Winston Churchill, with a certainty F.W. de Klerk would envy, once
pronounced, "History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it." Most statesmen, including Nelson Mandela, write memoirs and hope for the best.
Truth and Reconciliation?
De Klerk's sober and usually reserved autobiography, The Last Trek -- A New Beginning (St. Martin's, $35), was published in South Africa before the second fully democratic national election there, and it carries a far-reaching historical burden as well as some heavy political baggage. In 1688, de Klerk's Huguenot family, the De Clercqs, fled to the Cape from French religious persecution and wove itself into South African history. While the young Frederik grew up on stories of assorted de Klerks' roles in rebellion against the British colonial government and in the pioneering Voortrek, he also discloses that, on his distaff side, one of his ancestors was one Diana of Bengal, an Indian slave, a genealogical fact edited out of his family's Afrikaner pedigree.
With this otherwise impeccable family background, including a father who was a cabinet minister in the postwar separatist National Party, de Klerk was a born politician but an unlikely dismantler of apartheid. He reveals himself, however, as a pragmatic patriot and carefully states his case for an inevitable role as reformer after a ministerial career during South Africa's State of Emergency, its sanction-hampered economic slump, and its police-state "securotocracy."
De Klerk's frank descriptions of his predecessor P. W. Botha's aggressive, imperious leadership during tense cabinet and security meetings contrast with his own subtle parliamentary maneuverings and his logical negotiations for reform within his divided party and then with the no less factionalized African National Congress. The irritation he expresses in dealing with the ANC's revolutionary mentality (particularly the South African Communist Party's) and a Nelson Mandela whom he depicts as capable of bitter anger gives a human dimension to the country's remarkable historic transition to democracy.
Still, recently leaked State Security Council minutes from 1984, in which de Klerk's ministerial colleague Barend du Plessis ambiguously proposed the "removal" of activist Matthew Goniwe, cast doubt on de Klerk's insistence here that he knew nothing of government assassinations. With the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's section on de Klerk suspended, his only direct appeal to history for leniency in his book pertains, ironically, to his divorce and remarriage.
"Thank You, Mr. President"
Veteran White House correspondent and press-secretary bane Helen Thomas cannot avoid listing among the major events she has reported on the recent extramarital peccadillos of the eighth president she has covered. Other familiar highlights include the Camp David talks, the Vietnam War, Kennedy's assassination, and Nixon's resignation. But her colorfully impressionistic, career-spanning Front Row at the White House (Scribner, $26) holds the reader's attention not with her unremarkable recounting of the historical record but with her personal perspective on the breaking news of the last 50 years.
Dusting off old notes and incorporating other sources -- from the memoirs of her early fellow wire-service reporters to Bob Haldeman's diaries -- Thomas keeps the anecdotes coming as fast and constantly as a teletype machine. In addition to her regular place among the first and toughest questioners at White House briefings (she also continued the tradition of closing each presidential press conference with "Thank you, Mr. President") she has stalked Kennedy from the bushes at a male-only golf club, buttonholed Carter coming out of his hometown church on Easter Sunday, listened to Bush musing aloud about encouraging revolution in Panama during a long Air Force One flight and, working late one evening, run into a Watergate-troubled Nixon, who asked her to say a prayer for him.
Among her many firsts working as a female reporter in the boys' club of journalism, Thomas was the first woman to be elected to D.C.'s Gridiron Club, which gives her an inside source for political comic relief -- such as Clinton's joshing tribute, "Helen's been in Washington so long she remembers when the Electoral College was a high school."
Eight Was Enough
Humor both saved the Sheridans of Number 44 Seville Place, Dublin, during the '60s and sustains the vivid and vital family history by the Sheridans' second son, Peter, in 44: Dublin Made Me (Viking, $24.95). Peter Sheridan became a director at the renowned Abbey Theater (and his elder brother Shea is better known as the filmmaker Jim Sheridan of "My Left Foot"), but his childhood and adolescence took place in mundane, straitened circumstances. In order to send his sons to school and support a family of eight, Sheridan's blusteringly charming Da schemed to bring undeclared, tax-free lodgers into their already full house, constructed an elaborate betting system for the horse races, and sent Peter on scrounging errands, armed with bombastic begging letters.
