With tell-all, Comey joins club of ex-officials turned scribes
putting it in perspective
Former FBI Director James Comey's memoir, out Tuesday, joins a long list of juicy tomes by Washington power players. Beyond settling scores, the best can offer real insight into the inner workings of government. Here are some classics of the genre.
—Former FBI Director James Comey’s new memoir “A Higher Loyalty” goes on sale early next week. Some copies have leaked out early and bits are appearing in the news: Mr. Comey compares President Trump to a “mob boss” (though he does not directly accuse Mr. Trump of any actual crime), and he accuses Trump of being unethical and “untethered to truth.”
He also says the president is shorter than he expected – unsurprising in context, since Comey himself is an inch taller than ex-NBA great Michael Jordan.
The book’s assured of being a financial success: It’s been on Amazon’s best-seller list for a month due to pre-orders alone. In large part, this is because Americans appear pretty interested in what happened between the ex-FBI chief and his boss that caused the latter to fire the former.
It’s also due to the fact that Washington tell-all books by unhappy ex-officials are a popular genre. Who doesn’t like a little dish of inside Washington dirt?
Since the first shipping of Comey’s books might disappear quickly, here’s a list of DC memoir classics readers can use to pass the time until Amazon restocks. Some are famous; some are personal favorites. We’ll start with a Comey connection – a book by the person who’s interviewing him on ABC Sunday night in his first big television reveal.
“All Too Human,” by George Stephanopoulos. Yes, before he was a network star, George Stephanopoulos was an ambitious, hard-working top aide in the Clinton White House.
He resigned shortly after President Bill Clinton won reelection in 1996 and wrote this book, which is definitely not a whitewash of his White House years. It contains unflattering descriptions of both the president and First Lady Hillary Clinton. Both had volcanic tempers, Mr. Stephanopoulos wrote. And Bill, obviously, risked his presidency for a dalliance with an intern.
Stephanopoulos wrote that he felt like a “dupe” when he learned the truth about Mr. Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.
“For the Record: From Wall Street to Washington,” by Don Regan. Don Regan was an affable yet aggressive former Merrill Lynch chief executive who served President Ronald Reagan as Secretary of the Treasury and then White House Chief of Staff.
In the latter job he was, if anything, too forceful. Eventually he resigned in 1987, in part due to complaints that he was acting too much as a prime minister to a detached president. His chief bureaucratic enemy was First Lady Nancy Reagan, and in his memoir, published while Mr. Reagan was still in office, Regan took revenge. He revealed that Mrs. Reagan relied on an astrologer to aid in key decisions, including the timing of medical procedures for the president, responses to the Iran-Contra affair, and when he, Don Regan, should be fired.
“I learned that you can be thrown to the wolves any minute,” he wrote.
“The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed,” by David Stockman. In its day, this book was as anticipated as Comey’s. Well, almost as much, since its theme is fiscal policy as opposed to White House morality. David Stockman was a conservative young member of Congress picked to serve as President Reagan’s Office of Management and Budget director.
In his first year in office he spoke at length to an Atlantic reporter – perhaps too much at length, and too freely. The resultant story revealed that nobody in the White House really knew what would happen with the so-called “supply side” Reagan revolution, which counted on tax cuts to actually increase revenue.
“None of us really understands what’s going on with all these numbers,” was the key quote. “The Triumph of Politics” is Mr. Stockman’s own 1986 explication on this subject. It popularized “rosy scenario,” “magic asterisk,” and other phrases used to explain how the White House tried to cover up bad numbers.
Bonus points: it has scenes in which the military budget is explained to the president by using cartoons.
“Hacks,” by Donna Brazile. Donna Brazile is a veteran Democratic Party official and strategist who served as acting chairman of the Democratic National Committee from July 2016 until February 2017.
Her colorful memoir, published last November, alleged among other things that the 2016 Democratic primary process was “rigged” for Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. This produced a presidential tweet from Trump: “The real story on Collusion is in Donna B’s new book. Crooked Hillary bought the DNC & then stole the Democratic Primary from Crazy Bernie!”
The whole thing produced an uproar among many Democrats, particularly Bernie supporters; Ms. Brazile has since walked back the claim somewhat, saying she saw no evidence actual primary elections were manipulated.
“Blind Ambition,” by John Dean. First published in 1976, this is the classic, the urtext, the model for a memoir by an angry or repentant former political official.
For the youngsters out there, John Dean was President Richard Nixon’s White House counsel. At first he helped organize important parts of the Watergate cover-up. But he grew to regret the conspiracy, famously told Mr. Nixon that the cover-up was a “cancer on the presidency” that needed to be excised, and testified fully before the Senate Watergate Committee before serving time in prison.
This book today is less an explanation of Watergate itself than an unsparing self-examination. Mr. Dean plumbs his own faults: ambition, hunger for power, a tendency to fawn. At first he was proud that he was the person the president had turned to when a big, dirty job needed to be done. But then the holes in principle became apparent, as did the holes in his boss.
“The power fix, the high which I had pursued all my adult life, was wearing off. I was coming down,” Dean wrote.
Those are words many people in today’s Washington would do well to heed.