The Tell-All Tradition

The publication of "Against all Enemies: Inside the White House's War on Terror"--the new tell-all memoir by Richard A. Clarke--has the White House on the defensive this week. In the book, Clarke, a top counterterrorism official held over from the Clinton years, charges that the Bush administration ignored clear warnings about the Al Qaeda threat prior to the September 11 attacks. In the eyes of some, the book calls the president's leadership in the war on terror into question. Indeed, the criticism was strong enough for the Bush White House--which prides itself on "not doing book reviews"--to come after Clarke, hard. At best, White House officials are saying, Clarke's book paints an inaccurate portrait of the Bush presidency. At worst, some are implying, it puts America's national security in danger.

All of this makes for pretty good publicity for Clarke, a career civil servant whose public profile has previously not reached Rumsfeldian heights. But while "Against all Enemies" may be the flavor of the week, Clarke isn't the first White House official to spill the dirt on a sitting president. Presidents from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Bill Clinton have felt the heat of scandal coming from one of their own flock. Even warm and fuzzy Ronald Reagan got trashed in print by not one, or even two, but three of his top advisers. Why do presidential staffers so often get the itch to dish? And can their revelations really spoil a presidency? To answer these questions and others, NEWSWEEK'S Jonathan Darman talked to presidential historian Michael Beschloss. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How common is it in recent history for a high-profile official to leave a White House and level charges against a sitting president?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It's less common than you would think. I think one reason why people think it's very common is, politics is tough these days and everyone criticizes everyone. But if you think about it, for someone to leave an administration and then blast it in public while the president is still serving, that's a pretty unusual event.

What are some examples?

In Roosevelt's case, Roosevelt had an adviser called Raymond Moley. Moley was part of Roosevelt's Brain Trust. He left the White House and wrote a memoir called "After Seven Years" [that] blasted Roosevelt and said that Roosevelt had campaigned as a moderate and as an economic conservative, promised to balance the budget and had reneged on all these promises and essentially that people should vote against Roosevelt in 1940 if he ran. And that was used as a big campaign document by the Republicans.

Did it cause a big scandal?

It was a very big deal because, especially in those days, there was a politesse in not doing this sort of thing, you were considered almost a traitor ... Roosevelt told one of his associates that ... Moley was an example of someone who had "kissed a-- and told."

Why was it such a shock? What was that expectation of politesse all about?

Basically there was a feeling about government--before the last 30 or 40 years--that if you leave in protest, you go quietly. For instance, in Roosevelt's case, his assistant secretary of the Treasury was Dean Acheson. After the first year [Acheson] was very unhappy about one of Roosevelt's monetary policies and he quit--and he did it quietly. He was disenchanted with Roosevelt, but publicly people didn't know the reason why--he just said that it was time to leave. And Roosevelt later said to someone, I really disagreed with Acheson, I was upset when he left. But look at Dean Acheson: that's an example of the way a gentleman resigns.

What about a more recent example?

Probably the most spectacular example would be [Richard Nixon's White House counsel] John Dean, who did not resign in protest. He left in the spring of '73 after he concluded that Nixon was setting him up to be the scapegoat for Watergate ... But only a couple months later, in June of '73, only a couple of months after he's left the White House, he goes before Congress and accuses Nixon of impeachable offenses and begins his testimony by saying, "I hope the president will be forgiven." And then goes on to say a lot of things [that Nixon did] that are pretty unforgivable.

And that was shocking because up to that point presidents had thought they could act pretty freely around their aides, they didn't have to worry about their aides telling on them.

I think that's right. Nixon assumed that these people were very loyal to him. One of the reasons that he said the things that he did on the tapes was that he never imagined a Dean, even had the tapes not existed, ever would be in a situation where he'd quit the White House and go testify before Congress and put Nixon in danger of impeachment as he did.

So then after Dean, did White House officials think that if they had an ax to grind with the administration, they could be like John Dean and improve their reputation and become more famous?

They may have. But I think the difference is that, with one exception, the high-level people didn't really need to do that to become famous. Dean was sort of a special case because he was a White House counsel, but he was really more junior than that ... Nixon wanted a White House counsel who was really sort of a pipsqueak, who would take orders and did not have much independent judgment. This is not someone like Lloyd Cutler under Carter and Clinton. Dean did have a lot to gain. I'm not suggesting that that was his motive, but it was plausible, if you wanted to have a case against Dean, that this was his big opportunity. Although he was taking enormous risks because a) Nixon could have struck back, and b) without the tapes, people could have very well said, Dean is just making this up, there's no other source for these charges.

Intentionally or not, Clarke has probably also raised his profile outside the national-security establishment by writing this book and making these charges. Are there other historical figures who've done the same thing?

