified, I’ll tell you. Alexander Portnoy-this and Alexander Portnoy-that, and to tell you the absolute truth, that he talks in syllables, and turns little words into big ones, and big ones into whole sentences by themselves, to be frank, it doesn’t seem to bother me as much as it would ordinarily. Oh, the sunny Saturday morning meanders slowly along as he lists my virtues and accomplishments to the assembled relatives and friends, syllable by syllable. Lay it on them, Warshaw, blow my horn, don’t hurry yourself on my account, please. I’m young, I can stand here all day, if that’s what has to be. “…  devoted son, loving brother, fantastic honor student, avid newspaper reader (up on every current event, knows the full names of each and every Supreme Court justice and Cabinet member, also the minority and majority leaders of both Houses of Congress, also the chairmen of the important Congressional committees), entered Weequahic High School this boy at the age of twelve, an I.Q. on him of 158, one hunder-ed and-a fif-a-ty eight-a, and now,” he tells the awed and beaming multitude, whose adoration I feel palpitating upward and enveloping me there on the altar—why, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if when he’s finished they don’t pick me up and carry me around the synagogue like the Torah itself, bear me gravely up and down the aisles while the congregants struggle to touch their lips to some part of my new blue Ohrbach’s suit, while the old men press forward to touch their tallises to my sparkling London Character shoes. “Let me through! Let me touch!” and when I am world-renowned, they will say to their grandchildren, “Yes, I was there, I was in attendance at the bar mitzvah of Chief Justice Portnoy—“an ambassador,” says Rabbi Warshaw, “now our ambassador extraordinary—” Only the tune has changed! And how! “Now,” he says to me, “with the mentality of a pimp! With the human values of a race-horse jockey! What is to him the heights of human experience? Walking into a restaurant with a long-legged kurveh on his arm! An easy lay in a body stocking!” “Oh, please, Re-ver-ed, I’m a big boy now—so you can knock off the rabbinical righteousness. It turns out to be a little laughable at this stage of the game. I happened to prefer beautiful and sexy to ugly and icy, so what’s the tragedy? Why dress me up like a Las Vegas hood? Why chain me to a toilet bowl for eternity? For loving a saucy girl?”

Roth, Philip. Portnoy’s Complaint (Vintage International) (pp. 201-203). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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3 thoughts on “
Michael Wolff, Rabbi Warshaw, and the Washington Press establishment

  1. Yes, Steve (and thanks for the amendatory comments about Mr. Wolff and his m.o.), and, as you’ll recall, Erich Salomon went so far as to regularly don formal wear so as to blend in at soirées attended by his subjects (the power players of the nation-states of post WWI Europe), and to hide his camera in his bowler hat so as to secrete it while he snapped photos in the courtroom of murder suspects on trial. He went so far as to show his effrontery by learning multiple languages in order to blend in and mix it up in a different way. The debate about the ethics of journalists serving the higher purpose of seeking, well, as I prefer to think of the most exalted minded of them, ummm, truth, hasn’t ended.
    In fact, one might say that my subjects in this piece, the squirming self-appointed models of decorous truth gathering, that is, the bourgeois-mannered ink-stained wretches of the proverbial Fleet Street, find the less genteel subterfuges and covert, sometimes labyrinthine methods (“deep throat” anyone? “If you don’t deny that you said it, just hang up…”) of certain of their more bold colleagues, past and present, cause for personal discomfort. I am ignorant of what exactly Wollf may have done to “ingratiate” himself with the Trumpster (lavish, and ornate, if not gilded praise, however insincere, with a smile on one’s lips, however uninvolved the deeper fibers of zygomaticus, seems to work pretty well), but short of illegal posturing or promises as a member of the press (and not even merely a blogger who styles himself a “journo” either), with full credentials. But if you sit down with a reporter (however broad the role, given past performance), and they’re not required to warn you, it’s cave ergo suspicio…
    And yes, isn’t it interesting how we are willing to accept the veracity of unsubstantiated attestations, of late, most embarrassingly, from the inner sanctums of the White House. It’s what we want to believe, after all, and the attestation is one of negative capability, but only after the words have appeared in public. I mean, it must have been the intention that they do appear, or why speak to anyone, least of all a reporter?
    I would never make it in Washington as an insider. I would never open my mouth except for the expertise I was being paid for, and my phone, doubtless, would stop ringing in fairly short order.

  2. Well…Wolff did have to start by ingratiating himself to Trump to gain access, which surely required a checkered past, from a liberal/factual point of view…and much of his book simply cannot, as he well knew, be fact checked at all, given the dearth of actual fact in the current administration…so the man is who he is, and I’m glad he did it, but seeking the facts of the facts seems a Sysiphean endeavor…he did what he did, and it will make him a load of lucre, and it will piss off the Emperor, and nobody suffers, except his cohort, who respond with critique, to make themselves feel better about the whole thing.
    And I liked the Warshaw bit…how on Earth did you remember that enough to find and quote it?!?!?!

    • And also, Steve, to answer your last question. I thought of Rabbi Re-ver-ed, as Portnoy dubs Warshaw, when I started playing on associations with the blatant sanctimony of the various journalists whose comments I see to one another on my Facebook newsfeed.
      My more general theory is, from the start of the development of a mature intellect, we begin to gather in our minds favorite exempla surrounding and vitalizing favored fundamental concepts, like “sanctimoniousness,” which, along with earnestness of a certain type, are among my pet peeves. I read Portnoy’s Complaint when it came out in 1969, And right away, bingo! ‘Cause sanctimony bothered me from my adolescence on…

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