The quadrennial deluge of recollection is upon us.
Five months after the Reagan inaugural, the Carter administration is turning into typescript as keyboards clatter up and down the East Coast:
Jimmy Carter is composing his memoirs for Bantam at five or six pages a day. Jody Powell is writing a book for William Morow on how the press covers the presidency.
Lynn Nesbit of International Creative Management is about to close the sale of Rosalynn Carter's memoirs; Irving "Swifty" Lazar is dickering with publishers over Zbigniew Brzezinski's. And proposals for books by Hamilton Jordan (as yet undefined), Cyrus Vance (on foreign policy) and Stansfield Turner (on military preparedness) are floating among publishing houses -- the second wave in a rising tide of retrospection that will crest next year.
Already in the swim is "Governing America," a behind-the-scenes account of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and the Carter White House by former HEW secretary Joseph Califano Jr., who got a two-year head start on his project when he was fired in 1979.
When early press reports said the book portrayed Carter as insecure and obsessed with news leaks, Powell fired off the first salvo in the time-honored ritual of recrimination: "Whatever lingering doubts I had that we had judged Joe too harshly have been substantially relieved. Hell hath no fury like a fat-cat Washington lawyer scorned." Califano says that the characterization of his 484-page Simon & Schuster volume is premature, based only on "one portion of one chapter. Let them read the whole book."
After all, there may not be that many to read. "There will probably be fewer books from the Carter administration than any other in recent memory," says one publishing industry veteran.
Forever-acid Gore Vidal, who wrote a scathing essay called "The Holy Family" about published accounts of the JFK administration, wonders why publishers print such books: "Nobody reads them. They're either lying or backbiring or both. Why are they written? I would suppose because of publishers' advances and the chance to get on the lecture circuit for otherwise obscure people."
Many publishers were burned by overspending on books from previous administrations. Some of those did not make back their advances, which over the past decade have ranged from four figures to seven. Carter reportedly got nearly a million dollars for his memoirs, and Powell a comfortable sum in the "low six figures." But they are exceptions in today's market, where even sales to libraries (which can provide a cushion of 4,000 to 15,000 copies for a serious treatise) are iffy.
The only thing that does seem automatic is the incendiary exchange among former White House insiders that follows any published account. This dialectic has become a colorful tradition in recent decades, as have the questions increasingly asked of such projects: Should a "decent interval" be observed between government service and the writing of books? Does a hastily published account of a presidential crisis violate the mutual trust of those involved? Can an official advise the president in genuine candor while knowing that he will soon be describing the same advice in a book? How much of such recollections is valuable historical insight and how much a printed settling of private disputes? And can any single participant produce an objective account of presidential events?
Cyrus Sulzberger, veteran foreign correspondent for The New York Times, wrote: "Once I played cards with Eisenhower, [Averell] Hariman, [Gen. Alfred] Gruenther and Dan Kimball, United States secretary of the Navy, while all discussed the memoirs of James Forrestal, first secretary of Defense. They had attended a meeting referred to in the book and each agreed that Forrestal's account was wrong. But when I asked what, then, was the true version, all promptly disagreed among themselves."
Merle Miller, known for his "oral histories" of Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson, says that in researching his upcoming book on Eisenhower, "I have found about 60 different versions of whether or not the Eisenhower administration really had planned a Bay of Pigs operation, but didn't have time to carry it out." And Hubert Humphrey, Miller says, once told him four slightly different accounts of the same anecdote when Miller was compiling his book on LBJ. In that book, Miller described Johnson as meeting with aides while he was having an enema, provoking a landslide of outrage and denunciation from LBJ staffers. "My feeling now is that it didn't happen." says Miller, "although it could have. I didn't check the story."
"History is 'Rashomon,' " says columnist William Safire, the former Nixon aide who wrote "Before the Fall" and "Full Disclosure" -- "everyone tells it the way they saw it, or lived it." That has been the case at least since the modern memoir from emerged from the personality clashes of the Roosevelt administration. If Memory Serves
Harry Truman claimed in his memoirs that he had written a letter to James Francis Byrnes, his secretary of state and one-time close friend, demanding Byrnes' resignation. Byrnes, in his own book, denied that there was any such letter. "Probably what happened was that Truman wrote the letter and then forgot [to send it]," says historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the JFK White House aide who wrote "A Thousand Days," among other books.
Emmet J. Hughes' memoir about the Eisenhower White House, "The Ordeal of Power," was widely attacked for its then-controversial disclosure of private conversations. The same charge was made against Schlesinger's book, which in turn differed from "Kennedy" -- by Schlesinger's fellow JFK aide Theodore Sorensen, who also wrote "The Kennedy Legacy." John Kenneth Balbraith, JFK's ambassador to India, found the two authors' accounts "broadly companionable." But one of Sorensen's colleagues in the JFK White House says that "if you read Ted's book, you'd think that the only member of the White House staff was Ted Sorensen." Charles Perters, editor of the Washington Monthly, makes the same case for Schlesinger: "A speechwriter is always hoping that he will make history. And by writing the memoir, he is making damn sure that he will ."
