You could almost say of John Bolton’s “The Room Where It Happened” what Jacques Barzun observed of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”: It was “greater as an event than as a book.” Very few books, and certainly not a 500-page memoir about national-security policy making, could measure up to the media event that is its publication. Even so, “The Room Where It Happened” is a competent piece of writing. Readers looking mainly for stories about Donald Trump’s unorthodox behavior may find it tough to get through the author’s detailed discussions of U.S. policy on Venezuela and the inner workings of America’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, but Mr. Bolton moves the story along quickly enough.
The book has what every good political memoir must have: a cast of believable and idiosyncratic characters. United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley: a “free electron” who says irrelevant things in meetings and disregards lines of authority. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: a competent manager of the normally unmanageable State Department who, like some of his predecessors, frequently finds himself carrying out policies he knows to be misguided. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis: a skilled bureaucratic operator who often gets his way by presenting the president with an array of “options” that largely amount to the one favored by the secretary. And Vice President Mike Pence: a quiet presence who does “much of his best work in private conversations” with the president.