Smirking all the way to the bank

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Trump author understands the president because they are both creatures of Manhattan


  • Photo: Shakespeare and Co.

Since the incendiary book “Fire and Fury” came out early this year, its author Michael Wolff became the world's newest “It” journalist, celebrated for his uncanny ability to lift the veil on President Donald Trump's often chaotic White House.

As a fellow longtime media-industry journalist who has known Wolff for more than a decade, I have a theory about why he was able to capture Trump in such a revealing way — and how Wolff topped the vaunted hard-working White House press corps.

Wolff understands Trump so well because he is so much like him. They are both creatures of Manhattan, not the Beltway. Making money is a prime motivation, if not the end-all and be-all, for both of them. They want desperately to make it in New York, to confirm their self-worth.

But despite the litany of their considerable successes, neither one has ever been fully embraced in this town.

Many of Trump's fellow billionaires here regard him as being boorish, to put it mildly — remember how former New York Mayor and business leader Michael Bloomberg excoriated Trump at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Likewise, the Manhattan journalism intellegentsia has always distanced itself from Wolff. They see Wolff as an entertaining fellow, an opportunist who will say just about anything to attract attention to himself.

Trump and Wolff act like people who believe there is no such thing as bad publicity, as long as people will remember to spell their names right.

Regardless of your political beliefs, you may shake your head in grudging admiration for Trump's improbable 2016 presidential victory. You may smile in wonderment that Michael Wolff, a diehard Manhattanite, wrote the most successful book about White House intrigue since “All the President's Men,” which was published more than 40 years ago. And Wolff didn't have to change cabs three times or hang out in a garage to get his information.

In a #MeToo world, Trump's personal hashtag might as well say #MeFirst. During the presidential campaign, he appealed to a base that cheered on his rhetoric. What does Trump's success suggest?

And what does Wolff's success suggest? I suspect that my journalism students will quiz me about whether Wolff is a great journalist. (He isn't, but he sure is a terrific stylist and packager of information,)

Trump has been accused of playing with facts on so many occasions. Wolff has also had to withstand numerous brushfires of criticism over his book's veracity. Did the scenes that Wolff depicted actually happen — and did they happen as he wrote them? Did Wolff exploit the confidences of the president and Trump's exiled chief advisor Steve Bannon? Bannon has since been dumped by Breitbart, the right-wing news organization that he headed and made famous. Now Bannon, instead of blowing up establishment politics, will go down in history as the first casualty of “Fire and Fury.”

If you've watched Wolff alternately defend his reputation and hurl bombs back at the president, you've no doubt observed his most expressive and endearing quality: his world-class smirk.

If I know Wolff — and I think I do — he is absolutely, positively loving every second of the media circus and all-round foofaraw. He loves being the center of attention. He loves his new status as the breathless media's Trump Whisperer.

I met Wolff over a decade ago when he was The Big Kahuna on the media industry beat, from high above the fray at his perch at New York magazine. If memory serves, Wolff and I had lunch at his once-familiar hangout, Michael's, the journalist's paradise on West 55th Street. Wolff was such a regular, you'd have thought that the joint was named for him, not the founder.

Since Michael has become a sensation, I've watched in wonder. There is so much I'd want to ask him. Is he amazed and amused, too, at this success? Will we see a “Son of Fire and Fury”? What's he going to do with all of that money? Is he having as much fun as I expect that he is?

On the evening of Jan. 10, I sent Michael a message on Facebook — we are friends — and stressed I was on deadline, in case he wanted to say anything for this piece. But he didn't get back to me.

Jon Friedman, who teaches journalism at universities in the New York area, wrote Jon Friedman's Media Web column for from 1999 to 2013.

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