Double Review: Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff and Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

These two books attracted plenty of attention when they were first published. When I read them individually, I thought there was no point in blogging about them because of the extensive responses they already engendered. But I thought it would be interesting to juxtapose them as they hit on common themes – even if they seem disparate at first glance:

  1. Fire and Fury is an account of Donald Trump’s first months in the White House as President of the USA. It launched a battery of reactions, including some colorful ones from Trump himself when the book was first published.
  2. Bad Blood is the book version of an investigative journalism piece by Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou, which itself arose from his suspicions about hyped medical-tech startup Theranos. The company’s claim to fame was being able to test hundreds of ailments from a drop of blood. Compared to other tests on the market, Theranos promised to be much more efficient, cost-effective, even revolutionary. It sounded too good to be true, and as Carreyrou would discover, it was too good to be true.

Both narratives have commonalities: bad management, office politics, and toxic environments. It’s no surprise that anywhere you go in life, these three elements are interrelated. Bad management breeds office politics. Together, they create toxic work environments. That’s just how it is. It doesn’t matter if you are central government administration or a Silicon Valley startup. Any organization is prone to such pitfalls.

Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff

Because of how controversial the figures in Fire and Fury are, I view the book’s content as a possible version of the truth. I take every revelation about the Trump administration with a grain of salt, no matter how much I disagree with Trump’s words and actions. I am judging and reviewing characters as depicted in the book. How factual the portrayals are is something I cannot vouch for.

In Michael Wolff’s telling, the Trump administration was run (and maybe is still run) like a deranged startup. The retention rate of its staff, especially in 2017 when most of the book was set, was abysmal.

Flashback to 2017: certain names popped up often in news headlines when Trump began his first year as President. Bannon. Priebus. Ivanka. Kushner. Hope Hicks. Fast forward to 2020. Only Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are left standing from the list of Fire and Fury characters. Family’s near impossible to get rid of, after all. Heck, I forgot all about Reince Priebus until I was writing this blog post.

The debacle of Anthony Scaramucci (remember him?) is covered in Fire and Fury. Man, I remember when his tenure as White House Director of Communications made headlines. It may have been the most entertaining/farcical political episode ever. Ever is a hyperbolic word, but Scaramucci’s rise and epic fail fall was just so surreal and unintentionally hilarious. It was like political satire on steroids. Something a drug-fueled author would invent. It sounded like something out of the Roman Empire. Yet it was real.

As news consumers, the numerous moves and exits by White House staff in 2017 seemed so frightening and unstable. Yet many of them are now largely forgotten. Steve Bannon is now in disgrace. Scaramucci has parlayed his short-lived infamy to now providing media commentary.

Fire and Fury focused on the chaotic mess inside. It was all very gossipy. Bannon swore a lot. Poor Priebus seemed well-intentioned but clueless and ineffective. Bannon fought a lot with Ivanka and Jared Kushner (let’s just call them Jarvanka). Jarvanka were snobbish but clueless as well. Hope Hicks was too young and inexperienced. Jarvanka and Bannon kept trying to one up the other, and would enlist more people to their sides in order to do so. In the middle of all the power struggles, no one seemed to have an idea of how to effectively govern.

Some found the revelations in Fire and Fury scandalous, and the prose could indeed get tabloidy, but to me, the story Wolff told was completely mundane.

What do I mean? At its core, Fire and Fury is the story of what happens when you are led by someone without a vision.

It’s a common story. Many families, organizations, and corporations are led by such figures – they are commonplace, after all. Men (and women) who know how to present themselves to their audience but have no vision, no strategy, no execution ability, and worst of all, no grace to handle responsibility. They cannot lead. The result is inevitably inefficiency, which leads to a leadership vacuum.

I think you know what happens next. Those who see themselves as capable of taking the reins would try to carve out more power for themselves. And that creates political factions, power struggles, backstabbing, etc. In a phrase: office politics. Who hasn’t had to deal with office politics?

Basically, Fire and Fury examines the office politics swarming around a leader who is out of his depth. It has been a while since I read Fire and Fury, but I remember the book focused on the people and factions around President Trump rather than the man himself. It could have been an accessibility issue. Wolff may not have had much direct access to Trump. But I couldn’t help but wonder if Wolff, as author and chronicler, found the characters surrounding Trump more interesting than the man at the center, even if those characters were pretty inept in the telling of Fire and Fury.

Really, I can’t think of a flattering portrait of anyone in Fire and Fury. Just a bunch of people taking advantage of the power vacuum in a firm. Same as in any office. So common is this story that sometimes I do wonder if Fire and Fury is mostly factual after all.

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

If Fire and Fury is about the factions around a weak leader trying to control the show behind the scenes, Bad Blood is about an immature and unstable leader who cannot accept criticism and has created a bubble around herself. Dissenters are quashed, only lackeys need apply. “A Despotic Leader” is Bad Blood’s alternate title.

