|Mrs. Barker ("I'm a professional woman"), after she's removed her dress, and Mommy, in red, in Albee's An American Dream. Cherry Lane Theater, New York, 2008.|
Olivia Nuzzi's enchanting new absurdist comedy My Private Oval Office Press Conference organizes itself around the kind of Catch-22 dilemma that's endemic to the human condition: the protagonist, a president of the United States and former businessman, wants to fire his chief of staff, a retired Marine general, but doesn't know how, or can't summon up the courage, even though, ironically, he literally became famous for pretending to fire people who were pretending to work for him in a television show devoted to the ritual firing of the different characters who wandered on and off the set. But in the diegetic "real life" of Nuzzi's film, which is coincidentally a kind of real life, the only person in the White House who has the necessary skills and balls is the chief of staff himself.
The best the president can do is to try once or twice a week to get him to fire himself—"I really need you to leave, John," he'll say—but General Kelly pays him no attention, carrying on as if Trump hadn't said anything, neatening up the Resolute desk, ordering supplies, and firing those people he thinks it's necessary to fire, and looking pained when Trump makes a faux pas, like Jeeves the time Bertie insisted on wearing the white mess jacket:
Anyway, a lovely young reporter called Olivia wanders into this standoff, for an assignment from New York Magazine, where the editors are more fun-loving than those of The New York Times, and just as she's leaving by the North Gate from a hard morning's reporting, the press secretary beckons her back into the building with a phone call and then a solemn, wordless gesture, like a mute attendant, though she turns out not to be mute after all:
when she greeted me, she looked very serious. She implied she wanted me to go with her behind a door. I didn’t understand, maybe didn’t quite hear her. Then, she told me Trump wanted to speak to me.But the article version, as you read it in New York, doesn't quite capture the feeling. I kept wanting to see it in screenplay form:
On the other side of the door is the famous Oval Office, and Trump entering through a different door, with the communications director, another TV guy, Bill Shine. They sit, he at the Resolute, and he begins:
I just heard that you were doing a story on … this stuff. General Kelly’s doing a very good job. We have a very good relationship. The White House is running very, very smoothly. We’ve had a big week. We just got a Supreme Court justice on the bench. We have the USMCA, meaning the NAFTA replacement, and many other things. We had a great meeting with North Korea. It was a great meeting. The secretary of State’s coming just in ten minutes. But I want to tell you a couple of things: the chief is doing a very good job. I’m very happy with him, we have a very good relationship, number one. Number two, I didn’t offer anybody else the job. I didn’t talk to anybody about the job. And I’m not, I’m not looking. Now, look, with time, do people leave? As an example, Nikki Haley told me six months ago, even a year ago — but six months ago, that, you know, she’s been governor, she’s done this, she’s helped us with the campaign, a lot of good things, and you probably saw the conference. It was a very, very positive thing. We have a very positive story going on at the White House. We have a very positive story for the country. We’re doing a great job. We have the greatest economy in the history of our country. We have among the greatest job numbers. Among many groups, we have the greatest job numbers. We have things going on that are phenomenal on trade. China wants to make a deal — I said, you’re not ready yet. But they wanna make a deal, and at some point we might. Iran wants to make a deal. They all wanna make a deal. We have great things going. We have a very smooth-running organization even though it’s never reported that way. So the real story is that. It’s really the real story. When you walk in here, you don’t see chaos. There is no chaos. The media likes to portray chaos. There’s no chaos. I’m leaving for Iowa in a little while. We’re doing something that’s going to be very exciting tonight in Iowa. A big, a big announcement, actually. Doing four rallies this week. I think the rallies have, frankly, built up our poll numbers very greatly. What am I now in Rasmussen? 52?
And with that, you’re gonna have to write what you have to write, but the truth is, we have a really smooth-running White House and nothing and nobody has done more in their first two years as president. We’re not even up to the second year.Gestures toward the inner door.
Could you give me the list, please? I’ve gotta give you the list. Nobody has come close to doing what we’ve done in less than two years as president. Whether it’s regulations or tax cuts or so many other things.And a secretary comes in to present Olivia with a couple of pages of printout with a bullet list of 58 of the administration's accomplishments. The camera homes in:
At the top, underlined, bold, and all-caps, it read, “TRUMP ADMINISTRATION ACCOMPLISHMENTS.” On the first page, the points related mostly to jobs numbers or executive orders or promises from the tax-reform bill. On the second page, there were more puzzling accomplishments like, “Republicans want STRONG BORDERS and NO CRIME. Democrats want OPEN BORDERS which equals MASSIVE CRIME.”And on. And on.
You're always saying how great your relationship is with people just before you fire them. Given that, how—
Well, I made changes. For instance, secretary of State, I put somebody in that I wanted. And it’s really working out very well — he’s done a very fantastic job. Mike Pompeo, Mike Pompeo. But that doesn’t mean that we weren’t doing a good job before, whether the relationships were good or not good. But I wanted to make a change and I made a change.
But given that, how do you expect us to believe you're not saying you get along with Kelley just because you're going to fire him? The way you've done with others?
Well, Stephen Bannon.
Well, I saw Steve Bannon, haven’t spoken to Steve Bannon in a year. But I saw Steve Bannon on television twice in the last month and— General! Come here a moment!General Kelly has silently materialized in the room.
This is Olivia, she’s going to say very, very wonderful things about you. This is General Kelly.Secretary of State Pompeo slinks in behind Kelly.
Come in, Mike! Olivia can write badly about you!The others laugh.
Stay there for a second. I just wanted to see Olivia for two seconds. Look, look who comes in, and we actually have lunch today!
Heh. Am I invited?
Anytime you want!
Best french fries in town!Do you see what's happening here? This whole thing has been written by Edward Albee, the early one, before Virginia Woolf, when he was a more strict absurdist, in the direct Ionesco line, but deeply American. The dialogue is bright and cheerful, inconsequential, disconnected, a little crazy, and beneath it you gradually absorb a sense of existential dread, which the characters are actually hiding from.
There's a kind of plot: the meeting is a performance, staged to prove to Nuzzi that her suspicions are not justified, there is no chaos, and all the staff members love each other and work together harmoniously, only since it's not true at all and also since they're not very good at this, or anything else, it can't really work, and her disbelief keeps increasing, as witness after witness is trotted in, Pence, and Pence's own chief of staff, Nick Ayers, said to be the guy Trump wants to replace Kelly
No. No! He’s been in the residence, but the only time I can remember him being in the residence is with Mike. He’s Mike’s guy. And I would never offer him something without speaking to Mike. I don’t do that. I don’t take people from people …Even though I guess I can. There’s no reason to do it though, so your narrative is wrong. It’s just amazing. We’re all having lunch and it’s so great that you’re all here. This was not set up.We just called you in for something to do before Pence and I have our usual, regularly scheduled, totally not sinister lunch. Until finally
I respect you. I just wanted you to get the real picture. The timing was incredible. This was like, it was like …
VICE PRESIDENT PENCE
We had a lunch plan.
Is that a correct statement? This was just, like, perfect timing.Sanders and Shine begin escorting Olivia out of the room. Then. as they're about to exit—
Hey, Olivia!She turns back to look. Kelly and Ayers are hugging.
This is my friend!
Yes, and he's mine. And I told her that! She knows that!Quick curtain
This show is the spookiest thing I've ever seen in my life. I'm sorry I had to quote so much to make the point, if I did make it, but I hope you see why.