The Washington Post

Dick Cheney and the ploy of the political memoir


Former Vice President Dick Cheney’s new book, In My Time, is stirring up controversy. (Ron Edmonds/AP)

It’s not surprising, really. For one, the former vice president seems to have been bent on creating controversy with his recently released book, In My Time . He told NBC that the book was “gonna have heads exploding all over Washington.” His daughter and collaborator, Liz Cheney, told USA Today “it’s stirred things up a bit.” Anyone who thought that Cheney—surely the most pugnacious member of the most pugnacious administration in recent times—would use his memoir for reconciliation or introspective reflection must have been on a different planet for the last 11 years.

But it’s not surprising for another reason: With rare exceptions, the political memoir genre has become little more than an opportunity for leaders to burnish their own image and settle old scores. With hefty advances from publishers and a politically divided reading public that tends to buy books that reaffirm their beliefs rather than challenges them, we should expect little else.

Cheney’s may be ruffling the most feathers, but consider other recent political memoirs. Donald Rumsfeld’s account of his years in the Bush administration, Known and Unknown , blames others and hints at no regrets, even if he does admit to some mistakes. George W. Bush’s memoir, Decision Points , may have been well written and filled with telling anecdotes, but it does little in the way of introspectively re-examining the rights and wrongs of what Time Magazine called “the carelessness of this presidency.” Even former FEMA head Michael “heckuva job” Brown recently released his memoir, Deadly Indifference: The Perfect (Political) Storm , offering up a few admissions of guilt but taking plenty of shots at our “fratboy” president who was too removed from reality.

Just like the memoirs of presidential candidates, which so frequently cherry-pick the facts and paint an airbrushed image of a candidate’s past, the memoirs of political leaders do much the same. Somehow, though, we expect more. Because they are looking back over the time they served, because they are adding a volume to history’s shelves, we seem to believe they hold more responsibility for analysis, for introspection, for the whole and ugly truth.

Of course, they do. But that matters little when it comes to writing these tomes, which inevitably become image rehabilitation projects instead. The human impulse behind them is the same: To tell one’s own story, to write history from an individual point of view, to try to shape the conversation about one’s record. Combine that instinct with Cheney’s particularly hawkish and quarrelsome worldview, and it is little surprise In My Time is the book that it is.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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