Herewith, for those who have given of themselves in public service and are now contemplating the composition and publication of their White House memoirs, a word of advice: Don't. Christopher Buckley has already done it. There is nothing left to say. The genre is dead. Defoliated. Kaput.
He has done it in "The White House Mess," a novel masquerading as a memoir that systematically, and often quite hilariously, skewers all the cliche's of political reminiscence and roasts them to a turn, or turns them to a roast. "The White House Mess" is a tale of the sort once called, in a more innocent age, "madcap," packed as it is with goofily improbable events and singularly unlikely characters, all of which is great fun. But the novel is most rewardingly and amusingly read as a satire on the Washington memoir, a form of ill-disguised fiction that for generations has been in desperate need of exposure. To put it mildly, Buckley does the job.
The memoirist herein at work is Herbert Wadlough, who came to the White House in January of 1989 with the president-elect, Thomas Nelson Tucker (TNT), a Democrat from Idaho whom Wadlough had long and faithfully served: "If I had a coat of arms, it would read: SEMPER IBI. Always there." In the White House he was initially assistant to the president and deputy chief of staff, though he lost out in a power struggle and for a time served in a similar capacity with the first lady, the former Jessica Heath, a "young, vibrant, beautiful and quite independent-minded" woman well known, before her marriage, as an actress in steamy movies.
In the performance of his White House duties Wadlough was called upon for significant and often sensitive service. Until his exile he was in charge of the White House mess -- his involuntary relinquishment of which post prompted a meaningful and moving tribute from the mess staff -- and he often was asked to care for Firecracker, the president's young son, and Theodore, the First Hamster. At the conclusion of his memoir there is an especially affecting, not to say haunting, account of Theodore's last rites, performed in the twilight of the Tucker presidency on the White House lawn with full military honors.
Wadlough was also deeply engaged in matters of high domestic and foreign policy. For a time he was involved with Operation Open Door, an innovative program under which Tucker "wanted to meet with one 'ordinary American per day,' " people with "dirt under their fingernails." Overseas, Wadlough played a role in the administration's response to events in Bermuda, where the Bermudian United People's Insurrection (BUPI) was seizing resort hotels, sweater factories and golf courses.
All of this adventure Wadlough describes in prose that can only be called statesmanlike. He is a master of the innocent disclaimer: "Though the fault was hardly my own . . . ," "a tissue of untruths . . . ," "It is not true, as Lleland alleges in his book, that I tapped Reigeluth's phone . . . ," "I had not been informed . . . " He is modest: "The air was rich with the pure ether of power, and I took care not to breathe too deeply." He is a person of loyalty and conscience, as he demonstrates in writing about his former executive assistant, Hu Tsang:
"Despite his eventual betrayal of me -- for which I have forgiven him -- Hu was a superb implementer and an outstanding public servant. I was deeply saddened to learn of his recent conviction, but I am confident that the appeals process will fully exonerate him and that he will someday return to government. It would be a great shame if young people such as Hu were discouraged from seeking careers in public service."
Those careers must be pursued at all costs, as every memoirist knows, but the lucky public servant has an understanding wife. Wadlough's is named Joan, and he pays tribute to her in a passage that can only be described as classic:
"I had to ask myself some hard questions: Was it fair to subject my family to this kind of strain and humiliation? On the other hand, could I just walk away from a public trust? I spent many hours agonizing over the decision. I knew this much: that a struggle for the heart and mind of the president of the United States lay ahead. Washington would be no place for women and children. Over Joan's wonderful meatloaf the next evening I informed her of my decision. She and the children would return to Boise. I would stay and finish the job, to do what had to be done.
"She wouldn't hear of it. 'My place is here with you, Herbert,' she said. 'We will have no more discussion of this.' What a gal!"
And what a guy! Good old Herb Wadlough has written the ultimate Washington memoir, and we are all in his debt for it. If we are at all lucky, there will never be another one.