Just like Fire and Fury, this is a story of bad management, and there are enough similarities between them to make me pause. Though I suppose Fire and Fury is more about the team trying to monopolize its leader while Bad Blood is about a leader tyrannizing her team.

Like many startups, Theranos lived by the maxim “fake it till you make it”. They had no product that lived up to their claim, but they were hoping that with time, they would invent the breakthrough they dreamed of: a medical testing machine that could detect a myriad of health ailments from a small amount of patient blood.

Until they could discover such a breakthrough, they lied and frauded investors on what they could actually do. And what they could actually do was test blood samples on commercially available machines. Their own inventions were prototypical at best and woefully unstable at worst. The rate of mistaken results was unacceptably high and the machines constantly malfunctioned. Not only was the company practicing fraud, it was endangering people by partnering with Walgreens to actively test consumer blood without a viable product.

For a time, however, Theranos was the darling of tech startups. It garnered lots of venture capital and even respected advisors. Its valuation skyrocketed. Focus was always spotlighted on Theranos’s young founder Elizabeth Holmes. A dropout of Stanford University, she was determined, bright, and charismatic. She attracted the media because in a male-dominated world, she was a rare female founder.

Inside the company, Carreyrou found an unholy mess. Not only was Theranos built on lies and a malfunctioning prototype, any dissent was eliminated. Any competent and/or compassionate manager was summarily dismissed. Or they resigned in disgust. Holmes and her President & COO Sunny Balwani (also her boyfriend at the time) were jokes to their staff.

John Carreyrou (and Theranos ex-employees who tipped him off) displayed incredible courage in pursuing this story. The Theranos legal team threatened them with what was essentially mob tactics.

Bad Blood is certainly a pageturner. I read it during my summer holiday last year. Even against the breathtaking backdrop of the Amalfi Coast, I couldn’t stop reading. I can distinctly remember when I finished Bad Blood: on a bus ride between Amalfi and Ravello. What a whiplash to take in the gorgeous view while reading a page or two when the bus made rapid turns.

A photo I took of the Amalfi Coast to illustrate the point

Like Fire and Fury, there is something tabloidy about Bad Blood. It’s a very dramatic yarn, full of extreme bad behavior all around. Why do we read celeb gossip? Because scandals and vices are fun to leer at. Bad Blood hits at those buttons.

Like in Fire and Fury, the main character of Bad Blood feels distant and remote. For all the former employees and direct sources Carreyrou interviewed, I never felt like I truly grasped Holmes’s psyche. Did she believe in her cause? Was she greedy and immoral? Did she start as the former then morphed into the ugly latter?

Sunny was easier to understand. He was just a laughable bully. A bit disappointing to pick at. I wonder if Holmes too was just a garden-variety mess at the end of the day. If that’s the case, Holmes would hate such an assessment – that there was never anything impressive about her. She and Trump share a desire to awe people, it seems.

Of course, this narrative distance may have been caused by Holmes and Balwani’s refusal to see Carreyrou or provide any comment to him. And to be fair, Carreyrou is an investigative journalist, not a psychologist.

Still, Bad Blood left me feeling a bit hollow. Both books were not fully satisfying, to be honest. Maybe that was the unintended message. Don’t believe the hype in cult of personalities. Most of the time, the key figure involved is about as interesting as the coworker you try your best to avoid.

The actions described in Fire and Fury and Bad Blood don’t really interest me. I don’t need these books to tell me they are bad behavior. I think the whiff of scandal associated with these books masks what I’ve been banging on about so far: these are ordinary stories. You and I have had experience with them. I’m sure of it.

Earlier this year, I read The Laundromat, a non-fiction book about the Panama Papers and global tax evasion. Same. I was disappointed by how unmemorable its major characters were. They were just average greedy and amoral people. Nothing particularly interesting about them.

Now that time has elapsed, our attention has shifted away from Fire and Fury and Bad Blood. Every week, there are new gaffes made by the Trump administration, which will inevitably be followed by tut-tutting commentaries (most of the time, rightfully so).

Last year, the documentaries about Theranos seemed endless. But while the Theranos trial process is still ongoing, the story is past the news cycle.

It’s 2020. Covid dominates all.

Then again, this is a hallmark of the digital age. A fresh, slightly scandalous story receives attention. It is shared by many accounts on multiple platforms. Every website on the Internet wants the eyeballs viewing this story. Cue an avalanche of listicles like “Why It Matters That A Said B” and “5 Reasons We Should Be Outraged About X”. Then we hit saturation point and move on to the next big story. We’ll consume, pick apart, and analyze, Then get bored and move on.

Fire and Fury and Bad Blood have reminded me that the truths behind the headlines are usually timeless, universal, and even mundane. There’s not much point in getting hyped. Approach any new revelation with a sober mind.

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