I read the entirety of John Bolton’s vast tome, The Room Where It Happened, so you don’t have to. Because you probably won’t want to read the whole thing. I’ll tell you where the highlights are. I haven’t been this tired after reading a book since reading the CISSP Common Book of Knowledge (which is as bad as it sounds) or the Christian Bible (which goes without saying). A political book doesn’t belong in the same league as those two.
The Room Where It Happened is not a tell-all book. It’s about two parts memoir and one part manifesto, and it’s John Bolton’s story, which just happens to include a lot about his boss.
Do I believe John Bolton?
I’ll start this review of The Room Where It Happened with the first question I received when I announced to a few friends I had the book’s text in my possession and was reading it. Is Bolton believable and credible?
I believe that it is an accurate recounting of the events that John Bolton observed. There are several reasons for this. First, it reads like notes he would have taken at the time. I’m talking the notes that you start taking when you know something bad just happened, or is about to happen, and you know you’re probably going to get sued and you’re going to have to tell lots of powerful people everything.
Short of inserting the occasional jab at one of his favorite liberal targets, or inserting one attempted joke about Ronald Reagan, he didn’t do much to try to liven it up.
Second, the quotes don’t read like John Bolton. When I read Paul Allen’s memoirs, his quotes sounded contrived. You could tell it was Paul Allen recounting the gist of what he and Bill Gates had said decades earlier, and it was just the gist. Because nobody talks like that.
Bolton’s quotes sound like the person he’s quoting. Trump sounds like Trump. Foreign leaders speaking through interpreters sound different from foreign leaders speaking in English themselves.
To be frank, Bolton’s not a capable enough writer to pull off writing something that sounds like this if he was making it up. If he’d been making it up without it sounding contrived, the book would have been a much easier read.
Is it worth reading?
The book moves at a glacial pace. Bolton’s telling his story, not Trump’s. It starts at the beginning, with the question of whether he’d be offered a job in the Trump administration and which jobs he would be willing to take, and the fits and starts around him finally taking the job of National Security Advisor. And the book proceeds in approximately chronological order from there
Its purpose is to cement his legacy. At one point I thought it was his audition for a job in some future Republican administration, but he’ll be at least 75 before that can happen. He won’t be returning to Trump’s administration so, barring impeachment, we’re talking a hypothetical future administration starting in 2024 or even 2028. It could happen, but it’s not a given he’ll want the opportunity when it does present itself again.
But this isn’t just a memoir. It’s also part manifesto. He knows liberals will be reading, because they want the insider account on Trump. So he takes the opportunity to present his Federalist Society worldview. And to try to convince you that he’s smarter than Trump, and smarter than you. Much smarter than you. I think he’ll concede you’re smarter than Trump because, after all, you’re reading his book.
That’s one reason it’s hard to read. If there’s a simple way to say it or a pretentious way, he chooses the pretentious way.
I would have ordered the book differently. But in his defense, if he hadn’t buried the important stories, he probably wouldn’t have been able to publish the book.
Stories from The Room Where It Happened
Each chapter has one or two anecdotes that stand out. Much of it confirms things we’ve heard before, just from someone else’s perspective. There’s just enough difference in perspective to suggest that whoever was leaking stories early in the administration, it was probably someone other than Bolton.
Here are a few that I found interesting, disturbing, or otherwise noteworthy.
In Chapter 14, Bolton states that Bill Barr was very concerned about the appearances that Trump created, including telling Pompeo that he had a pattern of obstruction of justice as a way of life.
Chapter 12 has a somewhat humorous story. Trump was convinced someone in the cabinet, possibly Pompeo or Bolton, was blocking calls to him from foreign leaders. Bolton and Pompeo had no idea what he was talking about. Neither of them had ever blocked any calls to him, and they were unaware of anyone else doing so. Then, one day, he was looking for Trump, trying to talk him out of a meeting that nothing could could come of, when he found Jared Kushner on the phone with the US Ambassador to Isreal, telling him he wouldn’t allow a call from Netanyahu through to Trump. Bolton had accidentally discovered it was Kushner blocking those calls to Trump.
In Chapter 7, Trump couldn’t keep his thoughts straight on how to go about withdrawing from Syria, especially when it came to avoiding unintended consequences, and what kinds of timeframes his advisors said were possible or impossible. His only constant in his decisionmaking was that his base wanted out of Syria. This was another consistent theme in the book.
Which chapters in The Room Where it Happened to read
The chapters you want are Chapter 10 (China), Chapter 14 (Ukraine), and Chapter 15 (Epilogue). Over 90% of what you want to know is in those three chapters. The rest is scattered around the other 12. You get the best return on effort from those three.
I would have put the China story in Chapter 1, but if he had led with a new-ish revelation, someone would have blocked the book. My cynical take is few of the people left in the administration have the discipline or ability to find the important stories where he buried them.
Why Bolton didn’t testify to Congress
Chapter 15 largely deals with why Bolton didn’t testify in the impeachment hearing. He said he would have been willing to testify in the Senate, but not in the House, because he didn’t agree with the House’s approach.
It’s a flimsy argument. He argues the House focused narrowly on Ukraine, when it should have focused broadly on overall pattern of behavior. He conveniently forgets the Clinton impeachment was narrow, not over a pattern of behavior.
Of course there’s a difference. Clinton’s impeachment was narrow because much of the pattern of behavior predated his time in office. His other documented affairs happened before his presidency. Paula Jones was a separate legal issue, and the affair with Gennifer Flowers was consensual. It was wrong, but not illegal.
In this case the impeachment was artificially narrow. Look at the witnesses available. The witnesses who would testify only had deep knowledge of the Ukraine incident. They couldn’t elaborate on a broader pattern of behavior because they weren’t there to witness it. They didn’t know about China because they were in Ukraine when China happened. The witnesses who could speak to the broader pattern of behavior with enough detail to prove anything, such as John Bolton and Charlie Kupperman, refused to testify. Bolton is blaming Democrats for a condition that he exacerbated.
Bolton can say all he wants that this wasn’t about his book deal. And maybe it wasn’t. But if it wasn’t about the book deal, it was about partisan politics. He made up his mind what he was going to do, then he concocted the mental gymnastics to justify it.
One thing you learn working in business is that you have to work within whatever system exists. You may not like it, but it’s what you have to work with. Bolton made a decision that those of us who live and work in the real world cannot. His decision caused me to lose respect for him.
John Bolton’s The Room Where it Happened review, in conclusion
This book is anything but fine literature. It was clearly written in a hurry, reading like a regurgitation of notes he took soon after the events took place. But given the pace of today’s news cycle, there wasn’t time to write the book any other way. I find him nauseating, but Bolton being nauseating probably is the only reason the book got published. Whether Bolton reveled in being that way or not, only he can answer.
And while the point of a good book is to make it easy to find the best or most important stories, Bolton really couldn’t write this book that way. He barely got clearance to publish the book as it is. If he’d led off with the best chapters, and led off each chapter with the best story, he’d still be fighting to get it published. There’s nothing in this book that’s especially sensitive. Sure, the stories of how easy it is to play Trump are a matter of national security, but that cat’s out of the bag. The rest of the world knew that, with or without reading Bolton’s book.
I wasn’t a fan of Bolton before I read the book, and I’m not a fan of him after reading it either. It’s an important book, but exactly what effect it will have remains to be seen. But none of that makes it easy to read. Most people will be better off reading the excerpts and notes of other people who’ve managed to read it.