Nominations for the least-accurate political memoir ever written

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By Political Bookworm
Sunday, March 21, 2010

Has Karl Rove played fast and loose with historical fact in his new memoir "Courage and Consequence"? History will decide. But recollections invariably differ -- perhaps never more so than in political memoirs. And Rove's isn't the first to spark debate over what is the true tide in the affairs of men. In that spirit, we asked a variety of people to name the least accurate political memoirs ever written.

-- Steven Levingston

STEVEN F. HAYWARD, the F.K. Weyerhaeuser fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of "The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counter-Revolution, 1980-1989."

My nominee is David Stockman's 1986 tell-all, "Triumph of Politics." Ironically, it is an excellent example of someone whose telling of the day-to-day facts is accurate, while he remains clueless about central aspects of the story -- a classic case of how a smart person can reach dumb conclusions. The main thesis, conveyed in the title, is that "politics" derailed serious fiscal reform in Ronald Reagan's first term. Imagine that! Politics -- seen in action in Congress and the White House! Who would ever think such an unusual thing would occur in Washington, D.C.? This strange detachment from reality is matched by Stockman's contempt for and misperception of Reagan, whom he found shallow and extreme -- judgments that subsequently appear poorly founded. As he wrote in his book, "I would never be comfortable with what I viewed as the primitive, right-wing conservatism of my grandfather or Goldwater -- or Reagan." And this: "I considered [Reagan] a cranky obscurantist whose political base was barnacled with every kook and fringe group that inhabited the vasty deep of American politics." (This, from the person who wanted to abolish the modern welfare state in toto.) And he proved his unfitness as a Reaganite by becoming, in his own words, "the Trotsky of the supply-side [economics] movement." It seems he figuratively put the ice pick in his head himself.

JAMES K. GALBRAITH, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of "The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too."

That would be Richard Nixon. On this matter, I have to defer to a higher authority, specifically my father [John Kenneth Galbraith], who reviewed Nixon's memoir for the New York Review of Books on June 29, 1978. "A central theme of this book," he wrote, is that "Mr. Nixon never did anything wrong unless someone else had done something like it first. And all evil disappears if it has a precedent."

Runner up is L. Paul Bremer's "My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope," which was reviewed by my brother Peter in the NYRB. Peter wrote, in an email: "Nothing in his description of the country and its people suggests he was actually there."

Second runner-up: Robert Rubin's "In an Uncertain World: Tough Choices from Wall Street to Washington." Book World's review, which I wrote, held that, as philosophy, it compared poorly to the motto of the "great Austin ice cream parlor known as Amy's: 'Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first.' " At National Airport a few days later, I was introduced by accident to Karl Rove. His eyes narrowed. "The James K. Galbraith?" he asked. I nodded. "The only man," he said, "ever to get a mention of Amy's Ice Cream into The Washington Post."

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, professor of history at Rice University and author, most recently, of "The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America."

My candidate would be James Buchanan's wildly disingenuous "Mr. Buchanan's Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion" (1866). Buchanan had the gall to shirk all responsibility for the Civil War. He blamed everybody but himself for the dissolution of the Union. A pathetic memoir aimed at trying to exonerate himself from serial wrongheadedness and flatfooted policy initiatives. What Buchanan wrote was revisionist blather.

TED SORENSEN, former Special Counsel and advisor to President John F. Kennedy and author of "Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History."

It is not surprising that Karl Rove's memoirs, "Courage and Consequence," is a candidate for the least accurate of all political memoirs in view of his pride at being known as the "architect" of a presidency known for prevarication and two presidential campaigns featuring the charges (from which he distances himself) that Bush's principal opponent in 2000, John McCain, had fathered a black child and his principal 2004 opponent, John Kerry, had been a "swift boat coward." It is unfair and unrealistic to hold Karl Rove's memoirs to higher standards than those applied to George W. Bush. Rove's repeated use of "hypocrisy" to describe Bush critics in the Obama White House and Congress is dangerous as his book reveals little on how Bush was led into misleading the public about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein's arsenal. For Rove to charge President Obama with playing "fast and loose with the facts" only reminds readers that Rove crafted Bush's fiction about Saddam's involvement in 9/11. He doesn't reveal why or at whose direction the waterboarding tapes were destroyed, feels entitled to castigate Teddy Kennedy's criticism of the Bush Iraq war policy but makes no mention of President Bush's avoidance of service in Vietnam. Historians shouldn't count on a "fair and balanced" view of the last decade in his memoirs.

MIKE MCCURRY, press secretary to President Bill Clinton and now a communications consultant in Washington.

Violating a rule that a press secretary never speaks ill of a member of the class, I'd have to list Scott's account of his time behind the podium in the White House. His largest inaccuracy? Believing he is writing true to the spirit of the "real George Bush" when he is actually exposing exactly the flaws that troubled that presidency. He's a good guy, but his memoir makes you scream, "If you thought your brief was not true, why didn't you confront the information evildoers?" And if you take his account of his colleagues at face value, you ask, "Why did these folks put someone in this job that they did not believe would do it well?"

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY, whose latest book is "Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir."

Hands down, I'd have to give the prize to "Gandhi, An Autobiography." A tissue of lies, from start to finish. You won't find anything in here about his wild partying, wet T-shirt contests, binge-eating, Sacred Bull riding or Swiss bank accounts.


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