‘Never lose your sense of the superficial’ was Lord Northcliffe’s advice for tabloid journalists. It’s something Donald Trump appears to understand for himself – and so do the journalists who write about him. Or most of them. Michael Wolff never planned to write a book about the president just as Trump never planned to become president. Wolff remained uncertain about his book’s prospects in the days leading to its publication in mid-January, though things began to look up when he went out to lunch on the day the Guardian published an extract on its website. Before he began to eat, the book was No. 66 on Amazon. Fire and Fury wasn’t yet on sale. By the end of lunch it was No. 1. The next day you could get copies in London. Not that long afterwards, it was No. 1 in Germany.
Resentment broke out, as if Wolff, who has written mostly about the media in the past, had stolen a subject from the seasoned political reporters. Or was it because, by getting inside the White House, he had exposed them for failing to do the same? Elizabeth Drew in the New Republic dismissed Fire and Fury: ‘better books’, she said, would be published soon. Better books? She mentioned David Frum’s Trumpocracy as an example, with its less than thrilling subtitle ‘The Corruption of the American Republic’. The errors of Wolff’s book, and its stylistic shortcomings, were said to be indicative of deeper flaws in Michael Wolff the man: was he to be trusted? The book isn’t without failings, it’s true, but in the Trump era displays of envy and resentment don’t only take place in the White House: they’re rife, in government and among journalists.
‘You couldn’t make this shit up,’ Sean Spicer, then Trump’s press secretary, told Wolff about life in Trump’s White House. In fact you wouldn’t have needed to make it up: everything you might reasonably have assumed to be true about Trump is confirmed by Wolff. As he would later explain, his work was made easier because he was often left alone, waiting for Stephen Bannon, in whose office he sat:
Actually, I would make these appointments, and I would come in and these appointments weren’t kept. So, I would sit on the couch. What I haven’t said is what a humiliating experience it is. Because everybody would look at you. You were kind of a pathetic person; whatever appointment you had, nobody was keeping it. I was the guy that you could keep waiting for, like, the whole day! And it was only over time that I started to realise that I was the most non-threatening person in the Trump universe. And as a result, everybody treated me like someone they could talk to.
Journalistically, what more could you wish for? ‘It was gold,’ as Joan Didion would say. The historian Taylor Branch visited Bill Clinton secretly at the White House once a month in the 1990s. On his first visit, in the spring of 1993, maxims and epigrams were flying about the place. Bill was quoting Suetonius, Hillary quoted Oscar Wilde, or so she thought. ‘Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue,’ she said, only that’s not Wilde but La Rochefoucauld.The vanity and the intoxication with power is overwhelming. ‘You know,’ Hillary later said, ‘I always get my revenge in my dreams, but never in real life.’ But the book based on those conversations came out nearly a decade after the end of the Clinton presidency – much too late for the bite it might have had.
How and why no one at the White House sought to question Wolff’s presence is baffling. Wolff is a well-known journalist; he appears on TV. When Trump asked him what he was doing inside the White House, Wolff replied: ‘I’d like to just watch and write a book.’ Trump seemed disappointed and moved on. So Wolff carried on. Trump, in Wolff’s portrait, is a figure in reverse, like the Pompidou Centre, where everything that’s typically inside – air-conditioning ducts, pipes etc – hangs outside. For Trump, every action is a visceral reaction. There are no second thoughts.
Without a speechwriting team, and Wolff soon discovered there wasn’t one, the Trump White House was inevitably incoherent. ‘There was the literate and highly verbal Bannon, who did not really do any actual writing himself; there was Stephen Miller, who did little more than produce bullet points. Beyond that, it was pretty much just catch as catch can. There was a lack of coherent message because there was nobody to write a coherent message.’
I got an invitation to Michael Wolff’s book party. It would be in mid-January, and I decided I would go. I’d first met Michael in London in 2011. He was with Victoria, his partner, whom I had known from New York. We had all three been invited to stay with a friend in the Lake District, and because the trains had been cancelled I agreed to drive us all north. They were staying at Claridge’s and had a lot of luggage – Michael, I soon realised, likes clothes. There were five suitcases: was there one for each day? On the way up the M6 two cars exploded in separate incidents.
Since then, Victoria often lets me know when the two of them are in London; they invite me and others out to lunch. The main prop for J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success is a table at the 21 Club in Midtown Manhattan; Michael Wolff’s blank canvas is also the white tablecloth of a dining table. Over lunch he asks you what’s going on. He’s got such gossip that you feel obliged to hand over your own, however thin. He once said that Alan Rusbridger hired him to come to London because the Guardian was struggling to get any of their reporters into the Conservatives’ parties – how was the left to know what the right was thinking? Michael has no special affection for the New Yorker, he fell out with Vanity Fair, he never liked Christopher Hitchens and he doesn’t mind making enemies. You don’t have to agree with him. I don’t.
