By John Krull
INDIANAPOLIS—Perhaps the most surprising thing about the new book from Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, “Peril,” is how few genuine surprises there are in it.
Many of the supposed bombshells convey little that wasn’t known before.
The story that former President Donald Trump grew dangerously detached from reality after losing the 2020 election and encouraged an insurrection on Jan. 6?
Not really breaking news.
Accounts of how Trump’s disintegration and irrationality so alarmed elected officials in both parties as well as members of his own administration that they took steps to make sure he couldn’t start a war or engage in other destructive acts?
Again, not a revelation.
That’s the way it goes through much of the book.
Woodward and Costa do an admirable job of marshaling irrefutable details that reveal just how wild, chaotic and frightening the campaign of 2020 and the early months of 2021 were. They make clear the peril the nation and world faced.
But there’s a been-there, read-that quality to the recounting.
Other books already have taken us inside the world of Trump’s meltdown and shown us how eager he was to play footsie with the forces of totalitarianism and white nationalism. Those who aren’t already convinced of the former president’s narcissism and instability drank the Kool-Aid by the gallon a long time ago.
They aren’t likely to be persuaded by one more book, regardless of how meticulously reported it is.
But that’s not to say “Peril” isn’t worth reading.
The strength of the book isn’t what one would expect from a volume by Woodward. The veteran Washington Post journalist is one of the great reporters of all time, a bloodhound able to tree any squirrel he chases.
He’s made his massive reputation through the blockbuster revelation, pulling back the curtain on the hidden history of one important, often tragic American moment after another. The subjects of his books often grouse about what Woodward reveals, but they long ago stopped challenging his reporting.
That’s because they can’t.
It always stands up.
But, despite all the superb fact-gathering, Woodward’s books are a slog. The man’s prose is the literary equivalent of narcolepsy. Anyone who reads two paragraphs of most of Woodward’s books shouldn’t drive or operate heavy machinery for at least an hour.
That’s not the case with this one.
Maybe that’s attributable to Costa. Maybe not.
It doesn’t matter.
What does matter is that “Peril” reads better than Woodward’s previous two books about Trump.
Part of the reason is that it seems much more human.
In addition to the dissections of events, we also get telling glimpses of the people at the heart of those events.
Often those peeks at the players involved evoke sympathy for people—Mitch McConnell, Bernie Sanders, Lindsey Graham, even Trump himself—who often find themselves reduced to caricatures.
This is important because it elevates understanding of the personal forces that drive our politics.
One of the best examples is a telling account of why a young Joe Biden chose not to attend Amherst for college. Biden’s father, who never attended college, fretted that his son would end up working in the cafeteria serving rich kids.
The younger Biden intuited that his working-class father would be uncomfortable visiting his own son at such a campus.
So the future president chose a state school instead.
The authors relate the tale as an example of Joe Biden’s empathy, his feeling for the stresses and distresses others experience.
But it also hints at one of the sources of Biden’s antipathy for Trump. Biden, after all, has touted his friendship and his willingness to work with many Republicans, despite great policy differences.
But not Trump.
Maybe that’s because Biden could see Trump as one of the rich kids at the high-toned school who would have looked down on the guys serving them food and making Biden’s own father feel uncomfortable. Biden’s scorn for Trump is that of the working-class striver for the entitled trust-fund baby.
Such glimpses make “Peril” something other than another bit of muckraking.
Instead, it is a reminder that, however large the stage upon which they trod, the players in our grand political theater are just people.
Human beings with the same hurts and hopes as the rest of us.
An important reminder in these divided days.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.