When White House Chief Usher Gary Walters announced his retirement last week -- after 30 years of overseeing first families through seven administrations -- he suggested that he might like to write his memoirs. His book, he insisted, would not be a tell-all.
Oh, please. This is Washington, D.C., kiss-and-tell capital of the world, home to some of the greatest tattlers in the book industry. Angry that your beloved program didn’t get its rightful funding? No problem, tell it to Simon & Schuster. Worried that history might judge you asleep at the helm before 9/11? Hey, it’s OK, just get into print first, blaming others. As for the Iraq War, well, if you want to cast aspersions on others for that foreign policy misadventure, you’ll have to get in line. The bookshelves are already groaning. But maybe you can still bag “60 Minutes.” Or at least “Larry King Live.”
It used to be that telling tales out of the White House was declasse, even tawdry. Loyalty meant you served your president, suffering in silence. Any mistakes committed by the administration were the result of staff or Cabinet error. A president was held blameless.
Times have changed. These days, book parties have replaced cocktail hours in Washington social circles, and power is no longer measured in proximity to the Oval Office but in phone time with Bob Barnett, book agent to Bob Woodward and other aspiring political literary stars. Things have gotten so bad that the 8 a.m. staff meetings at the White House have reportedly gone chilly, with participants reluctant to express their views for fear someone at the table is taking notes or planning revenge -- by the book.
“Everybody now has to think whenever they say anything about how it will look in the page of a book,” said Peter Osnos, a former Washington Post reporter who is founder and editor at large at PublicAffairs Books in New York. “You’re saying something with the mike open. Is that a deterrent to free speech? Sure, but that’s life.”
In “Tempting Faith,” the latest insider book from a former White House staffer, David Kuo reports a conversation in the Oval Office in which he told President Bush that no new money had been put into federal budgets for his much-trumpeted initiative to allow faith-based institutions to compete for government contracts. With ministers from around the country gathered in the Old Executive Office Building next door, Bush expressed dismay.
Kuo explained that Congress had earmarked $8 billion from other programs. Bush asked if that was $8 billion in new money.
“No, sir, $8 billion in existing dollars,” Kuo replied. “Faith-based groups have been getting that money for years.”
“That’s what we’ll tell them, $8 billion in new funds for faith-based groups. OK, let’s go.”
The effect of Kuo’s kiss-and-tell revelation may not be known until after the election. His disclosure that evangelicals were cynically referred to as “nuts” and “goofy” may further depress turnout among a social conservative constituency that has been key to Republican victories in the last three elections.
But the book’s effect on political culture is already clear. Coupled with the proliferation of current affairs books from Washington insiders -- journalists Thomas E. Ricks (“Fiasco”) and Bob Woodward (“State of Denial”) along with pundits Ann Coulter (“Godless”) and James Carville (“Had Enough?”) to name but a few -- the shelves are overflowing with political tomes. It’s as if the nation is having a political conversation through books, an unexpected print echo of the unrelenting chatter of ranting radio talk show hosts, activist bloggers slamming foes and a 24/7 cable television news cycle.
“The kiss-and-tell is part of the dumbing down of the United States,” said Jonathan Yardley, literary critic for the Washington Post. “The public has always been fascinated with gossip.”
President Clinton may have posted a record for surviving embarrassing books about his personal habits. Gary Aldrich, an FBI agent assigned to the White House, broke taboos by writing “Unlimited Access,” which alleged that the president left the White House grounds occasionally for romantic liaisons. White House aide George Stephanopoulos, in “All Too Human,” blamed Clinton for abandoning policy imperatives in favor of outsized appetites. Dick Morris, a political consultant, in “Behind the Oval Office,” chronicled Clinton’s “dark side.” And that was all before “The Starr Report,” an official government document repackaged for mass marketing, which divulged the most intimate details of Clinton’s affair with intern Monica Lewinsky.
“I Slept With the President” memoirs have a long, if necessarily sordid history. In 1927, Nan P. Britton wrote a bestselling book called “The President’s Daughter,” describing her affair with the married President Warren G. Harding that produced a child, Elizabeth Ann. The most famous passage in the book, published four years after Harding’s death, described their torrid encounters in a coat closet in the West Wing.
Ever since, Washington has seethed with secrets bursting to be revealed. Lately, it seems, there are more tell-all books than residents.
With an administration known for social virtue -- Bush shuns alcohol and likes to be in bed by 10 p.m. -- the current kiss-and-tells are running more toward dissing policy than people. On leaving office, several Cabinet members have taken their issue grievances to the pages of books. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill argued in “The Price of Loyalty” that ideologues were running the White House. National Security Council staffer Richard Clarke alleged in “Against All Enemies” that the White House ignored the terrorist threat before 9/11 and mistakenly focused on Iraq afterward. And L. Paul Bremer, U.S. civilian protector in Baghdad, charged in “My Year in Iraq” that Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld ignored his call for more U.S. troops.
“People in the administration are trying to get their legacies in line,” said Jane Hall, communications professor at American University. “This has been an extremely secretive administration. Now the curtain is being pulled back on the process.”
Settling scores can even extend to the White House kitchens. Walter Scheib III was the White House chef under the Clintons and gloried in their exuberant entertaining. Although he continued at the White House for the first Bush term, he was asked to leave at the start of the second. In his book “The White House Chef,” Scheib leaves no uncertainty about why -- tension with the social secretary, Lea Berman. Things got off on a bad foot, he reports, when Berman gave him recipes from a Martha Stewart Living magazine with instructions to “make it look just like the picture.”
The number of insider books by Bush’s advisors and enemies (see Joe Wilson’s “The Politics of Truth,” about the outing of his wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA agent) -- along with the book-length obituaries on his policies in Iraq -- has not escaped the president’s notice. During a news conference earlier this month, Bush was asked about “a shelf full of books about Iraq” criticizing his decisions.
“Somebody ought to add up the number of pages that have been written about my administration,” he replied. “There’s a lot of books out there -- a lot. I don’t know if I’ve set the record or not, but I guess it means that I’ve made some hard decisions and will continue to make hard decisions.”
The president can try to spin the avalanche of do-tell books as a flattering reflection on his tough choices, but few believe he or his presidency has been unaffected by the negative publicity via the bookstore.
“Bush is being subjected to a very, very sharp criticism,” said Osnos. “What is astonishing to me is that there is an audience not for one or two but for many, all with the same net effect -- how the Bush administration mismanaged the war and the post 9/11 world. When Clinton was president, it was hard to imagine any other president who would be as polarizing as he was. And it certainly didn’t seem when he was elected that Bush would turn out that way. But he certainly has.”
The next two years will only add to the genre. Walters -- who told the Clintons they could not take White House furnishings when they left -- has a story to tell. And so does former CIA Director George S. Tenet, who is writing his own version of the fight over intelligence that led to the ignoble moment when former Secretary of State Colin Powell assured the U.N. Security Council -- with Tenet behind his shoulder -- that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
From the man who told the president it was “a slam dunk” that Iraq had banned weapons, the book is due out in February. Called “At the Center of the Storm,” it is likely to create one of its own.