I sat with Steve Bannon in a hotel room in Alabama on the night Roy Moore (remember him?) lost his special Senate election. Every few seconds, the screen of one of his three phones would flash with the name of a prominent national reporter. What did he tell them? Probably the same thing he told me, with the same combination of bluster and spin, which ultimately served nobody, not Trump and not even Bannon himself.
Read: The truth about Steve Bannon
Last spring, I emailed the White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow to request a substantive conversation about his rosy view of the coronavirus pandemic. To underscore how substantive that conversation was going to be, I told him that I had no interest in his “fucking Netflix queue.”
In response to this slightly spicy remark intended to get his attention, Kudlow actually sent me his Netflix queue. He said we were off the record, but I never consented to that condition, and because even a member of the “Lügenpresse” knows that both parties have to consent to an exchange being off the record, I can report that as the nation’s unemployment rate climbed to a nauseating 22.5 percent, the president’s top economic adviser was enjoying the following programs and films: Inspector Morse, Endeavour; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Ozark, Ford v Ferrari. As for the substantive conversation, it never happened.
Every halfway-decent White House reporter has dozens and dozens of such stories. The mediocre sated themselves on these glimpses into the banality of power; the best collected these details but strove for the bigger picture, the higher-order truth. Only whatever that truth was, it was inevitably couched within the latest dramatics, the latest outrage, the latest paroxysm of deception. The same day could see the implementation of an unspeakably destructive environmental policy and a Twitter attack on the comedian Kathy Griffin. Unlike Republican members of Congress, we did not have the luxury of not seeing the tweets.
The circus did not discriminate, sweeping up all comers bearing the appropriate accreditation, turning us into spectators on some days, performers the next. Some became lions, and not a few became lion bait. But nobody ever left the circus for very long. Some of us may never leave, I fear. For what could rival Trump, after Trump?
I don’t expect Netflix recommendations from Kudlow’s successor in the Biden administration, Brian Deese, or from any of his colleagues. They are so crushingly on message that I’ve come to suspect their tweets and press releases are written, across the whole of government, in a single room, like one of those ghost kitchens that masquerades as 15 different restaurants serving the cuisines of 15 different cultures.
I know, I know, boring tweets are a small price to pay to no longer have to endure a presidency that daily vacillated between the hapless and the malicious. The new administration would like you to believe that boring tweets and press briefings that don’t end up as professional wrestling matches are a sign of competence. They well could be. They could also lull reporters into a chummy complacency, especially given that many of those reporters are bound to be impressed by the outward prestige of the new administration, rife as it is with Ivy Leaguers who collect credentials the way squirrels collect acorns.