Lips Bearing a Presidential Seal

By Tina Brown
Thursday, October 6, 2005

You would think one of the side effects of the president's slide from Top Gun would be an eruption of disloyal memoirs. Since the outbursts of Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and terrorism czar Richard Clarke, there's been a lack of literary lava out of Washington's Mount Vesuvius.

Karen Hughes's memoir was as purpose-driven as her pantsuit. Ari Fleischer's was about as revealing as one of his briefings. ("After the press conference was over," he confides, "I joined the president in the residence and told him I thought he did great. He felt good, too, as he reclined in his chair and lit a cigar.") No doubt John Ashcroft has something in the works, but after the thudding dullness of his CNN commentary on the Roberts hearings it seems likely he'll be singing from the administration hymn sheet. And I don't think anyone is waiting with bated breath for a color-coded page-turner from former Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge, who on the job always wore a stunned-ox look.

In London it's a lot more fun. Some of Tony Blair's inner circle have gotten sick of waiting for him to go and have started to dribble out their indiscretions. Lance Price, a bitchy number two in the Blair press office, has done a sort of "The Devil Wears Cufflinks" job about life in the spin factory, featuring New Labor aides copulating on a Downing Street sofa and the PM saying uncharacteristically profane things about the Welsh.

Then there's the impending memoir "DC Confidential," by Sir Christopher Meyer, former ambassador to Washington, who knows a lot of tasty stuff about the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq. Its publication has been heralded by a Web leak that Blair's chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, instructed Meyer to "get up the arse of the White House and stay there" -- which sounds way better than anything we are likely to get from the churchy crew over here.

The most substantive of the Brit bunch will probably be the ruminations of Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Blair's man in Iraq in the Paul Bremer days. Greenstock has the subtle intelligence and watchful eye of a Graham Greene narrator. The mere thought of the book already has the British Foreign Office so exercised that Greenstock has decided to postpone it rather than censor it.

The big kahuna everyone waits for is Alastair Campbell, Blair's bombastic former communications guru. Campbell, who is as colorful as he is irreverent, made it known that he wrote in his diary every night of the seven years he was in No. 10 and plans to let 'er rip as soon as the door closes on Blair.

This is the big, boring difference in Washington. Except for the female president's daughter on ABC's "Commander in Chief," everyone is far too scared of subpoenas to keep a diary. (Blogs are not the same. Despite their pretense at candor, blogs are for effect.) A really juicy memoir has to be drawn from private contemporaneous scribbling, with the casual planting of major characters, the admissions of self-doubt, the gradual unfolding of consternations and omens. (Lance Price's diary, Jan. 19, 1999: "Tony seems almost bored with the ordinary stuff and interested only in the foreign leaders, Clinton, wars, etc. I get a sense of impending doom if not gloom.") You don't get the plot surprises by talking into a ghostwriter's tape recorder years later.

The demise of diary writing may also contribute to Washington's political distemper. The inability to vent recklessly on the page or confide secret grandiosity that looks ridiculous two weeks later is as bad for the psyche of power as it is for historians in search of the truth. There is no one here today who could risk writing entries as revealing of social attitudes as those from 1915 to 1951 by Duff Cooper, the British diplomat and minister in Winston Churchill's war cabinet who died in 1954. In these late-night pages, which have just been published in book form, Cooper effortlessly, unhypocritically mingles adultery with dinner parties, political observations and breezy bulletins of the war dead. Disaster seemed as casual then as extramarital affairs, without the overheating of round-the-clock media.

Cheney, Rummy and Rove are hardly likely to break omerta at this late date. Given the insipidness of the rest of W's loyalists, the only memoirs I want to read from this administration are those of President Bush himself, even if they're garnered from the marginalia in his well-thumbed copy of "My Utmost for His Highest." We've learned to parse his news conferences for body language and fractured phrases. We can decode what he doesn't say. When he tells us for instance that he has chosen Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court because he knows her "heart," we know he's confirming her fealty.

And maybe a Bush memoir will give us a road map at least to some of the mysterious gaps and silences of the past five years. What was really going on during the missing hours on 9/11 aboard Air Force One, or in the interlude after Election Day 2000 when he vanished from sight and then emerged talking as if he were already president? I want to know about that lazy hidden summer of 2001 when the Aug. 6 presidential daily briefing titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." moldered in his in box, and why the governor of Louisiana couldn't find him when Hurricane Katrina was devastating the Gulf Coast. I want chapter and verse on the incident with the invasive pretzel. I want to deduce from parsing the punctuation the precise moment in the war in Iraq when his mood changed from swaggering certainty to the suppressed panic that now hovers at the corners of his mouth every time he goes into the herky-jerky routine of The War! On Terror! I want to know when the president first knew that the Valerie Plame leak was going to cause the long arm of the law to reach into the heart of his inner circle.

Bush these days seems more and more like Fredo Corleone in "The Godfather: Part II," wrestling with barely hidden rage and anxiety and relying more and more on the balm of loyal consiglieri who he believes won't give him up. It could make for a great memoir. Or better still . . . a novel. There's an amazing story inside that white box of a black box, full of shrieking.

2005Tina Brown

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