Write-Wing Conspiracy

After I left my speechwriting job in Ronald Reagan’s White House 15 years ago, I stayed home, had a baby and wrote. Sometimes I’d run into Washington people I didn’t see anymore and they’d ask, “What are you doing now?” I’d say, with hopeful pride, “I’m writing a book.” They would nod and get the blank look people get when they’re trying not to show a reaction to unfortunate news. Then they’d ask, “What else are you doing?” As if writing a book wasn’t a real job. As if only a loser would write a book, as opposed to being out there running the world.

Later I mentioned this to a friend and asked him why in Washington they think writing a book is synonymous with doing nothing. “That’s because you were talking to Republicans,” he said. “Republicans care about money. Democrats care about books.”

And I thought yes, that’s exactly it. In 1964, when Arthur Schlesinger told his friends he was writing about JFK, they thought he was saying he was doing something huge.

But now I think that it has completely changed. Republicans—well, not Republicans but conservatives—care passionately about the world of ideas, and about history. They write books. And Democrats seem to care about money, and they don’t write books, not serious ones.

It’s a big switch, and has big implications about how history will view both parties in the long term.

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Democrats in government used to write books. They did this because they had respect for the life of the mind, respect for ideas, respect for history. They wanted to add to the sum total of its data; they wanted to give history what it needs most, first person testimony: I was there, I saw it, and this is what it was like. This is what didn’t work and this is what did. This is what I learned. Hear me.

What came of that tradition, that attitude, were a series of classics, from Sam Rosenman’s “Working With Roosevelt” to Robert Sherwood’s “Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History,” whose subject, Harry Hopkins, was chief architect of the New Deal. Dean Acheson’s “Present at the Creation: My Years at the State Department” was a magisterial recounting of the creation of U.S. foreign policy in the quarter century after World War II. There were Mr. Schlesinger’s stupendous, “A Thousand Days,” his history memoir of JFK’s short tenure, and Theodore Sorenson’s stately “Kennedy.”

William Safire’s “Before the Fall” came out just after the resignation of Richard Nixon, whom he served as a speechwriter. Because of the timing—everyone was tired of Nixon and his traumas and wanted to move on—Mr. Safire’s history didn’t get the appreciation it deserved, but it was good work, and a contribution to history.

It was Mr. Safire who told me, when I entered the White House, to keep notes on what I was seeing and hearing each day. When it is over, he said, you’ll have a book. I told him I couldn’t keep a diary; I was far too busy. He said no one is too busy to write one sentence a day; he told me to write a few words and park it in the computer.

Well, I thought, I can certainly do that. So I tried to write a sentence every day or so and, as Mr. Safire no doubt knew I would, I found it impossible to write only one sentence. I wrote three, and then three paragraphs, and so on. I didn’t do it every day, but I did it when moved, because of Mr. Safire’s advice. Because Mr. Safire was looking out for history.

In time I made my own attempt at a contribution to history; I gave my first-person testimony in “What I Saw at the Revolution.” It was very ambitious in that I was trying to write a book no one had ever written before: a book about what it was like to be there, in the White House, what it sounds like and looks like and how people treat you when you’re there, and when you’re not. I wanted to capture what it was like to be part of something big, of big history that was unfolding every day as the old clock down the hall did its tired ticking and the vacuum cleaner from downstairs in the Executive Office Building droned as you stayed late to write the speech for the president whose meaning you understood and whose aims you fully supported.

Ronald Reagan’s was, as we all know, a fractious, painful administration, marked by great fights and struggles. But now when we see each other we throw ourselves in each other’s arms, like veterans who had shared the same foxhole. Fifteen years later it didn’t matter that we argued; it mattered that we ducked the same incoming together, and went over the top together. I never expected to feel this undifferentiated affection and respect for the old Reagan hands, but I do, and a lot of them do too.

I can’t tell you how moving it was to go to the christening of the USS Ronald Reagan and at the big reception see my old nemesis, former chief of staff Don Regan. “Peggy,” he said, “I’m an artist! I paint now. I have work in two museums. They didn’t teach me to be an artist in the marines, or at Merrill Lynch, or the White House!” He still looked like George Raft, and we hugged and laughed. Just like old times, except that’s not how the old times were. But I digress.

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George Shultz wrote a great book, “Turmoil and Triumph,” a heavily detailed volume on the challenges of foreign affairs, a theater of great drama in the Reagan years. History will be able to thumb through its pages for years, as it will Caspar Weinberger’s history and memoir from the vantage point of the Defense Department. Colin Powell’s book was more a memoir about his life and the personalities of those around him, but it’s excellent in its more limited way. And there is Martin Anderson’s triumphant recounting of the early days of Reaganism, “Revolution,” which has been and is indispensable to scholars of political history.

The first President Bush’s presidency didn’t produce much in books. There was John Podhoretz’s bright and lively “Hell of a Ride” and a few serious and scholarly tomes that came along in the early ‘90s. But George Bush, unlike Ronald Reagan, didn’t love ideas, and didn’t surround himself with those who loved ideas. He surrounded himself with people he liked and admired. So the books about his era were generally thin.

