A burgeoning genre: the White House tell-all
WASHINGTON — Throughout the modern publishing era, nearly every administration has had its "turncoats" - high-level officials who leave and write tell-all books criticizing their former bosses.
But lately, it seems the Bush administration is becoming a virtual factory for malcontented memoirists.
From former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke's harsh account of President Bush's handling of the war on terror to ex-Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's blunt rendering of cabinet meetings to an upcoming book by former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who blew the whistle on White House claims that Iraq tried to purchase uranium from Africa, an unusual chorus of condemnation is emerging from presidential aides and allies. Along with a soon-to-be-released book by journalist Bob Woodward, rumored to contain more internal sniping, and criticism by officials such as former UN weapons inspector Hans Blix, it's creating a mini-library of ammunition for the Kerry campaign - and a new challenge for the president.
Although Bush is hardly the first sitting president to face kiss-and-tell tomes, analysts say it's rare to see so many in the first term of an administration, before the president runs for reelection. Even more unusual is the seniority of the authors - aides such as a cabinet secretary, and the administration's top terrorism official.
Moreover, many say the 24-hour news cycle makes these books more potent, with authors giving wall-to-wall interviews, and adding fuel to an incendiary campaign discourse. "These aren't just book releases - they've become media extravaganzas," says historian Douglas Brinkley. "There's never been such an apparent avalanche in such a condensed period of time."
To be sure, the White House has its own weapons in the book wars: Karen Hughes, one of Bush's closest advisers, who left the White House to spend more time with her family, has a new memoir as well - painting a glowing portrait of Bush. Ms. Hughes, who is ramping up her involvement with the Bush campaign, is embarking on a six-week book tour, and expects to join the campaign full-time in August.
And so far, the books seem to be having only a negligible impact on Bush's standing. Although some polls show approval for his handling of the war on terror dipping slightly in the past week, as media furor surrounding Clarke escalated, Bush's overall ratings have remained firm - and the president has moved ahead of rival John Kerry in head-to-head matchups.
Still, the danger for Bush may lie in the cumulative effect of all these treatises. The books raise serious - and similar - questions about his Iraq policy, for example, portraying him as fixated on ousting Saddam Hussein nearly from the outset of his administration. Depending on how events in Iraq unfold, that portrayal could undermine support for the war.
Still more damaging, analysts say, may be how the books cast the president's leadership and decisionmaking style.
In the past, some of the most destructive exposés - aside from those with explosive revelations - have reinforced unflattering images of presidents. Former speechwriter James Fallows portrayed Jimmy Carter as obsessed with minor details - like the White House tennis schedule - and lacking a grand vision. Former Chief of Staff Donald Regan painted Ronald Reagan as dim and subject to manipulation by wife Nancy (and Nancy's astrologer).
Many of the current books depict Bush as simplistic and narrow-minded, unwilling to listen to opposing points of view - a portrayal that Senator Kerry is already attempting to exploit in his campaign.
"This is a president who makes decisions almost entirely based on intuition and hunch," says Paul Light, director of the Center for Public Service at the Brookings Institution. "He works with a very small team of highly trusted advisers, and he does not invite dissent."
To some, the charges in books such as Clarke's or O'Neill's are undermined by their timing. Aides who wait until the president is out of office before releasing memoirs gain credibility by taking their work out of the political arena and aiming it at history, says Marlin Fitzwater, press secretary to President Reagan and the first President Bush. But those who publish during the president's tenure are open to question about motives - whether they're driven by a desire for profit or revenge.
"Any book that comes out while the president is still in office is tainted by the fact that its value is enhanced by that," says Mr. Fitzwater.
While staffers have released books about sitting presidents for nearly as long as the office has existed - Andrew Jackson's Treasury secretary skewered him in a book, to name an early example - the practice was fairly unusual until recent decades. It took a sharp upswing during the Reagan administration, when three top aides - Secretary of State Al Haig, budget director David Stockman, and Chief of Staff Regan - unleashed critical tomes. During the Clinton administration, George Stephanopolous's multimillion-dollar book deal marked a new turning point - showing would-be writers how profitable a memoir could be, and paving the way for a tide of tell-alls.
Aside from the immediate political impact, Fitzwater says, the trend could have serious repercussions for government, making presidents more wary - and less candid - with aides. Clarke's book in particular may increase distrust between White House staffers and civil servants whose careers tend to span many administrations - and could create a new incentive for presidents to appoint political allies to key positions rather than rely on career staffers, with their greater expertise.