Tell-All Books--A Short History

Roundup: Media's Take

Johanna Neuman, staff writer, in the LAT (Jan. 16, 2004):

The nation's capital was in a tizzy. The memoirs of the former administration official were flying off the shelves. The White House charged betrayal. The pundits were running out of synonyms for "juicy."

Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, you might think. Try again. The year was 1988 and the public figure was Donald T. Regan, who had been fired as White House chief of staff.

In a book propelled to the bestseller list by buzz ("For the Record: From Wall Street to Washington"), he revealed that First Lady Nancy Reagan had consulted a Nob Hill astrologer to guide President Reagan's schedule, reserving the "good days" for treaty signings and important speeches. Regan also described the president as detached from the decision- making process.


"When I first left office in the Eisenhower presidency, it was considered in poor form to write any of this inside stuff, and no one would have written a memoir before the president wrote his," said Stephen Hess, a presidential expert at the Brookings Institution. Now, you're "not considered a pariah for very long."

These days, the biggest bounce usually goes to high-level administration officials who tell all early, a titillating rebellion by a courtier while the king is still in power. George Stephanopoulos infuriated the Clintons with his 1999 "All Too Human," in which he disclosed that both Bill and Hillary had voracious tempers. Although he took some initial heat for betraying confidences, he went on to become an ABC News correspondent, now with his own Sunday morning talk show.

O'Neill and Regan are part of a new genre of insider books, what might be called the revenge memoirs -- not so much kiss and tell as seduced and wronged. Bush fired O'Neill after two years in office because the secretary's philosophy -- particularly on tax cuts and government spending -- was at such variance with that espoused by the administration. Regan was the guy who took the fall for the Iran-Contra scandal, largely because he had fallen from favor with Nancy Reagan....

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, now at Brandeis University, wrote an amusing tale of his years in Clinton's administration, "Locked in the Cabinet," in which he disparaged the president for choosing balanced budgets over progressive spending priorities. What got more attention was Reich's rendition of conversations that turned out to be far more dramatic in the retelling than in the actual happening. In one instance chronicled by Slate's Jonathan Rauch, Reich quoted Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.) as railing about the administration's minimum wage proposal, "Where did you learn your economics, Mr. Secretary?" Rauch found no such remark on the C-SPAN tape of the event. Reich told Rauch, "The book is a memoir. It's not investigative journalism."

In the last 50 years, many Cabinet officers and quite a few minor administration figures have written memoirs. Former Secretary of State James Byrnes chided Harry Truman in his 1947 book, "Speaking Frankly." Another former secretary of State, Alexander Haig, infamous for saying after the attempt on President Reagan's life that "as of now, I am in control here in the White House," left office and penned the 1984 "Caveat," arguing that Reagan's foreign policy was run by inexperienced Californians....

What is believed to be the first retribution-inspired memoir goes back much further. "A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison," written in 1865 by a slave of the Madisons, disputed the notion that Dolley Madison was responsible for rescuing a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington during the British siege of Washington in 1814.

Historian Holly Cowan Shulman, who directs the Dolley Madison digital archive at the University of Virginia and stands by her woman over the portrait rescue, speculates that slave Paul Jennings was angry with the first lady for not freeing him upon James Madison's death.

With Washington overcrowded with memoirs, authors may be forgiven if they feel the need to distinguish themselves with some pithy anecdote or gossipy tidbit. "Most of them are eminently forgettable," Reich said of the memoir craze on CNN this week. "It's rare that you have really a kiss-and-tell book that does reveal important facts that the public should know."

No one knows that better than Larry Speakes, former Reagan press secretary, whose memoirs revealed a bit too much. Published in 1988, after Speakes had taken a plum job at Merrill Lynch, "Speaking Out: The Reagan Presidency from Inside the White House" revealed that Speakes had put words in the president's mouth. At the first meeting between Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, Speakes told reporters that Reagan had said, "There is much that divides us, but I believe the world breathes easier because we are here talking together."

Reagan had said nothing of the kind, Speakes reported, adding, "Luckily, the Russians didn't dispute the quotes."

After the book was published, Speakes was forced to resign his post as spokesman at Merrill Lynch, perhaps the first case in which a forced resignation followed a Washington memoir.


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