Michael Wolff’s fire hazard and fury at the Free Library of Philadelphia

Fireproofing the Free Library

When I arrived early at the Free Library for the free, unticketed January 16 author event featuring Michael Wolff, author of Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, a staffer told me to leave.

Apparently, Wolff's books ward off fire as well as fools. (Illustration by Hannah Kaplan for BSR.)

“This event is full,” a man in a camouflage jacket said to a few people who gathered on foot in the ample space behind the rows of chairs set up in the library’s main lobby, facing a large projector screen.

“What, no standing room?” a woman asked.

“No,” he answered curtly. The downstairs auditorium and a second room upstairs were already full, in addition to the lobby.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, you have to go,” he said again. “It’s a fire hazard. This event is full. Unless you’re using the library, you have to leave.”

“I am using the library,” I said. “I’m here for this event.”

“No, ma’am. The event is full. It’s a fire hazard. You have to leave. Unless you buy a book and go to the back of the line there.” He pointed to the long hallway that stretches west near the main stairs. It was already crammed with people clutching books.

“If I stay and don’t buy a book, it’s a fire hazard, but if I buy a book, then it’s not a fire hazard?” I asked. Apparently so.

Secret agenda man

I went downstairs into the mostly empty bathroom, shut myself into a stall, and waited for the scheduled start time. Then I strolled back upstairs and casually wedged myself into the book-signing line just as interviewer Dick Polman, WHYY’s national interest columnist, introduced Wolff downstairs. Since its January 5, 2018, release, Polman noted, Fire and Fury has already seen 11 printings. Why has the book caught on this way?

“This is a good story. I think I told it in a pretty compelling way,” Wolff answered.

Over subsequent questions (which he often strenuously interrupted), Wolff was coy about comparing himself (and his access to the 200 sources he touts) to the traditional political journalists inhabiting the White House. But not too coy. He called the White House press corps “very hardworking people,” but added, “If you sit in the briefing room, you learn nothing.” On the other hand, he also characterized political reporters as frenetic people trying to monitor a volcano, covering a different explosion every day.

Wolff contrasted this with the historic access he gained — in his own telling — by patiently camping out on a couch in the West Wing after he “asked to come to the White House, and they said yes, sort of.”

The cover that launched 11 printings to date. (Image courtesy of the Free Library of Philadelphia.)
The cover that launched 11 printings to date. (Image courtesy of the Free Library of Philadelphia.)

Which really means nobody thought much about it: “I was let in without someone weighing the consequences of this.” According to Wolff, he told anyone who asked that he was planning to publish a book next year. The questioners carried blithely on, because “sometime next year was a lifetime away” for staffers, most of whom didn’t last the summer.

“Many other reporters probably could have done this. I was just the one who did,” Wolff said. But he also characterized his interviews as something only he could achieve — though he refused to do more than allude to his unconventional means. (“In order to do this kind of book, you have to make the deals that are necessary to make.”)

The emperor's few clothes

Wolff said we have a president who is “a liar” and a “a fool,” daily mired in “heinous” acts against our political institutions, and “nobody really knows how to cover" this administration. Until Wolff made his way into the West Wing, he said, “no one in media had communicated the full force” of the president’s negligence.

According to Wolff, his success comes with shade from colleagues, some of whom, Polman pointed out, question Wolff’s methods and authenticity. “Everybody is trying to figure out how to tell this story. They’re resentful if someone else does it,” Wolff replied. But, he added generously, mainstream political reporters are “all doing, sometimes, a very good job."

Wolff estimated that he spent a total of only three hours with direct access to the president. But that doesn’t matter, he insisted, because the book isn’t about the president’s perspective. It’s about how his administration sees him.

I missed some of the discussion. When we began to block the west hallway in an effort to hear, the man in camo descended mercilessly to clear us out. I moseyed down the steps and back up, installing myself on the other side of the lobby.

As the conversation drew to a close, camo and several security guys strode the room, gesticulating like runway workers on an aircraft carrier and setting up an additional rope line with all the concentration of people defusing a bomb.

Takes one to know one

I’m sure we haven’t heard the last from Wolff. “I have these Bannon tapes that are just fabulous,” he gloated.

How did he get such access to Bannon on the record? That was Bannon’s “arc,” Wolff answered. Initially a presidential apologist, Bannon realized that Trump was an “idiot” who was neither governable nor capable of governing and would never carry out Bannon’s nationalist vision. “Steve found this incredibly painful, and I was there to hear him express that pain,” Wolff explained.

Let’s all take a moment of silence for Bannon’s dying dreams.

Polman asked Wolff about the factual inaccuracies that have come to light since Fire and Fury hit the shelves. Why did they make it to the published page? Wolff indignantly cut Polman off. Nobody likes to be wrong, he exclaimed. “In the multitude of future editions, we’ll fix all the errors.”

It was a facile, heated, self-aggrandizing answer that ignored the actual question. Remind you of anyone? 

To read Stephen Silver's review of Fire and Fury, click here.

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