Book Review: 'The Emperor's New Clothes' by Richard Ben-Veniste

By Isaac Chotiner
Sunday, May 24, 2009


Exposing the Truth From Watergate to 9/11

By Richard Ben-Veniste

Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's. 340 pp. $27.95

The Washington memoir tends to fall into one of two categories. The first consists of tales of harmony and bipartisanship; such books teem with stories of "coming together" and friendships that "reach across the aisle." Just think of Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill sitting down in the Oval Office after a long day and -- party labels be damned -- enjoying the well-stocked White House liquor cabinet. The second type of memoir describes a very different Capital, one full of nefariousness and double-dealing, not to mention sleazy presidents and corrupt legislators. This narrative may win the prize for verisimilitude, but it generally has one debilitating feature: The author, or memoirist, is always the one man (or woman) with any common sense, the lone Mr. Smith speaking truth to power and emerging victorious. If only.

Richard Ben-Veniste's reminiscences fit into the latter category. A New York City native, Ben-Veniste attended law school at Columbia before becoming a federal prosecutor in 1968. He soon found himself on the Watergate Task Force, where he served as head of prosecution. The five chapters of his new book cover five different controversies or scandals that he has helped investigate: Watergate, Whitewater, Abscam, a now-forgotten Congressional scandal and the attacks of 9/11 (he served on the National Commission).

It is this last effort that takes up the most space: Ben-Veniste confronts Condoleezza Rice about the infamous Presidential Daily Brief of August 6, 2001 (the one entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.") and goes toe-to-toe with the White House over whether President Bush will testify. There is not much new here, although Ben-Veniste does make an interesting observation: "Perhaps because of the ridicule that followed [Bush's] insistence that he be interviewed in tandem with Cheney, he answered virtually all the questions himself . . . Later on I noted that Cheney rather than Bush was the beneficiary of the joint interview."

But do not expect much insight on how power is actually wielded in Washington. Instead, the reader is fed page after page of Ben-Veniste heaping praise on . . . Ben-Veniste. One minute he is being approached by random, grateful citizens, and the next he is telling us that he is nothing more than a humble "partisan for the truth." A little later, he speaks of his reputation as "a streetwise kid who was not intimidated." I think we will be the judge of that. Pretty soon Tom Daschle is calling for his help because only he -- Ben-Veniste -- asks the tough questions. The 9/11 Commission transcripts he reprints even note spectators applauding his courage.

Ben-Veniste has indeed done some good work during his time in Washington, but next time let's hear about it from a more neutral observer.

Isaac Chotiner has written reviews for the New York Times, the New Republic and The Washington Post.

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