A White House Memoir
By Jared Kushner
492 pages. Broadside Books. $35.
The United States Secret Service isn’t known for its sense of humor, but when it gave Jared Kushner the code name “mechanic,” was someone betting that he’d call his memoir “Breaking History”?
It’s a title that, in its thoroughgoing lack of self-awareness, matches this book’s contents. Kushner writes as if he believes foreign dignitaries (and less-than dignitaries) prized him in the White House because he was the fresh ideas guy, the starting point guard, the dimpled go-getter.
He betrays little cognizance that he was in demand because, as a landslide of other reporting has demonstrated, he was in over his head, unable to curb his avarice, a cocky young real estate heir who happened to unwrap a lot of Big Macs beside his father-in-law, the erratic and misinformed and similarly mercenary leader of the free world. Jared was a soft touch.
“Breaking History” is an earnest and soulless — Kushner looks like a mannequin, and he writes like one — and peculiarly selective appraisal of Donald J. Trump’s term in office. Kushner almost entirely ignores the chaos, the alienation of allies, the breaking of laws and norms, the flirtations with dictators, the comprehensive loss of America’s moral leadership, and so on, ad infinitum, to speak about his boyish tinkering (the “mechanic”) with issues he was interested in.
This book is like a tour of a once majestic 18th-century wooden house, now burned to its foundations, that focuses solely on, and rejoices in, what’s left amid the ashes: the two singed bathtubs, the gravel driveway and the mailbox. Kushner’s fealty to Trump remains absolute. Reading this book reminded me of watching a cat lick a dog’s eye goo.
The tone is college admissions essay. Typical sentence: “In an environment of maximum pressure, I learned to ignore the noise and distractions and instead to push for results that would improve lives.”
Every political cliché gets a fresh shampooing. “Even in a starkly divided country, there are always opportunities to build bridges,” Kushner writes. And, quoting the former White House deputy chief of staff Chris Liddell: “Every day here is sand through an hourglass, and we have to make it count.” So true, for these are the days of our lives.
Kushner, poignantly, repeatedly beats his own drum. He recalls every drop of praise he’s ever received; he brings these home and he leaves them on the doorstep. You turn the pages and find, almost at random, colleagues, some of them famous, trying to be kind, uttering things like:
A therapist might call these cries for help.
“Breaking History” opens with the story of Kushner’s father, the real estate tycoon Charles Kushner, who was imprisoned after hiring a prostitute to seduce his brother-in-law, having the encounter filmed and sending the tape to his sister. He was a good man who did a bad thing, Jared says, and Chris Christie, while serving as the United States attorney for New Jersey, was cruel to prosecute him so mercilessly.
There is a flashback to Kushner’s grandparents, Holocaust survivors who settled in New Jersey and did well. There’s a page or two about Kushner’s time at Harvard. He omits the fact that he was admitted after his father pledged $2.5 million to the college.
If Kushner can recall a professor or a book that influenced him while in Cambridge, he doesn’t say. Instead, he recalls doing his first real estate deals while there. He moved to New York, and bought and ruined a great newspaper (The New York Observer) by dumbing it down and feting his friends in its pages.
His wooing of Ivanka Trump included a good deal of jet-setting. Kushner briefly broke up with her, he writes, because she wasn’t Jewish. (She would later convert.) Wendi Murdoch, Rupert’s wife, reunited them on Rupert’s yacht. Kushner describes the power scene:
With or without you, Bono.
Once in the White House, Kushner became Little Jack Horner, placing a thumb in everyone else’s pie, and he wonders why he was disliked. He read Sun Tzu and imagined he was becoming a warrior. It was because he had Trump’s ear, however, that he won nearly every time he locked antlers with a rival. Corey Lewandowski — out. Steve Bannon — out.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who begged Kushner to stop meddling internationally— out. (Kushner cites Tillerson’s “reclusive approach” to foreign policy.) By the end, Tillerson was like a dead animal someone needed to pull a tarpaulin over.
Kushner was pleased that the other adults in the room, including the White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, the White House counsel Don McGahn and the later chief of staff John Kelly, left or were ejected because they tried, patriotically, to exclude him from meetings he shouldn’t have been in. The fact that he was initially denied security clearance, he writes, was much ado about nothing.
The bulk of “Breaking History” — at nearly 500 pages, it’s a slog — goes deeply into the weeds (Kushner, in his acknowledgments, credits a ghostwriter, the speechwriter Brittany Baldwin) on the issues he cared most about, including prison reform, the Covid response and the Middle East, where he had a win with the Abraham Accords.
This book ends with Kushner suggesting he was unaware of the events of Jan. 6 until late in the day. He mostly sidesteps talking about spurious claims of election fraud. He seems to have no beliefs beyond carefully managed appearances and the art of the deal. He wants to stay on top of things, this manager, but doesn’t want to get to the bottom of anything.
You finish “Breaking History” wondering: Who is this book for? There’s not enough red meat for the MAGA crowd, and Kushner has never appealed to them anyway. Political wonks will be interested — maybe, to a limited degree — but this material is more thoroughly and reliably covered elsewhere. He’s a pair of dimples without a demographic.
What a queasy-making book to have in your hands. Once someone has happily worked alongside one of the most flagrant and systematic and powerful liars in this country’s history, how can anyone be expected to believe a word they say?
It makes a kind of sense that Kushner is likely to remain exiled in Florida. “The whole peninsula of Florida was weighted down with regret,” as Cynthia Ozick put it in “The Shawl.” “Everyone had left behind a real life.”