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Jeff Simon: Bob Woodward on tour, selling his 'trust me' journalism method

Jeff Simon

A funny thing happened on the way to some records being set on publication day by one of the unfunniest books ever published in America.

The book is Bob Woodward's "Fear: Trump In the White House."

The record it set immediately was this one: Simon & Schuster's pre-order sale of the book was the biggest at the publisher in 94 years. 750,000 copies were sold on the book's first day of publication.

By mid-week, the book had already gone into nine printings -- that's 1.15 million hard cover copies -- and counting. It was already the fastest selling hardcover book anywhere in the last three years.

Before the year is over, there may yet be a copy of the book in every second American home. That's what might happen if the author keeps on hawking his book on every TV show but the 4 a.m. farm report in Chillicothe, Ohio.

That's where that funny thing comes in. On Monday -- the day before the book officially went on sale in stores -- Stephen Colbert had Woodward on his show. Before the two of them sat down for the stunning current American ritual of selling "Fear" to book-buyers, Colbert made a genuinely funny joke targeted at a living American writer. It's possible that no such thing has happened since Dick Cavett made jokes about Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer slugging it out in the kitchens of wealthy socialites.

Colbert's joke was predicated on Woodward's typical slow-talking contention on CBS "Sunday Morning" that his book "Fear" exists because otherwise somnolent American people "might want to wake up to what's going on."

Said Colbert in his opening monologue, "To convey the idea of what's going on, Bob, you might want to talk faster and louder. That explains the failure of the Bob Woodward Smoke Detector." After which we heard a voice like Woodward's calmly and quietly and dispassionately announcing a fire in the house with Woodward's patented conversational velocity of a caterpillar crawling on a branch.

Woodward, you see, is probably the slowest-talking and most verbally deliberate writer America has known in modern times. Writers are quite commonly the stock car racers of social intercourse. They rev their engines loudly and careen all over the place, often at considerable peril to listeners, innocent bystanders and whomever is being talked about.

Woodward's stately middle-American adagio when talking is one of the many things that has made him the single most trusted reporter we have in a stressed journalistic era. It's one reason, of course, why a publisher sends him out into the world to hawk his wares.

Everything about Woodward in the world chalks up to a reporter who has to be listened to even when he is passing on the truly terrifying news that his book "Fear" does.

By now, almost everyone who pays any attention at all to America's envelope of news knows that the book claims: that Trump staffers steal papers off the president's desk so that he won't sign them and cause international upheaval; former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, before being fired, was so incensed by the president's continual tying of American military presence to money that he called Trump an "effing moron" so that everyone who'd been at that meeting could hear; Trump lawyer John Dowd quit the president's legal team rather than allowing the Mueller investigation to catch the president in near-certain perjury; former National Economic Council Chairman Gary Cohn explained "it's not what we did for the country, it's what we saved him from doing."

The stories go on and on, all of them so familiar now to anyone who is plugged into national news at all that there scarcely seems, to many, any reason at all to read the book.

Which is both unfortunate and totally erroneous. The book -- even for dedicated news consumers -- is full of surprises and fresh horrors on just about every other page.

Which is why Woodward, the investigative journalist whose conversational speed is about half that of Jimmy Stewart, is close to an ideal salesman for his flame-throwing product, despite having about as much conspicuous fire in his delivery as a bowl of cottage cheese.

That's part of why Woodward has so much public trust, despite a journalistic method an old friend of mine once called, with total accuracy, as "trust me" journalism.

He tells you right at the beginning of the book that so many of his stories and quotes come from "deep background"-- sources who are quoted constantly, laboriously and at great length, but without public attribution. So what, says Woodward. He knows who they are, after all, and how reliable they are.

In other words, "trust me" journalism. Which people do because he's such an un-glamorized, all-American virtuecrat that lying seems inconceivable. Who better to be writing about a commander-in-chief, that, as Woodward tells it,  his own staff openly doubts his ability to tell -- or even know -- the truth about almost anything?

Woodward is from a judicial family in Illinois. His father was a judge. He graduated from Yale and spent five years in the Navy. He speaks with the deliberation and probity of history itself being inscribed on American consciousness.

He wants "Fear" to jangle to the point where insistence on change is the only recourse for anyone who gives a fig about citizenship.

Woodward has been an unavoidable part of American life since he and his Washington Post partner Carl Bernstein were major journalistic figures toppling Richard Nixon over the ever-expanding errancies of Watergate. He has two Pulitzer Prizes and has been called "truth's gold standard" by former New York Times Editor Jill Abramson. "Fear" is his 19th book. With his "trust me" journalistic method, his subjects have not only included our presidents since Nixon, the Supreme Court, but also John Belushi.

You couldn't artificially design a journalistic virtuecrat more publicly persuasive than Woodward.

Personally, the perfection of his public image is what always gives me pause. Compare him, for instance, to his wildly messy old partner Bernstein, who's just a few months younger.

Unlike Yale graduate Woodward, Bernstein has no college degree. He began as a copyboy at the Washington Post, became a reporter elsewhere and then came back. His parents were members of the Communist party. His childhood reading was I. F. Stone's Weekly. Their politics was partly responsible for his total break with his parents.

Of the two members of Woodstein, it has always seemed to me that Bernstein's deep spiritual need to find what they both call "the best available version of the truth" is far greater than Woodward's. For Woodward, the truth can be seen as just a business like any other.

That doesn't mean that Woodward doesn't seem to me to be just about as trustworthy as his method virtually requires him to be. It exposes him to an entire world that wants to contradict him and bring him down.

But Woodward is a human being after all. I have no doubt he's capable of cutting a corner or two. I still don't think that any snipped corner undermines his credibility one whit.

So "Fear," from the moment his manuscript was finished, was bound for the same place other Woodward books were bound for -- No. 1 on the bestseller list and, temporarily, in the national consciousness.

To tell us about a president who is so often seen as addicted to salesmanship even though he has no belief or understanding what he's selling, we have an American journalistic salesman who insists that, no matter what people say, the post-truth era has not yet arrived.

Truth, insists Woodward, can still be told. It matters when it is. Maybe America is still capable of doing something about it.

Woodward, after all, has just about the best thing a tireless salesman can have -- a really good product.

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