Memoirs ... or potboilers?

WASHINGTON is drowning in ``kiss-and-tell'' books. It's a trend in the capital's political life that has gathered force over the years of the Reagan administration. Officials who serve close to the President at the White House leave before the term is out and pour out their stories in books that range from racy, quickly compiled, ghost-written accounts to scholarly memoirs.

First there was former budget director David Stockman's ``The Triumph of Politics.'' Then former presidential aide Michael Deaver's ``Behind the Scenes.'' Followed by former White House spokesman Larry Speakes's ``Speaking Out.''

Now comes Donald Regan's ``For the Record: From Wall Street to Washington,'' which goes on sale today. Mr. Regan is a former White House chief of staff. His anticipated book has already created some waves because of its account of Mrs. Reagan's interest in astrology.

According to industry sources, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich paid $1 million to publish the 397-page Regan memoir and is printing 250,000 copies. The publisher has mounted a heavy publicity campaign to help sales; Mr. Regan this week holds a battery of interviews with the media.

Although some ``kiss-and-tell'' books are serious in vein and shed light on the workings of government, the general trend is viewed with a measure of sorrow and dismay by seasoned Washington observers. Some authors are regarded as disloyal to their former employer and their books tagged shallow and cheap.

``It's one thing to come out with a book after a period of service under a president in which you restate your side of a question that was a matter of great moment,'' says Horace Busby, a longtime associate of Lyndon Johnson. ``But now there seems to be a tendency to even scores, or to aggrandize one's position when you're out of it, or to exalt your own importance.''

``It represents the end of collegiality in the higher reaches of government,'' says Stephen Hess, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution. ``You cannot have a meeting without risking someone taking notes for a White House book, so you would not want to talk frankly.''

Reaganites are not the first practitioners of the kiss-and-tell genre of books. They are merely among the most prolific. In Eisenhower's time it was considered bad form for anyone on the staff to write his or her memoirs before the President did. Sherman Adams, however, did publish ``Firsthand Report,'' not a memorable book.

When Robert Gray, a second-echelon Cabinet secretary in the Eisenhower administration, published ``Eighteen Acres Under Glass,'' recalls Mr. Hess, the White House was ``infuriated.'' E.Frederic Morrow's ``Black Man in the White House,'' a relatively modest book, was also considered offensive to those on the inside, says Hess, a former Eisenhower speech writer.

The Watergate scandal in the Nixon administration resulted in a spate of books by former White House aides, including John Dean, Jeb Magruder, John Ehrlichman, Charles Colson, and Bob Haldeman.

As the Watergate story sped toward climax, William Safire, a former Nixon speech writer, encountered trouble with his publisher, who sought to bow out of a contract for ``Before the Fall,'' which dealt with pre-Watergate events. Mr. Safire, now a columnist for the New York Times, fought the case to keep his advance, and the book ultimately was issued by another publisher - and well received.

Former Carter White House spokesman Jody Powell and presidential aide Hamilton Jordan both wrote books. Like Mr. Speakes, Mr. Powell was tough on the press but, unlike Speakes, he did not make statements that reflected badly on the President.

A top aide to President Ford, Robert Hartmann, whose influence was clipped by chief of staff Donald Rumsfeld, came out in 1980 with a tough book called ``Palace Politics: An Inside Account of the Ford Years.''

In many cases former government officials seem to feel impelled to defend their positions, especially if they are controversial figures. Former Secretary of State Alexander Haig Jr. wrote ``Caveat: Realism, Reagan, and Foreign Policy'' after being forced to resign. Terrel Bell, Reagan's first secretary of education, wrote a memoir entitled ``The Thirteenth Man.''

Critics make a distinction between kiss-and-tell potboilers and thoughtful books that contribute to the historical record of an administration and an understanding of political leaders. Among such books in recent years are the memoirs of former secretaries of state Cyrus Vance and Henry Kissinger and former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. The just-published book ``Revolution'' by Martin Anderson, who served in the Reagan administration, is also a serious work.

Whether it is the temptation of money or the satisfaction of venting one's pique over perceived ill-treatment or simply ego-satisfaction that generates the breezy, sensation-laden variety of memoir is difficult to gauge. Some observers suggest that the American people's reading tastes are changing, with greater demand today for titillating ``inside'' tales revolving around personalities and trivialities.

``There's a whole movement in TV to make things jazzier, a general belief that the public is interested in that,'' says Austin Ranney, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley.

``I have the impression that the somewhat higher incidence of scandal [in the Reagan administration] also tends to lead to this kind of thing, but the changed media environment is probably the main factor,'' Dr. Ranney says.

In some cases former public servants have written their own books. Others have used ghostwriters. Today the trend seems to be to write the book in collaboration with a writer.

``The books are crammed full of errors and have become almost obscene,'' Hess says. ``They are so sloppy and badly written, unlike some earlier books.''

A complaint heard frequently among critics is that the prospect of such books stifles frank conversation in government deliberations. Officials will be on their guard in discussing policy decisions, suspecting that someone might be taking notes that will later surface in print.

``Your colleagues in government have a right to expect some degree of confidentiality,'' says White House political director Frank Donatelli. ``[The trend] is destructive in terms of the ability to formulate policy and elicit candid comments from your colleagues.''

Ben Wattenberg, who served with the Johnson administration and is an editor of Public Opinion magazine, agrees: ``It sets up an atmosphere in government in which you cannot talk freely. The next team in the White House will be looking at every word they write and every word they say and will ill-serve the president and executive branch.''

What bothers critics about the gossipy kiss-and-tell books is also the ``disloyalty'' of the authors. It is felt that those who elect to serve the president and later benefit from that association should maintain a sense of loyalty to him while he is still in office. Larry Speakes, for instance, who stated in his book that he sometimes manufactured quotes for the President, has invited a whirlwind of criticism.

``Kiss-and-tell books are outrageous, especially by press secretaries,'' says James Lake, a former Reagan campaign official. ``They're a manifestation of disloyalty and lack of integrity.

Dr. Busby suggests that the prudent course for a public servant is to wait until the administration is over. ``You can't be a part of an administration one day and standing on the street corner and selling your biases the next and still be a truly honorable person,'' he remarks. ``Anyone who has served a president at high level should keep himself free and clear to return on a moment's notice if the president wants him again.

``A truly useful servant does not send his experience down the drain for a petty purpose.''

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