And this began the current thinning out and dumbing down of White House history writing and memoir writing. Bill Clinton’s presidency lasted eight years and was rich in drama, and yet almost no literature or history has come of it. Dick Morris did a memoir of working with Mr. Clinton that shed some light on the ex-president’s personality; George Stephanopoulos, who was truly at the heart of the administration for four years, wrote a personal memoir that seemed more carefully calibrated to protect the writer’s future, and his advance, than to speak to history with candor and courage. Michael Waldman wrote an adequate if undistinguished memoir of his years speechwriting for Clinton. It did not seem deeply felt or experienced, and a memoir, to succeed, must be both.

Most important, perhaps, the Waldman and Stephanopoulos books seemed not shaped but misshaped by scandal. The unspoken defensive assertion of Mr. Waldman’s book seemed to be: “Not everything was corrupt!” Mr. Stephanopoulos, who worked with what he called a “writing coach,” published his book after the Monica scandal blew up, and only acknowledged the obvious by elaborating on what was already known: Mr. Clinton has a temper, turns red with rage, is married to an intense woman, is often the target of investigations.

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Why the recent deterioration in quality of White House books? It is not because the Clinton people lacked talent or intelligence, and if none seemed especially literary, certainly many seemed bright and observant. One senses they simply did not feel free to be truthful, or have the wild courage to be truthful. I say wild because it seems that in the Clinton administration that something painful was at work. If you were candid, honest, unblinking and uncritical, you aroused the fierce enmity of the president and first lady’s loyalists, flunkies and operatives—of people who could affect your professional life for the rest of your life. People who could—and would—smear you. The code of omertà ran strong and was obviously enforced.

When I was working on a book on Hillary Clinton, people who worked with her seemed terribly afraid of saying the wrong thing, sharing the wrong observation, holding the wrong view. It was pulling teeth to get them to talk, even not for attribution. A friend would say of a young woman who worked for Hillary, “She’s worked for her for years and doesn’t like her. But she’ll probably never talk to you. She’s afraid.” The exact nature of the fear was never explained but I talked to her and sensed it and was disturbed by it.

And so, in the few books of the Clinton era, truth suffered. Without truth, though, a memoir or history has no point. And you cannot fake it. Truth in a memoir or history is something that is experienced by the reader as a thing almost palpable; you can feel it when you’re getting an honest recounting, when you’re reading the undiluted or unavoided perception that is painful to write but true, and therefore worthy of being written.

I am sure that some day we will learn more about the Clinton administration from those who were there, but what I imagine coming down the pike is a work by a handful of retired Secret Service agents. They saw everything, and years from now they will speak. There is a classic of the era of the Roman emperors called “Secret History” by Procopius, a Roman general who wanted to preserve for history the ugly facts of the rule of the Emperor Justinian and his wicked and fascinating wife, Theodora. It was a classic of the literature of corruption, and is still in print. I can well imagine a secret history of the Clinton era being written too.

But one hopes for more. One hopes for a serious book from a former State Department or Pentagon appointee or staffer about the making of policy in the Clinton administration, about the forces that collided and yielded this decision or that, this governing philosophy or that lack of one. It would be good if it were marked by candor and unmarked by defensiveness. History deserves it.

As for the Bush people now newly installed in their White House offices, the good news is that so many of them are serious people, and several of them are writers, more than capable of creating classics that are a contribution to understanding our times. The even better news is that Mr. Bush fils, like Mr. Reagan, has respect for the power of ideas and has surrounded himself with people with ideas. This is promising: People with ideas write books with ideas.

The bad news of course is that any notes they take at any time day or night during their White House careers are not “private.” They are subject to subpoena by special prosecutors and investigators. It has been this way for a long time. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney mentioned it nine years ago, with a sad shake of his head.

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A friend who works for Mr. Bush and is a gifted writer mentioned the problem to me some time back, and we agreed that it was serious. To take honest notes for history and thereby put yourself and your family and your livelihood in jeopardy, to state your views and leave them open to misinterpretation and misuse—and look what happened to that Clinton appointee in the Treasury Department, whose private notes were subpoenaed in one of the scandals, and who was reduced to telling Congress that he lied to his diary.

But here’s a thought. History, the facts and meaning of what unfolds each day as man marches forward in his sidelong way, is more important than you and me. My friend is in the middle of it, and I don’t want him to let reality slide by each day so that at the end it slithers away as you try to grab it with your memory. You want to hold on to the facts as they unfold and appear, and take notes, and be so interesting, make it so well observed, so starkly candid, of such high literary and intellectual quality, that if perchance an investigator ever reads it he’ll say to his fellow Ivy League gumshoes: “This is wonderful.”

Washington is a sieve that leaks from the top. They’ll talk about your fascinating diary over drinks and someone from the press will hear and then it will get in the papers and a publisher will call and you’ll get a great advance and produce a great classic.

And though conservatives by and large don’t seem to care very much about the first anymore, they still care about the latter.