Few journalists and observers are more versed in US presidential history than Bob Woodward. In his latest book, Peril, written with fellow Washington Post reporter Robert Costa, they write that “Most [presidential] candidates struggle with the message. In his case [Joe Biden], he was the message.” The former Vice-President was the best positioned to carry the day in front of President Donald Trump, a man who didn’t and probably couldn’t grasp the magnitude of Covid-19 (“I wanted to always play it down”, he said to Bob Woodward in March 2020), or the basic tenets of politics. About the latter aspect, “[Corey Lewandowski, who was Trump’s campaign manager in 2016] was surprised that Trump, of all people, did not seem to get that Republican leaders were self-interested.”
In a nutshell, Trump – who did not have a story to tell – couldn’t possibly compete with a man whose own life was and is the story – Joe Biden. “There is no news I can walk in and give him in the morning that is worse than the news he’s been given many other times in his life”, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain told the authors about President Biden in what is probably the best book published about US politics this year.
“Terrible times make great presidents”, said Joe Biden, looking at a portrait of the iconic FDR – who faced personal tragedy in the form of physical handicap, the Great Depression and World War II. For the moment, it is too early to evaluate what mark the 46th President of the United States will leave in history.
His journey to the White House nevertheless represents one of the most fascinating chapter in the history of civilian-military relationship in the history of the United States. One of the main heroes of Joe Biden’s accession to the Oval Office was not a political operator or an elected official, but a military man – the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley.
Throughout the book, his name constantly pops up at pivotal moments. Few days before the US presidential election, “the Chinese believed the United States was going to attack them.” He took upon himself to call his Chinese vis-à-vis, General Li Zuocheng, to assure him that there were to be no “[…] kinetic operations against […]” Beijing. “We are going to land this plane safely” and “[…] ensure a peaceful transfer of power”, General Milley said about the political transition between the two administrations. When he heard Attorney General Bob Barr might resign, he admonished him not to. Barr eventually left just before Christmas 2020, but it shows how important a role the General played behind the scenes to “land the plane safely”. Another prime example is when he avoided informing President Trump that he was sending the National Guard on Capitol Hill, after the riots broke out on January 6, choosing to inform Vice-President Pence, who proved to be a stable and dignified holder of constitutional prerogatives.
American military leaders aren’t only adepts of the grunts but also of a profound intellect. I often had the opportunity of measuring it between the covers of several books many of them wrote in recent years. Even though he didn’t write a book, yet, General Mark Milley is no exception to that rule.
“He considered himself a closet historian and had thousands of books in his personal library”, the authors write. He has notably spent considerable amount of time studying World War I and what triggered it. In that regard, a rogue decision, or a bad twist of fate on January 6 could have pushed the United States over the abyss. Many have probably dismissed it, but even 1000 km away from Washington, D.C., that somber day was one of the tensest I can remember. A potential “fascist takeover” of this country I admire so much was all but remote on that day and we can only be grateful to people like General Mark Milley – and Vice President Mike Pence at another level – for ensuring that America remained a beacon of freedom and democracy.
Once again, Bob Woodward -assisted by Robart Costa – offered us a classic about US politics. But how could it be otherwise? For people of my generation, the Washington Post reporter and author will always remain a legend.
Current and future historians will most certainly devote quantities of paper and ink studying General Milley’s hands-on and determining role during these 10 fateful weeks in American history. Being a military history enthusiast, I will always be keen to read their work. In a world where military leaders tend to be called upon to curtail democracy, it is fascinating to observe that the spiritual sons of Grant, Eisenhower, Marshall, Powell and Mattis – just to name these – do not drift from their duty to protect the Constitution, “[…] no matter what the cost is to ourselves”, as General Mark Milley declared.
If only for the role played by this now legendary man in protecting his country from peril, this book is well worth reading if you adhere to Edmund Burke’s words; “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, Peril, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2021, 512 pages.
I would like to convey my deepest gratefulness to Adria Iwasutiak of Simon & Schuster Canada who went the whole nine yard to make sure I received a review copy of this book.