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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Accustomed to madness

by John Brummett | September 16, 2021 at 2:57 a.m.

The malignant Donald Trump presidency offered one benign effect. It devalued the insider political blockbuster book.

No longer could a tell-all from Bob Woodward surprise or alarm. The surprise and alarm had unfolded daily in plain sight already.

Woodward's latest, "Peril," will be out next week, co-authored by a young partner, Robert Costa. It must be that the icon of the Watergate era has slowed and can't scoop up all the scoops by himself anymore.

As is customary, Woodward's Washington Post, where Costa also works, published on Tuesday the first account of the book's no-longer- startling, but still notable, revelations.

Like this one: Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, assembled senior military officers a few days after the insurrection of Jan. 6. He told them that, yes, the president could order a nuclear strike, but that Trump could not order one unless he, as the head of the joint chiefs, was involved. That's not actually so, but Milley said it, paused and then asked if everyone understood what he was saying. It's called "pulling a Schlesinger," because Richard Nixon's defense secretary, James Schlesinger, inserted himself between Nixon and the nuclear button in the last few days of that disgraced presidency.

And this one: Milley called his Chinese military counterpart twice, once a few days before the election and again after Jan. 6, to tell him he was aware that China was worried about Trump's state of mind and certain American military exercises taking place in the region, but to rest assured that he'd know if any aggressive American act was forthcoming and that there was none.

And this one: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Milley and said Trump was "crazy" and had been for a long time and that surely Milley knew it and was closely watching the lame duck president for erratic behavior. (It sounds like Milley might have been a source for the book. Savvy Washington insiders know it's better to give Woodward your account than let someone give theirs.)

And this one: Vice President Mike Pence wanted somehow to oblige Trump's directive that he decline on Jan. 6 to accept formally the certified election results, even to the point of calling another Republican vice president from Indiana--Dan Quayle--to ask for advice about how he might be able to do it. And Quayle--widely ridiculed for ineptitude as vice president to George H.W. Bush in the '80s--emerged as the sage, even domineering adviser, telling Pence to put that absurd unconstitutional notion out of his head forever.

And then, since the book's timeline extends into the Joe Biden presidency, there is this one: Biden cursed at his old Democratic Senate colleague, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, telling him he was going to "[bleeping] ruin my presidency" by denying a 50th Senate vote, meaning 51 with Vice President Kamala Harris, in his holdout for more centrist positions.

Those latter two revelations are in fact mildly surprising, having to do with persons other than the known megalomaniac, meaning first Pence and then Biden.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that Pence was a thorough milquetoast, so surrendered to the notion of the Trump association as his presidential ticket that he looked for a while for ways to serve his madman master rather than the Constitution. But I am surprised and gratified that Dan Quayle was the wise savior, grounded in reason and law even if he did once put an "e" on the end of "potato."

As for Biden, I am a bit surprised to read that he became profanely angry with Manchin for pulling him back toward the center. I'd have expected him to be privately grateful.

The savvy political analysis before the two Georgia senatorial runoffs in January was that the worst thing for Biden would be for the Democrats to win both. That would deliver him a congressional majority and put pressure on him to oblige the left wing in a way that would alienate the decisive political center and render his majorities fleeting and his presidency failed.

Manchin stands as a lone figure representing the fact that the Democrats have the tiniest of majorities only because he holds an unlikely seat from West Virginia, a different planet from Bernie Sanders' Vermont. And he has done Biden the favor of absorbing the left's wrath so that Biden neither has to move too far left nor take responsibility for failing to do so.

I would have expected fly-on-the-wall revelations of Biden-Manchin conversations to tell of chumminess accented by winks.

That's because the most important thing is not that the full left-wing agenda be enacted at once, if ever. It's that Republicans will almost certainly nominate Trump again if he runs in 2024, and Biden's one job then will be the same as in 2020, which was not to lose to a madman.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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