When I arrived in New York, I went to the Café Loup in Greenwich Village. In the old days my then wife had been the maître d’. Dien, the barman, was standing behind the worn semi-varnished bar. I leafed through a book I had just bought, Greater Gotham, the second volume of Mike Wallace’s history of New York from the Spanish-American War of 1898 to the end of the First World War, and I read the pages about Greenwich Village – these were the years when the Village became the bohemian quarter of the city. Then, on my way back to where I was staying in Brooklyn, I ran into someone I knew. He was in an animated state. He talked about the allegations surrounding the now infamous list of men in the media who had behaved badly. Katie Roiphe was writing a piece about it for Harper’s. Twenty years ago, when I worked for George magazine, I’d commissioned Roiphe to write about the report written by Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor who had presided over the investigations into what had gone on in the Clinton White House – Lewinsky, Whitewater, Travelgate etc.
Moira Donegan, explaining in New York magazine how she had begun that list of men, described the media as an ‘industry’, though that makes it sound more secure than it is. The story other than sexual harassment that’s talked about sotto voce in New York is the terminal decline of magazines and newspapers brought about by the collapse of advertising revenue. Condé Nast – that’s going under, someone said. True or not, the anxieties seemed real. ‘I am going to retire,’ Michael Wolff said. He’s not going under. I had lunch with him and Victoria at a vegetarian restaurant north of Washington Square on the day of his party. By then around two million copies of his book had been sold. TV rights appeared to be sold between courses.
The party was in an apartment on West 67th Street, in the Hotel des Artistes, the building where Barbara and Jason Epstein along with Elizabeth Hardwick founded the New York Review of Books. Jason Epstein liked to let it be known that Robert Silvers wasn’t at the supper when the idea for the review was hatched. But Silvers would say that even if he wasn’t present at the creation, he was there soon enough: for breakfast the next day.
I went up in the elevator with Edward Jay Epstein, once a conspiracy theorist on the Kennedy assassination and a party-giver at his Upper East Side apartment, and we walked into what used to be an artist’s studio. Drinks, canapés, hello, your name is, I’m Inigo, what, Inigo who’s that, what, yes, what did you say your name was, Inigo – I-N-I-G-O? The language of parties often sounds the same wherever you are. Everyone looked pleased to be there – middle-aged New Yorkers, most of whom seemed to know most of the people who were there. No one drank much. Wine, whisky, water.
Steve Bannon wasn’t at Wolff’s party, though he had been invited. Renata Adler was there, and Lorin Stein. Ann Coulter was there too – I had once been her editor when she was a columnist for George magazine. I ran into other people I had known in a New York life twenty years ago, not expecting to see them. Stephen Rubin, Wolff’s publisher, whose apartment it was, gave a speech but was heckled by the agent Andrew Wylie, who suggested that the contractual arrangements weren’t as simple as Rubin implied. A journalist from Vanity Fair had his pen and notepad out; Jared Hohlt, an editor from New York, was there to make sure his magazine wasn’t missing anything. No one I noticed was badly behaved. It was, in its way, an ordinary evening in New York. It was subdued. I didn’t feel out of place.
Michael Wolff wore a dark, well-cut suit that J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success would have admired – or more likely envied. On Twitter, Trump said: ‘Michael Wolff is a total loser who made up stories in order to sell this really boring and untruthful book. He used Sloppy Steve Bannon, who cried when he got fired and begged for his job. Now Sloppy Steve has been dumped like a dog by almost everyone. Too bad!’ Trump comes across as an infinitely less articulate Hunsecker: ‘I often wish I were deaf and wore a hearing aid,’ Hunsecker says soon after he first appears in the film. ‘With a simple flick of the switch, I could shut out the greedy murmur of little men.’
I walked down Broadway after I left the party. The 21 Club is closed for renovation. The place where Damon Runyon, Walter Winchell and the other nighthawks of Broadway used to meet on the corner of 51st Street has long since been demolished. In the days that followed there would be more talk about Trump, Wolff, sexual harassment and the decline and fall of American journalism. I tried to see Thomas Cole’s famous landscape series about the rise and ruination of an American empire at the New York Historical Society, but it is being moved to the Metropolitan Museum on the other side of Central Park.
I first went to New York in the winter of 1979 when I was a boy. Guernica was at the Museum of Modern Art, yet to return to Spain. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, and American diplomats were being held hostage by revolutionaries in Tehran. There were, I noticed, a lot of nuclear fallout shelters in New York, unlike in London, where there didn’t appear to be any. One day, I was taken out to lunch at the United Nations with a family friend who worked there called Brian. I sat next to a British diplomat, who talked about Apocalypse Now and its relationship to Heart of Darkness. Afterwards there was a tour of the building that ended up in the office of Kurt Waldheim, the UN’s secretary general, whose Nazi past hadn’t yet been fully exposed. Waldheim wasn’t there – he was in Tehran, unsuccessfully negotiating the release of the American hostages. On a side table was a porcelain globe: Brian gave it such a forceful spin that the world lost its bearings, spun out of control, fell to the floor and shattered. This week in New York, with things seeming very much less certain than they once were, reminded me of that scene at the UN.
Michael Wolff will soon be in London for the start of his European tour. I don’t yet know when he’ll show up, but my bet is that when he arrives he’ll have a suitcase for every day he is in town.