Sorensen's books on Kennedy kept making controversial history for years. They helped fuel charges by fellow Democrats in 1970 that he was exploiting his JFK connections during his unsuccessful Senate primary bid. Sorensen's slogan: "John Kennedy Trusted Him." During the Pentagon Papers trial, Sorensen had made public his use of classifed documents in writing his books -- an admission which, among other difficulties, eventually caused him to withdraw from consideration after Carter nominated him for CIA head in 1977.
Two former LBJ aides -- Jack Valenti (who wrote "A Very Human President" about his experiences) and Harry McPherson (author of "A Political Education") -- disagree over the account of the Johnson administration in "The Twilight of the Presidency," written by a third: George Reedy, LBJ's press secretary. McPherson says the book "reflects a Johnson White House I was not familiar with -- a great number of sycophants running around desperately trying not to alienate Johnson." Valenti says Reedy "frankly struck the right note at the right time," portraying a staff which "wanted to believe there was something royal" about the presidency, "grouping around the king."
The spate of post-Watergate memoirs from the Nixon White House often depicted the same events in notoriously different ways, and Nixon's memoirs differ significantly from Henry Kissinger's on the subject of how much authority Kissinger had to negotiate with Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev on a trip to Moscow.
In the present case, Califano says he portrayed the president fairly: "The naivete, the innocence thing -- at the end of the first year, he was the first to admit that." The occasionally vulgar language attributed to Carter "portrays him as a human being"; and if Califano depicts Sen. Edward Kennedy as "overbearing," well "that's the way he is. Very few people realize that," Califano says. "I am not an academic, I can write what I know about, which is what it's like to get down in the pits and try to make government work. Let the professors draw the large judgments." Acting the Part
One of the large judgments to be made about memoirs and similar books is whether they violate the atmosphere of trust which surrounds the process of advising the president. If advisers know that their remarks will be made public, will they really be candid, free to say whatever they think?
Commentator and former Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan says that after the Watergate disclosures, one White house officials said to him, "Than goodness we didn't know the tapes were running -- we would have acted completely differently."
McPherson recalls that James Rowe, the veteran attorney and administrative assistant to FDR, once saw McPherson writing an entry in his diary. "He said, 'Don't do that -- you'll find yourself staging your behavior, acting for your diary.' It seemed like sound advice to me, and I quit it."
Schlesinger's "A Thousand Days" was criticized for airing discussions regarded as "private" in the JFK era, especially the revelation that Kennedy was thinking of replacing Dean Rusk as secretary of state. But "Kennedy was as smart man," Schlesinger says, and he knew that people might be thinking of books. After the Bay of Pigs incursion, "Kennedy said to me, 'i hope that you've kept full notes on that. That CIA and everybody else are going to have their versions of it. You'd better put down your version of it.'" That remark, Schlesinger says, made him feel that he had the "license" to write.
Since then, Schlesinger says, standards have changed to the point where such revelations are now both acceptable and desirable. If potential memoir-writers participate in White House discussions, "I really don't think it inhibits people," he says. "If you feel you're right, you want to be on the record."
Sorensen sees some danger in this pattern: "I think we're living in an era in which candor is relatively diminished." As administrations adjust to the bull market for memoirs, the Freedom of Information Act, routine "leaks" of news stories and television "behing-the-scenes" docudramas, Sorenson believes, "some decisions will be made without calling meetings. And in meetings of some size, people will stick to the orthodox views."
Califano says he made the decision to write about his tenure at HEW "three or four months" after he took the job. "But I honestly don't think it had any impact, because the experience is so intense. You are consumed with crises, and you really don't think about them in the context of anything except coming up with the right answer and then finding a way to make it politically feasible. Ten days after I was at HEW, a guy walks in and says, 'We have an outbreak of flu down in Florida, and you may have to re-release the swine-flu vaccine.' Believe me, in those circumstances, you don't give a thought" to acting for the record.
Brzezinski concurs: "When one is dealing with difficult decisions, he is so preoccupied with the issues that he doesn't think about such things."
But Safire believes that the situation is much more self-conscious. "The president sits in the Oval Office surrounded by people he knows are going to write books. The notion that discussions at the center of power are so sacrosanct as to never be revealed is naive. Nixon introduced me to a group of campaign workers in 1960 by saying, 'This is Safire. He's absolutely trustworthy, but watch what you say -- he's a writer.'"
"Safire used to come and tell me regularly to take notes," Buchanan remembers. "He'd say, 'You're going to write a book some day.'" A Decent Interval
Sulzberger writes in "A Long Row of Candles": "I think I have allowed a decent lapse of time between what once was private between me and those with whom I talked and the sharing of that wealth. Unlike the associates of the late President Kennedy who raced across his warm grave into print, I have permitted the tolerant winds of time to cool off secrets now exposed. . ."
