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"Duty" and the Taint of the Tell-All

Roundup: Historians' Take
tags: memoirs, Robert Gates



Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His latest book is The Savior Generals, published this spring by Bloomsbury Books. You can reach him by e-mailing author@victorhanson.com. © 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

For all the hysteria over former defense secretary Robert Gates’s new insider memoir of his tenure during the Bush and Obama administrations, the disclosures are more breaches of trust than earth-shattering revelations. Much of Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War is the ordinary stuff of public service.

What little gossip in the book there is that may be controversial — revelations that both Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama cynically opposed the successful Bush-era surge in Iraq on political grounds, or that Vice President Joe Biden is a buffoonish blowhard — was already common knowledge to many Americans.

Gates sees himself as reluctantly drawn to Washington to help rescue the fading Bush administration’s unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2009, he grudgingly stayed on at the Defense Department, apparently to add some sobriety to an at times comically inexperienced new Obama team.

There is a long tradition of retired court insiders revealing unflattering details about their bosses before they leave office — and it is not uplifting. The Roman court insider Petronius thought he could get away with caricaturing the buffoonish emperor Nero through his racy novel The Satyricon. He didn’t, and was forced to commit suicide as a result.

The problem with the genre of the tell-all is that there are lots of paradoxes that usually make it a lose/lose proposition for even the most sincere truth-teller.

Read entire article at National Review

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