WASHINGTON – The wind chill hit minus-3 degrees the night “Fire and Fury” came to town.
But neither polar vortex nor “bomb cyclone” nor gloom of night could keep Washington’s political gossipmongers from lining up at Kramerbooks Thursday night for the midnight sale of Michael Wolff’s newly published romp through the Donald Trump White House.
“This is a D.C. moment, and I wanted to be a part of it,” said Steve Dingledine, a fifth-grade teacher who showed up shortly after 11 p.m. and now held the pole position in a line that snaked through the bookstore/cafe. And it was definitely a D.C. moment: Dingledine found himself flanked by a cluster of cameras – the BBC, Fox News, someone conducting interviews in Turkish, and emissaries of various local TV channels. Reporters from BuzzFeed, HuffPost, the Weekly Standard and Vice News hovered nearby.
Dingledine was not fazed. This was not his first D.C. moment.
“Mark Halperin came to my classroom last year to film his show, ‘The Circus,’ ” he said, laying down two tens and a twenty before tucking his purchase under his arm and exiting into the cold night air.
For days the capital had been captivated by deconstructed versions of Wolff’s book: Excerpts in New York magazine and British GQ; an essay by the author in the Hollywood Reporter; and the juiciest tidbits (Bannon said what about Don Jr.???) published in the Guardian after its reporters stumbled across a stray early copy in a New England bookstore. Plugged-in journalists blessed with advance copies had highlighted passages and tweeted photos of page after page. High-level White House staffers called around town to find out if they had been mentioned. By Wednesday afternoon, hours after the first excerpts appeared, the book was ranked No. 1 in sales on Amazon.com. And even during a week that Trump threatened to jail a former Clinton aide and press a button that would annihilate North Korea, Thursday’s White House press briefing was dominated by questions about the book.
A great debate waged over whether “Fire and Fury” was more damning or damnable: Were the anecdotes all accurate? Is it true that President Donald Trump can barely read? Do his staffers really think he’s basically an overgrown child? Does it matter if the book turns out just to be mostly true? Does anything matter?
Not up for debate: This has become the biggest must-read Washington book in a generation. The president saw to that when he threatened to sue the author and publisher, which only encouraged them to push up the publication date by four days, from Tuesday of next week to Friday. He had earlier boosted its profile when he sent a cease-and-desist letter to his former chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, a major source for the book. And he pushed it over the top just hours before the book hit the shelves by tweeting: “I authorized Zero access to White House (actually turned him down many times) for author of phony book! I never spoke to him for book. Full of lies, misrepresentations and sources that don’t exist. Look at this guy’s past and watch what happens to him and Sloppy Steve!”
It could go down as the greatest unintentional marketing campaign in history.
Early Thursday evening, Kramerbooks announced it would start selling copies of Wolff’s book at midnight – nine hours before the text would be available to download via Kindle, and thus a rare case of paper being faster than digital.
The legendary bookstore started trending on Twitter. The journalists came first, of course – looking for a scene but finding only one another and posting up at the bar in wait.
Maeve McGale, a 19-year-old bookstore employee with fading purple hair, swept the floors wondering if anyone would even show on such a frigid night (hasn’t anyone ever heard of a Kindle?).
“People have been calling about it all day,” she said. “So we’ve been taking bets in the store about who will actually be here.”
First came Dingledine. Then a woman named Moira who works in the legal support field, followed by a historian from the University of California at Riverside, who said this president is “off the rails” (historically speaking, of course).
By 11:40 p.m., there were dozens of people in line.
“It’s like Harry Potter for adults,” someone said.
“Is it, though?” a woman asked. “I feel like that’s giving Michael Wolff too much credit.”
“I have a half-drunk beer and some half-eaten nachos at my table,” a man shouted, seemingly to no one in particular. “But I don’t want to lose my spot. I’m here for the party.”
The store had 75 copies to sell. It took 15 minutes for them to sell out.
“We’ll have more soon,” a clerk told a gaggle of disappointed would-be shoppers. “Plenty more.”