No swans in this sewer
A little more than 50 years ago, George C. Marshall, the greatest American general and statesman since George Washington, turned down an offer to write his memoirs for a national magazine because, he said, it was unseemly to profit from a life of public service.
The Saturday Evening Post offered Marshall $1 million for his story at a time when $1 million was real money. Military historians since have learned that at the moment Marshall declined the Post’s offer, he and his wife had precisely $1,300 in the bank.
Four years ago, Gen. Tommy Franks, who led the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, took a different approach. Franks agreed to publish his memoirs -- earning, by most estimates, well into seven figures -- at a time when the wars he’d overseen still were being fought and the troops he’d commanded still were in harm’s way.
Then, a month ago, retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, who commanded U.S. forces in Iraq during the Abu Ghraib scandal, published his account of that service, accusing President Bush and his advisors of “gross incompetence and dereliction of duty” for their handling of the Iraq war. In the meantime, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III has published his own self-justifying account of his disastrous term as American proconsul in Baghdad.
From Marshall’s refusal to this sorry trio’s eager rush to settle scores and profit handsomely is a gap that demands to be measured in more than decades. Their three examples are useful because they demonstrate just how far the tell-all impulse has taken us. The well-lived 21st century American life, it seems, is the one most lucratively monetized.
But there’s more than just profit motive at work in the flood of revelatory, score-settling memoirs generated by the Bush administration. By rough estimate, about a dozen former presidential aides -- from Cabinet secretaries to government lawyers to speechwriters to the guy who ran faith-based initiatives -- have published insider memoirs expressing various degrees of disappointment, disgruntlement and downright disgust with the White House and its policies. Everyone who leaves this administration seems to depart with a half-finished manuscript under his or her arm and a publisher panting to help out.
The runaway success this week of former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan’s “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception” is bound to whet publishers’ appetite for more of the same, because there’s nothing the typical American book editor likes more than an idea that’s already made somebody else money.
But here’s a word of caution for those administration officials hard at work on their book proposals: Eager as readers and reporters seem to be for every scrap of indiscretion, there’s an equally strong impulse to dislike -- or at least disdain -- the authors of these memoirs, one that extends beyond predictable denials by the dwindling band of Bush loyalists and pro-war, pro-torture, pro-government secrecy commentators.
NBC’s Matt Lauer, for example, labeled McClellan “a pariah.”
The New York Times’ editorial page mocked the whole genre: “There are several kinds of Washington memoirs: ‘I Reveal the Honest Truth,’ a kiss-up-and-tell designed to settle scores (nod to honesty optional). ‘I Was There at the Start,’ designed to make the author appear to be the linchpin of history. And, most tedious: ‘I Knew It Was a Terrible Mistake, but I Didn’t Mention It Until I Got a Book Contract.’ ”
True to type, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page detected an intricate left-wing conspiracy to discredit John McCain’s stance on the war: “We’d merely note that [McClellan’s] publisher is PublicAffairs, an imprint founded by left-wing editor Peter Osnos and which has published six books by George Soros,” the Journal wrote. “PublicAffairs is owned by Perseus Books, which is owned by Perseus LLC, a merchant bank whose board includes Democrats Richard Holbrooke and Jim Johnson, who is now doing Barack Obama’s vice presidential vetting. One of Perseus’ investment funds, Perseus-Soros Biopharmaceutical, is co-managed with Mr. Soros.”
You might want to read that one twice.
In fact, all of the Bush refugee memoirs share a unifying theme, one familiar to anyone who’s spent much time reporting on crimes or courts. All these books bear the imprint of what might be called “the snitch sensibility.” Whether they’re ratting out their partner in a convenience store robbery or their bosses in an elaborate conspiracy to game an international commodities market, all snitches speak from a distinctive perspective.
They were always there to see the crimes that occurred, but no matter how bad things got, they never were the worst person in the room, and none of it was ever their idea. Veteran prosecutors have a term to describe criminal cases in which the snitch, the accused and the victim are all crooks who’ve fallen out with one another. “There are,” they say, “no swans in a sewer.”
Some might say that pretty well describes the Bush White House.
Of course, the Bush administration is not the first to have spawned insider memoirs. Officials of earlier administrations, including Arthur Schlesinger, John Ehrlichman, William Safire, Peggy Noonan, Colin Powell, George Stephanopoulos, Robert Reich and many, many others have told their stories as well. Some of this urge to publish represents the general devaluing of privacy, privilege and loyalty throughout American society. Some stems from a simple desire to make some money. A multimillion-dollar book deal has become a virtual perquisite of ex-presidents, and many of their aides see no reason not to get a taste for themselves -- or to preempt criticism from a former boss.
But the Bush White House has produced more tell-all authors than most, and it may be because those who have served in it know they’ve participated in an administration whose failures are likely to be ranked alongside those of Hoover and Buchanan.
Who wouldn’t want to tell their side of that story -- or at least get their alibi down on paper?