Thursday, January 03, 2013

Modern Memoirs

I've been consoling myself these past few nights with what may seem like a recherché taste:The Secret Diary of Harold F. Ickes, all three volumes of which I am now the proud owner, thanks to the  glories of the new intergalactic market in second-hand books (hey, have to do something to fill up all the space left by all those books I've been giving away).  But perhaps not so recherché: Ickes (FDR's Secretary of Interior, children) writes with an artless clarity that would do Samuel Pepys proud. And what may be more important at bedtime: he's another reminder of the years around my birth, soothing because it is my past however tumultuous it must have been for the adults who had to cope with it.

So far, fine. But just this morning in Palookaville's find second-hand bookstore, i stumbled on a copy of Turmoil and Triumph--the memoir of George P. Shultz, mainly about his time as Reagan's Secretary of State. Forget the silly name, it's another wonderful book: shrewd observation and measured civility of a sort we haven't seen for a long time.

Civil but not insipid: Shultz's account of the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages debacle is one of the best I've read anywhere and Shultz's fury at Admiral John Poindexter, who nearly destroyed the Reagan presidency without seeming to notice what he was about, is a joy to behold. And not just Poindexter: index entry for William P. Clark, Jr., includes the icy annotation "failure to comprehend issues." It may not have helped Clark had tried to get Shultz fired.

Dipping into Shultz after reading a fair amount of Ickes made me wonder: how many good political memoirs/diaries are there, after all? I can't say in the sense that I haven't read that many. General/President Grant's memoir may stand as a classic, but it is about his military service, not his presidency. Eisenhower's White House memoirs are clotted and opaque--a bit of a surprise, in that his war memoir, Crusade in Europe, is actually a pretty good book.  I haven't read Clinton's: the size daunted me.  I've never bothered with much of what Nixon wrote--so far as I can tell, just too much special pleading in a field where special pleading is never in short supply.  I'm actually hoping to make time someday soon for some of the mountain of paper that Herbert Hoover generated after leaving the White House, even though I gather it is an embittered screed.

There I think two other modern American political figures who deserve consideration here. One is Henry Kissinger. I haven't read his memoirs but I did read his Diplomacy and his more recent On China, both of which have a sort of coded memoir undertone (I suspect that for many years now, everything that Kissinger has done counts as positioning for posterity).  And I did read Walter Isaacson's admirable biography, which is perhaps a better memoir than Henry wrote himself.

And the other is Dean Acheson. I did read these, and they are a joy, although oddly, what he offers are two radically different books.  One, Present at the Creation is a masterly piece of  advocacy by one of the finest lawyers of his time.  Acheson's other is an entirely different work: a slim volume entitled Morning and Noon, called a memoir but better understood as a lovely evocation of his childhood.  How the mighty have fallen: I see that Amazon is offering a "collectible" for $25.

Update/afterthought:  In limiting myself to US politics, I excluded some treasures--perhaps most notably Abba Eban, whose Autobiogrssphy may well be the best oin the genre, ever.

1 comment:

Ken Houghton said...

"I suspect that for many years now, everything that Kissinger has done counts as positioning for posterity"

Many=45 and counting. (Since he was playing for both sides in the run-up to the 1968 election.)