Saturday, January 18, 2014

Slow Boring of Hard Boards:
Gates, Shultz, Acheson
And the Art of the Political Memoir

I'm barreling through Robert Gates' much-hyped memoir of his tour as secretary of defense under two Presidents and they are right, it is a delight--one of the very best memoirs of actual governing that I've ever read (although maybe I need to read more such).    It is also, be it said, not remotely that farrago of political gamesmanship that the prince of courtiers, Bob Woodward, described in his first-out-of-the-box Washington Post review a couple of weeks back--why anybody still takes that guy seriously is beyond me.

It is, as many have noted, a remarkably unbuttoned affair, with a lot more blunt judgments than you usually get in this king of book.   I'd guess, following  Fred Kaplan, that it sounds a lot like an insurance policy by a guy who wants to guarantee that no one will ever invite him back into pubic office again.  Yet cherry-picking can give a sadly distorted impression.  Really, the thrust, the heft of the book lie not so much in the sharp judgments but in the rich and densely textured account of what it is to be a cabinet secretary, juggling a trunk full of hot knives every day for something like four years.  And even as he pitches his barbs, he restrains himself from adding any that aren't necessary to his story.    He makes it clear, for example, that he felt the "occupation phase" of the Iraq war was a major policy error, and that he has little or no use for the Obama domestic agenda. But neither is central to his story here so he doesn't waste any ink on them.   It is, in any event, the kind of book you would want every one to read before they took up a position of such trust and responsibility--except that if you did, the chances are that all the people you really want on the job would run yelping for the door.  As homework for the beginning office holder, I'd rank it pretty close to  what I suspect is the most instructive  book I read in the last year--James Q. Wilson's Bureaucracy.  Taken together, they provide a chastening lesson in what you are up against when you try to accomplish anything in public administration.   Or perhaps it is the a bare third behind The Power Broker, Robert    massive (perhaps overlong) biography of Robert Moses.  Either way, that's tough company.

Reading Gates' book did set me to thinking: exactly how many public-service memoirs actually teach you anything, as distinct from just presenting a facade of self-justification, together with the settling of old scores?  My search set may be small, but I can think of only two others: one, George Shultz' Turmoil and Triumph about his years in the Reagan administration. There is a slight air of special pleading in the Shultz book.  Which is no wonder: after the train wreck that was Iran contra, there was enough finger-pointing and blame shifting to fill a fairly large battleship.  Shultz wants us to know it wasn't his idea and I am pretty sure he wins that argument. But win or lose, there is so much more of "what we did and how we did it" that it belongs on anyone's list.  Side note: Gates plays a walk-on role in Shultz's memoir, in his avatar as presenter of the CIA view on the Soviet Union; Shultz wasn't impressed.  I suppose there is more on this in an earlier Gates book about the CIA, which I haven't read.

The other belongs almost on a  list by itself: Dean Acheson's Present at the Creation. To call it a memoir almost obscures  its real virtue: as the title suggests, Acheson really was present at the creation of the post-World-War-II world: it is no exaggeration to say he wrote the first great history of the Cold War.   It's also a joy as a piece of prose exposition in a way that Shultz and Gates really are not. Both Shultz and Gates are clear, concise and carefully argued. Acheson is all of these but he is also saturnine, elegant and funny.  Seems we don't get that any more.

Which reminds me of one other item that might qualify for this list, although it isn't quite on topic. I mean the Autobiography of Abba Eban, in which he gives his unforgettable account of the founding of the State of Israel, which he saw from his peculiar vantage point as Israel's face in the United Nations.   Even more than Acheson, Eban is both writer and actor: I think it's fair to say that Eban's presentation determined for a generation the public view of Israel.   Gates can't claim that kind of distinction, partly because that was never his job.  He very likely was, however, for good or ill the most effective Secretary of Defense ever,  and he's written a book that proves it.

Followup:  For an interesting contrary view, go here.  For a full-scale bill of particulars, go here.  Both of these pieces aim their heaviest fire at Gates' earlier career and his misguided appraisal of the Soviet Union. I think Cole overdoes it


Anonymous said...

After reading Delong and Juan's points I think you need to expand on: " I think Cole overdoes it".

Stewart Schoder said...

In Acheson's class: Helmut Schmidt's Men and Powers and, even better, Denis Healey's The Time of My Life.

Buce said...

Thanks, Stewart Schoder. I haven't read the Healey memoir but I was in and around London in the late Healey years and I believe he could tell his story well. Never heard of the Schmidt's memoir, sounds like it goes on the list.

Anonymous said...

McNamara's In Retrospect? However incomplete (and criticized for this), it recognizes the limits of planning, policy-making and ability to assume other perspectives, even for the best and the brightest.