Why John Bolton's memoir will be long forgotten by US election day

Such books don't shift public opinion enough to affect the outcome of a presidential contest


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John Bolton's new book has been described as "tedious" and "lacklustre" by reviewers, but the former US national security adviser's tell-all memoir of the Trump White House, titled The Room Where It Happened, is already a bestseller, despite only being released earlier this week.

Mr Bolton is reported to have been paid up to $2 million for his near 500-page manuscript, which now looks like value for money given such strong sales and the blanket media coverage the book has generated.

Interest in his memoir was boosted further by a last-ditch attempt to stop its publication by the US Government on the grounds that it might disclose official secrets. That injunction was rejected by the courts, but few things stir book sales like an aggrieved insider with fire in his belly and a story to tell.

By now, you will be familiar with some of the memoir’s contents.

epa08493524 (FILE) - US President Donald Trump speaks as John Bolton, national security advisor, listens during his meeting with Klaus Iohannis, Romania's president, not pictured, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 20 August 2019 (reissued 18 June 2020). According to media reports, the US government wants to prevent publication of a book by former National Security advisor Bolton, arguing that national security was at risk.  EPA/Andrew Harrer / POOL *** Local Caption *** 55406002
US President Donald Trump speaks as John Bolton, his then national security adviser, listens during a meeting in Washington last August. EPA

Mr Bolton and the US President locked horns over foreign policy direction in Iran, North Korea and pretty much every else in 2018 and 2019. Mr Trump’s well-known “tough on China” rhetoric is also laid bare by the author as just that, words delivered for the benefit of a domestic audience that were rowed back in private and in meetings with his Chinese counterpart.

The portrait that Mr Bolton paints is of Mr Trump as a skittish and transactional leader motivated by the changing tides of approval ratings or, as columnist Hussein Ibish wrote on these pages earlier in the week, a man driven by politics rather than policy. Interviewed in The Telegraph this week, Mr Bolton defined his book as a "history of how not to be president".

Mr Bolton’s reputation as a thorough note-taker means the detail is forensic, but this is less a smoking gun and more the rolling fog of war that follows the present US administration – and that is why the former staffer’s words will not matter in the end.

Another former staffer this week accused Mr Bolton of acting like "he was president" during his time in office, which hints that the other side of this story may well be forcefully presented over the next few days. It all fits the established direction of travel where allegation and claim are quickly matched by denial and rebuttal. The news cycle in the Trump years has become turbo-charged.

FILE PHOTO: File picture of U.S. President Donald Trump meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Panmunjom, South Korea, June 30, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo
Donald Trump meets North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Panmunjom, South Korea, last year. Reuters

Campaign rallies and, lest we forget, inauguration ceremonies have become highly charged arenas where crowd sizes are contested and claims are raised that set piece events were hijacked by TikTokers and K-Pop followers. Diplomacy has been transformed into an unpredictable and counterintuitive activity and policy is often played out on social media. One moment the President is calling Kim Jong-un a "little rocket man", the next the pair are shaking hands and walking across the Korean Demilitarised Zone together. A moment later, the discord returns.

There has been wave after wave of scandal-rich tomes and insider accounts of the Trump administration: Bob Woodward's book Fear: Trump in the White House, Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury and James Comey's memoir A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership have all skewered the administration in one way or another, but none gravely. Mr Bolton's book is likely to track that trend.

In a few weeks, the hot takes will cool down to lukewarm notices. Many copies will languish unread on bookshelves and bedside tables around the world, with the result that much of the finer detail within its pages will dissolve, including that the text appears to confirm the substance of the impeachment proceedings against the US President, which were voted down by the Senate.

Copies of the book "The Room Where it Happened" a memoir by former US national security advisor John Bolton are for sale at Barnes & Noble in Glendale, California on June 23, 2020.     The Trump administration tried unsuccessfully to block publication of Bolton's book claiming it contained classified national security information.Former US national security advisor John Bolton said Sunday he thinks North Korean leader Kim Jong Un "gets a huge laugh" over US counterpart Donald Trump's perception of their relationship. Bolton spoke to ABC News for his first interview ahead of the Tuesday release of his tell-all book, which contains many damning allegations against Trump.
 / AFP / Robyn Beck
Copies of John Bolton's book 'The Room Where it Happened' are for sale at Barnes & Noble in Glendale, California, earlier in the week. AFP

The fact is that political memoirs rarely count for as much as the publication date hullabaloo and serialisations would have you believe. They matter even less in a world where the US President’s natural reflex is to talk about everything and hide nothing. This is not a revelatory moment because that is the lived reality of the Trump years.

For those who want to see the US President leave office, the book only validates what they already thought about his motivations, competencies and political methods. For those who support Mr Trump, the coverage only supports their gut feeling that there is an agenda against their man.

The American voting public will act as judge and jury on all of this in the autumn, not Mr Bolton. They will go to the polls long after the noise around In the Room Where It Happened has subsided, and they will be faced with a stark choice between Mr Trump and challenger Joe Biden.

The US President tweeted this week that the 2020 election will be "rigged" against him by fake postal ballots. National opinion polls currently show Mr Biden ahead by around 10 per cent in the polls and set to win the Electoral College.

Many voters will look at how the economy has fared over the past four years, how the country’s Covid-19 strategy has held up – to date more than 2.35 million cases have been confirmed in the US, as well as 120,000 deaths – and whether they find a country united or more divided by the period since November 2016. Those factors will make up their minds, not Mr Bolton’s tale of foreign policy accidents and missteps.

America’s imperfect electoral system is capable of delivering shocks and its pollsters have been surprised when they have made wrong predictions, but November 3 will provide the definitive answer to the success or failure of the 45th President of the United States.

Nick March is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National