Those winds have shifted with the times. Former Carter speechwriter James Fallows recalls that a top White House official had a proposal for his memoirs ready "within days after the Reagan inauguration." And Califano's account arrives while the ink is scarcely dry on the new administration. "But look at this book," Califano says, "and look at the issues on the tables now -- abortion, Social Security and the rest -- the same ones that are on the front burner today. Having decided to write about that stuff, the time to write is now, the sooner the better."
Safire agrees: "It's a good thing for people in government to tell as much as they can as soon as they can" to facilitate "learning from mistakes."
But Galbraith -- whose memoirs were published last month -- feels there is "something raw about this rush into print. I would urge Mssrs. Califano, Brzezinski, Kissinger, et al., to follow my example and start writing at the age of 69." Galbraith says he waited six years to publish his "Ambassador's Journal" (1969) because "an ambassador has a certain responsibility in maintaining decent relations even after he has left." As a general rule, Galbraith says, "everyone should wait at least five years before writing to eliminate any suspicion that the public service was meant to be subordinate to the publication."
Some refrain from writing entirely. Former JFK aide Fred Dutton says "I've always stayed out of that -- I think it's kiss-and-tell." Richard Goodwin, an aide to both JFK and LBJ, says he did not write becase "I still had personal relations with many of the people involved," and thus was "faced with the alternatives of either not telling the truth or not writing." (But he says he worked with his wife, Doris Kearns, when she was writing "Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream.")
But Gore Vidal believes that "each former administration official should have a weekly column. In fact, they already do -- it's called leaks." Enlightened Self-Interest
It is expected that all accounts by former White House officials will be regarded as self-serving. Valenti says, "no one becomes the anti-hero of his own memoirs," and Fallows believes that the "running title" of all such books should be "If Only They'd Listened to Me." This is inevitable, Goodwin says, "when people see things refrated through the prisms of their own egos. Presidents are notorious for feeding peoples' desire to think they're important. If a fellow thinks he did a lot, nobody at the White House is going to disabuse him of the notion."
The suspicion of selfaggrandizement is often difficult to dispel because memoirs lack the hard source material of more conventional histories. Schlesinger, while praising Califano's book, still beels it is under-documented, like so many recent accounts by administration insiders. Calfiano says he used "not a whole host of formal memos, but a lot of pencil notes," secretarial notes of meetings and personal recollection. He says he avoided secondhand sources for events (although he quoted verbatim a telephone exchange between Jody Powel and Eileen Shanahan, checking the quotations later with Shanahan, but not with Powell). "And then there were occasions when I would do a memo for the record," Califano says; for example, "when I came back from the first meeting with President Carter over my resignation."
Memos "for the record" are univesally regarded as the bane of political memoirs. They enable an official to go "on the record" on an issue without doing anything more than dictating a few paragraphs and filing them. Later, they are "documentary proof" of a person's position.
Fallows says that Galbraith's writings exemplify "this art at its most refined level." Galbraith disagrees. In writing his memoirs, he says, "I went down to the Archives and found that all the memoranda and other documents I had written were entirely useless," because they were "written for a purpose, which was to reinterpret the truth."
Each administration encounters at least one sensitive issue that produces a flurry of memos for the file. In the Carter White House, Fallows recalls, it was the admission of the shah of Iran to the United States. In the Johnson era, Valenti says, events of the Vietnam war would send "memos flying like migratory geese all over the White House."
Personal, colorful and intimate recollections have always been a part of political memoirs, and the tendency had increased in recent years. Califano says his principal motive in writing was that "there was very little public sense of how the government actually works, of how people are, of how important turf is, of the accidents that can have an incredible impact on our social policy." But he also tried to "put plenty of flesh on the bones" in his characterizations, and decided to write in the first person because the first chapter completed was about abortion, an issue "which engaged me at every level -- emotional, intellectual, spiritual, religious -- and which is written in a very personal way." He says, "Was I conscious of making this interesting? Sure -- and not just to get lots of readers, but so that someone who's busy will read the book."
Gore Vidal believes that books by White House officials increasingly stress personalities "because there's nothing left to write about. Since we're not allowed to have real political parties or real politics, all we're left with is personalities. Take the president: There's nothing else to write about except the difference between the image he projects -- in John Kennedy's case, the calm family man -- and the real-life figure, which for Kennedy was catting around with every lady in sight."
In years to come, Reedy says, "I think what's going to happen is a kind of Gresham's Law of publishing. In the present condition, it's far too easy to get things published that shouldn't be." Nonetheless, he says "someone will read an account, get mad, and then write his own memoir which in turn will make someone else mad. Over time, the truth emerges."