His son hatched his own schemes, including temporarily embezzling funds from the Legion of Mary in order to buy a guitar for a local talent show, a debt that was paid off by a lodger who had molested him in a railway toilet. Sheridan colors in this sooty, crowded urban scenery with keen prose -- he describes one bad day at home as "worse than hell on a Monday morning." This boisterous memoir turns tragic with the death of Sheridan's younger brother Frankie from a brain tumor, an event that unravels his close-knit family.
Their gradual recovery, which culminates in Da's scheme to form an amateur theatrical society, ends Sheridan's adolescence and heralds his future. "When I looked back on the sixties," he writes, "I would think of two childhoods coming to an end -- mine in the toilet of the Killarney train and Frankie's in a ward of Temple Street Children's Hospital. Neither would be recorded in history books." Nonetheless, both these personal events have a historical place amid "Sgt. Pepper," the Troubles, television, and rock-and-roll in Sheridan's funny, moving book.
Soap Operas and Slot Machines
Less a memoir or social history than an autobiographical monologue, the 76-years-young Freddie Mae Baxter's The Seventh Child: A Lucky Life (Knopf, $21) runs off her sassy, straightforward talk -- whether about hard work, friends and family, caring for children, her daily routine, music in 1940s Harlem, small pleasures such as soap operas and slot machines, or nothing much at all. "The way I talk," she declares, "I think I can talk a dead man alive."
As for the bare facts, Freddie Mae was born the seventh among eight children in impoverished rural South Carolina, was raised by her mother after her father deserted his family when she was 10, and at 19 moved to New York City, where she worked as a cook, cleaner and child-minder. Editor Gloria Bley Miller, an author of books on wine and on Chinese cooking, tape-recorded Freddie Mae's reminiscences to create this garrulous account of an ordinary life enjoyed at every point. If its rambling structure doesn't quite lend itself to Miller's broader project of making history come alive, Freddie Mae's voice -- "I'm a somewhat everything and nothing big" -- has a life of its own.
An Egyptian Girlhood
"Women have an unwritten history told orally by one generation to another," as the young Nawal El Saadawi learns from her peasant grandmother -- a history based in village and family life -- long before she begins to write herself. Composed in exile in North Carolina, Egyptian feminist and novelist El Saadawi's autobiography, A Daughter of Isis (Zed, $55; paperback $19.95), forms a long, lyric prelude to her shorter memoirs of her life as a village physician and a political prisoner, Memoirs of a Woman Doctor and Memoirs from the Women's Prison.
By 1951, when her story cuts off abruptly, El Saadawi is still finishing her medical studies in Cairo and has become an occasional writer, a committed nationalist, a nascent Marxist, but not yet a full feminist. Her early years, however, were far more conservative than this progressive ending: Her enlightened, humorous father, an inspector at the ministry of education, was an exception to the patriarchal Islamic culture that required his daughter to be circumcised at 6 and her cousin to be ritually beaten by her groom on their wedding night.
At 9, her submission to Allah was childishly sincere, though she wondered why the Koran decrees menstruation to be offensive. By 10, she had disrupted her potential arranged marriage by accidentally spilling a tray of coffee on the prospective husband and had begun confiding to a diary. At her mother's insistence, she continued her education at secondary school in Cairo (and cultivated her secret rebelliousness), though as she notes, an intelligent daughter was no advantage to a family.
El Saadawi's skill as a novelist and her talent for lucid memories combine forcefully to portray her burgeoning character and independence on the eve of Egypt's historic end to colonialism.
Allen Lincoln is a New York writer.
CAPTION: F.W. de Klerk (right) with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in Cape Town on Aug. 21, 1996.