“One Damn Thing After Another” begins with a fond evocation of Barr’s childhood in a conservative family nestled in the liberal enclave surrounding Columbia University in New York City. His mother was Catholic, and his father Jewish (though he later converted to Catholicism), and Barr gives a lovely description of his elementary school education at the local Corpus Christi Church. (George Carlin went there too. Go figure.) Barr went on to Horace Mann and then Columbia, where he developed an interest in China. After college, he worked briefly at the C.I.A. while attending night law school, where he excelled. He moved up the ranks in the Justice Department until the first President Bush made him attorney general, at 41, in 1991. He was a largely nonideological figure, mostly preoccupied, as many were in those days, with getting surging crime rates under control.
The next quarter-century brought Barr great financial rewards as the top lawyer for the company that, in a merger, became Verizon. More to the point, it brought a hardening of his political views. Barr has a lot to say about the modern world, but the gist is that he’s against it. While attorney general under Trump, he dabbled as a culture warrior, and in his memoir he lets the missiles fly.
“Now we see a mounting effort to affirmatively indoctrinate children with the secular progressive belief system — a new official secular ideology.” Critical race theory “is, at bottom, essentially the materialist philosophy of Marxism, substituting racial antagonism for class antagonism.” On crime: “The left’s ‘root causes’ mantra is really an excuse to do nothing.” (Barr’s only complaint about mass incarceration is that it isn’t mass enough.) Barr loathes Democrats: President Obama, a “left-wing agitator, … throttled the economy, degraded the culture and frittered away U.S. strength and credibility in foreign affairs.” (Barr likes Obama better than Hillary Clinton.) Overall, his views reflect the party line at Fox News, which, curiously, he does not mention in several jeremiads about left-wing domination of the news media.
Barr is obviously too smart to miss what was in front of him in the White House. He says Trump is “prone to bluster and exaggeration.” His behavior with regard to Ukraine was “idiotic beyond belief.” Trump’s “rhetorical skills, while potent within a very narrow range, are hopelessly ineffective on questions requiring subtle distinctions.” Indeed, by the end, Barr concludes that “Donald Trump has shown he has neither the temperament nor persuasive powers to provide the kind of positive leadership that is needed.”
Barr’s odd theory about Good Trump turning into Bad Trump may have more to do with his feelings about Democrats than with the president he served. “I am under no illusion about who is responsible for dividing the country, embittering our politics and weakening and demoralizing our nation,” he writes. “It is the progressive left and their increasingly totalitarian ideals.” In a way, it’s the highest praise Barr can offer Trump: He had the right enemies.