Political memoirs: Loyalty is in the eye of the beholder

Gates, Clinton, Panetta: Disloyal rats?

WASHINGTON D.C. - I shouldn’t admit this, given how I earn my living, but I do not enjoy political memoirs.  They bore me.  I don’t trust them.  They cause me to think about politics in a small bore way – on the personalities, spats and gossip of recent, barely cooled history. I want my reading to do the opposite.

But political memoirs are starting loud arguments all along the Potomac lately.  The flap du jour is the new memoir by Leon Panetta, who ran the CIA and the Pentagon for President Obama. His is the third volume in a trilogy, following exit-memoirs by Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates.

To different degrees, all have sharp criticisms of Obama. (I glean this from excerpts and quotation; as I said, I don’t read the things.)

Clinton’s book was the most easily dismissed because it was part of her campaign for redemption, resurrection, world dominance and the presidency.

Panetta’s book carries the most weight because he is on the short list for Greatest Living Public Servant – deservedly.

Washington is arguing about whether Panetta et al are disloyal rats. It’s a goofy argument.

In politics, loyalty is in the eye of the beholder. If you like Obama, Panetta is a back-stabber; if you don’t, he is truth-teller.

Thus: A reliably Democratic columnist for The Washington Post, Dana Milbank, says of the Obama Trilogy, “this level of disloyalty is stunning.” But one of their Republican pundits, the consultant Ed Rogers, says that Gates, Clinton and Panetta clearly put loyalty to country above loyalty to the president and, “The world should take notice.”

The books are partisan Rorschach tests. Of course, everything is. And that’s why politics is like Groundhog Day, the movie.

I’m no different. My first serious work in journalism was writing about tax policy during the Regan administration. Reagan’s OMB director, David Stockman, wrote a nasty tell-all in 1985, “The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed” and I loved it. Same with memoirs critical of Bush the Younger on Iraq.

As reporter, I am programmed to believe that is intrinsically and inevitably for the good to have these sorts of books.  More information, more insight, more angles: It is all good, especially for the historians, even if the motives range from saintly to venal.

Memoirs packed with explosives have come to be predictable nuisances for second-term presidents post-Nixon: Reagan, Clinton the Male, Bush the Younger and now Obama all have had to face that fact. 

Stockman’s 1985 book packed particular punch.  The second-term tell-all genre was still new, human insight into Ronald Reagan was rare and Stockman, a key booster and architect of the policies he condemned, was a truly epic weasel. But since then, these books are rarely more than three-day nuisances, no matter how poisonous the pen.

What is obnoxious is not the memoirs themselves, but how they became instant ammo for the blinkered partisans who make our loudest political noise.

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