Kiss-and-Tell Books Are an Old Washington Tradition

Linda Feldmann, staff writer, in the Christian Science Monitor (Jan. 14, 2004):

It is a Washington ritual as tried and true as the filibuster and the leaked memo: a highly placed official, current or former, tells all in a book-length indictment of administration policy and operations.

The latest has just hit the bookstores, a kiss-and-tell volume called "The Price of Loyalty," by reporter Ron Suskind, featuring the incendiary observations of former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, who was fired in December 2002. ...

David Stockman, President Reagan's budget director, may be the best recent analogy to O'Neill. Mr. Stockman took his post as a true believer in supply-side economics, but grew disillusioned at his inability to cut the budget and prevent growing deficits. He departed the administration soon after he granted a tell-all interview to journalist William Greider in The Atlantic Monthly. Five years later, he put out his memoirs, expressing (like O'Neill) disgust for the political process.

But judging by Reagan's ultimate political success - reelection to a second term and a growing legacy as a hero to conservatives - Stockman appears to have gotten the lesser end of the deal. ...

Kiss-and-tell books attacking American presidents while they're still in office go back to some of the earliest administrations. The seventh president, Andrew Jackson, faced one from his own Treasury secretary, William Duane, whom Jackson had fired.

One of the architects of the New Deal, Raymond Moley, attacked his former boss, President Franklin Roosevelt, while he was still in office. "It was used by his political opponents against him, but, you know, that's the way life is," said historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in a 1999 TV interview.

Historians also know that these early takes don't represent the definitive story of a presidency, but rather fall among the hundreds of sources that will be mined for decades to come.

"These memoirs are very useful for creating a record - not because they're strictly accurate or because they contain recriminations or subjective hostility," says historian Robert Dallek, who recently unearthed new information about President Kennedy. "But for all their defects, they're enormously useful to historians . They point you in a useful direction."

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