Well, the other one I'd suggest--and here we're talking about apples and not only oranges but vegetables--is Linda Tripp. If you want to define this in the way that we've defined it, Linda Tripp was someone who was a holdover from the elder George Bush, was in the Clinton White House, did not like what she saw, had an animus against Clinton and what she learned from [Monical Lewinsky] to make public things about Bill Clinton that [Tripp] thought would hurt him ... Whether or not there are motivations there that she wanted to become a celebrity and/or write a book--I don't know enough about her individual case--but that would probably be the most junior example of any of the figures we've been talking about.

Who are some other high-level examples?

Under Reagan, three of them, surprisingly enough, because you think of Reagan as being someone who inspires loyalty. These would be [Secretary of State Al] Haig, [Budget Director David] Stockman and [White House chief of staff Donald] Regan. Haig was canned by Reagan [in the] middle of 1982, was deeply angry, and wrote a memoir before Reagan ran for re-election saying the Reagan administration was a ghost ship, that the president was not in charge, that he was out of it.

Why did that hurt the Reagan White House?

Because when Walter Mondale was running in 1984 against Reagan, one of the biggest charges he made was ... "This is a president who does not know what a president must know." ... Haig's memoir bolstered that attack. You can draw the obvious parallels to Dick Clarke.

And David Stockman?

In Stockman's case, Stockman's book was published in May of '86, so it was after Reagan's re-election. But what it essentially said was, one of the ideas that was at the center of Reagan's heart, which is that ... you can balance the budget and do all of these other things, was fraudulent from the beginning. He was attacking one of the foundations of the Reagan administration.

Then comes Regan's tell-all.

Don Regan, yeah, who of course was fired by Reagan during Iran-contra, winter-spring of '87, then writes this angry memoir that comes out the next year. A lot of potshot criticisms of Reagan. The biggest thing the book was known for was revealing that Nancy Reagan was very much motivated by this astrologer and a lot of the scheduling of Reagan-administration events was with what the astrologer told Nancy in mind.

How much attention do presidents tend to pay to these sorts of things? Do they tend to cut off former aides who kiss and tell?

It sort of depends on how much the criticism takes hold. Another example would be Jim Fallows ... He was a speechwriter for [President Jimmy] Carter in the first two years. He left and he published, after two years, an article in the Atlantic Monthly called "The Passionless Presidency," and what it essentially argued was that this was a president who was so enmeshed with detail that he even scheduled the White House tennis court--who would play on it and when. That image took hold. You can look at the 1980 campaign, a lot of the Republican speakers, and I think, even Reagan on occasion, would say, this is a president who doesn't know how to lead and manage, he even scheduled the White House tennis court ... If there's an underlying feeling that there's something wrong with the president, if there's a defector who comes out and says, "It's exactly the way you suspected," if people believe it, it can have a big effect.

These kinds of instant memoirs, written just after officials leave public service, do they tend to be more or less reliable than the big, retrospective memoirs public figures write late in their lives?

I think if I were looking at it as a historian, and speaking generally, not about Clarke['s book] particularly, which I haven't read ... you look at them for different things. If it's written while the guy is still in office, the person who's writing it has a more immediate memory of the thing he's writing about, but it's written, at the same time, with a pretty thick political lens. That person does have an agenda, and if it's written by someone who left or was fired, which doesn't apply to Clarke, it's an angry book trying to justify yourself, as Haig did and Don Regan did. The end-of-life memoirs have all the defects of those virtues, which [is that] the memory is hazier, the person is not relying on a real-time diary. But at the same time, you can rely on the fact that the memoir is being written more for history than for politics.

Are there any rules left about when it is and is not appropriate to talk about your time spent in the White House?

There's no rule. There used to be that there was an unwritten rule that you never write while the president is in office and even for some time after that. Eisenhower had a speechwriter called Emmet John Hughes ... [His] book was called "The Ordeal of Power," and it was pretty mild criticism. It basically said, Eisenhower was a great man, he was so popular, why didn't he use his popularity for greater things than he did?" This is not an expose, this is not the kind of thing that we're talking about later on. Eisenhower heard about it while the book was still in manuscript. He was irate. The book was supposed to be published by Doubleday, which was Eisenhower's publisher. Eisenhower went to Doubleday and told them to cancel the contract--which they did.

Does it have an effect on the presidency if presidents have to worry about their aides going off to write books?

Sure, they get more and more secretive and they take less and less advice. Even [President John F.] Kennedy when he came to the White House made his ... household staff, meaning the people who worked in the mansion, sign pieces of paper saying that they would not write memoirs about anything that they saw during their employ. And Kennedy was very worried about someone who was on the White House staff who would reveal things that he would not want revealed. And, in fact, one quote from Kennedy, this is verbatim, he used to tell people: "I wonder who's going to be our Emmet John Hughes."