Postcards From Another Era: Obama Team Memoirs Flood the Stores
Posted June 24, 2018 3:10 p.m. EDT
WASHINGTON — Construction crews have yet to break ground on Barack Obama’s presidential library, but the architects may have to add an extra wing just to handle all the books now coming out from people who once worked for the 44th president.
Nearly a year and a half after Obama left office, his team is back in the arena, or at least in the bookstores, with a blitz of roughly two dozen memoirs of their time in the White House, telling tales, settling scores, justifying mistakes, selling nostalgia, setting the record straight, attacking successors and spinning history.
Everyone who ever spent even a few minutes with Obama, it seems, has penned a volume of reminiscences, postcards from a less head-spinning era. The authors include his top foreign policy advisers, his communications gurus, his intelligence chief, his photographer and even the stenographer who recorded his every public utterance. All of that before the former president and first lady weigh in with their own well-compensated autobiographies.
“They are all different in their own ways, but the common thread is trying to make sense of a truly crazy and contradictory era in American politics,” said Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s senior adviser. “How was it that our first African-American president was succeeded by someone known for racially divisive statements? In our own way, each of us wants to reflect on what we saw, what it means and where do we go from here to finish the work started in 2008.”
Pfieffer’s book, “Yes We (Still) Can: Politics in the Age of Obama, Twitter, and Trump,” published last week, mixes anecdotes from years at Obama’s side with observations about how politics are changing and takedowns of Fox News and President Donald Trump. Anyone who listens to “Pod Save America,” the podcast he and other former Obama advisers host, will recognize the perspective.
Other new memoirs recount Obama’s efforts to battle foreign threats (James R. Clapper Jr.'s “Facts and Fears”), his rocky relations with Russia (Michael A. McFaul’s “From Cold War to Hot Peace”) and his negotiation of the nuclear agreement with Iran (Wendy R. Sherman’s “Not for the Faint of Heart”). Some are traditional and sober-minded, written with future historians in mind; others are funny and personal, written with future screenwriters in mind.
Every presidency, of course, produces its share of memoirs. The first known memoir by someone other than a president was that of Paul Jennings, a slave whose recollections of President James Madison’s White House were published in 1865.
More recent years saw several archetypes. Donald T. Regan, a White House chief of staff under President Ronald Reagan, perfected the art of the revenge memoir as he got back at Nancy Reagan for orchestrating his firing by exposing her reliance on astrology.
George Stephanopoulos, the war-room wunderkind who helped elect President Bill Clinton, produced the model diary of disillusionment as he described his evolution from idealistic and ambitious young aide to battered defender of a scandal-torn White House.
The no-drama-Obama White House offered less intrigue, and the books emerging from it seem neither as momentous nor as dishy. Moreover, the authors face the challenge of making them feel relevant given the extraordinary, norm-shattering events playing out today on cable television.
“These books do have a saturation issue and they will increasingly have a hard time breaking through unless they connect to what’s happening now,” said Matt Latimer, who wrote a memoir of his time in President George W. Bush’s White House and is now a founding partner at Javelin, a literary agency that generates Washington books.
“We are obviously in a 24-hour-a-day Trump vacuum and books that tend to do well on the left are those written in reaction to that,” he said. “Left-of-center readers have little time for nostalgia when they believe their country is collapsing beneath their feet.”
Some volumes have sold quite well. A picture book by Pete Souza, the White House photographer, crushed the best-seller list. Among the others making the list include two funny, human accounts, “Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?” by Alyssa Mastromonaco, a deputy chief of staff, and “Thanks, Obama,” by David Litt, a speechwriter.
James Comey’s “A Higher Loyalty” covered not just his work as FBI director under Obama but also, more sensationally, his encounters with Trump, who fired him. Jennifer Palmieri, Obama’s communications director, likewise focused on her time on Hillary Clinton’s campaign in “Dear Madam President.” Jeremy Bernard, a White House social secretary, teamed up with a predecessor from Bush’s era, Lea Berman, for “Treating People Well,” more handbook than tell-all.
Many big names published their memoirs while Obama was still in office, including Hillary Clinton, Robert M. Gates, Leon E. Panetta, Timothy F. Geithner and David Axelrod. But those who waited until Obama stepped down include former Vice President Joe Biden, who shared the story of his son Beau’s death in “Promise Me, Dad,” and former Secretary of State John Kerry, whose “Every Day Is Extra” comes out in September. Susan Rice, Valerie Jarrett, Arne Duncan and Eric H. Holder Jr. are all still working on theirs. Some of these books offer little insight into Obama but focus on the personal stories of those who surrounded him, the can-you-believe-I’m-on-Air-Force-One volumes like “West Winging It,” by Pat Cunnane, a press wrangler turned senior writer, and “From the Corner of the Oval,” by Beck Dorey-Stein, a stenographer.
Dorey-Stein managed what has to be a White House first by memorializing her time transcribing presidential speeches. Her breezy page turner is essentially Bridget Jones goes to the White House, offering stories of love affairs with Sam, who goes off to campaign in Missouri, and Jason, who refuses to leave his girlfriend, as well as cautionary tales about dating Secret Service agents. Dorey-Stein’s book was packaged with a movie option for a combined seven-figure deal.
In “The Last Palace,” Norman L. Eisen, Obama’s ethics czar and ambassador to the Czech Republic, focuses more on the compelling history of the ambassador’s residence in Prague and his mother’s flight from Holocaust-ravaged Europe than on the president he has known since law school.
Those not writing their own memoirs could participate in a pair of recollection collections. Brian Abrams put together “Obama: An Oral History, 2009-2017” from interviews with presidential aides and adversaries, while Gautam Raghavan edited a series of essays by advisers to Obama in “West Wingers.”
While none of the books so far have fundamentally reshaped our understanding of Obama, there are moments that will resonate with any fan of “The West Wing,” like the time Pfeiffer split his pants in the Oval Office and had to escape the room without being noticed. Or the time Sherman smashed into a glass door rushing to answer a phone call from Kerry and broke her nose.
In “The World as It Is,” by Benjamin J. Rhodes, a former deputy national security adviser, the reader hears Obama express frustration over the perception that he was insufficiently supportive of Israel. “I came out of the Jewish community in Chicago,” Obama kvetched. “I’m basically a liberal Jew.”
There is, as always, jabbing and revisionism. Rhodes writes that all but one of the aides in the room supported Obama’s decision not to strike Syria when it crossed his “red line” by using chemical weapons on civilians and ask Congress for authorization instead, an account at odds with others from that time.
And Rhodes offers this backhanded compliment with a poke in describing Gates, the defense secretary for Bush held over by Obama: “Bob Gates was exactly the right mix of competent, diligent, calculating, and occasionally hypocritical to thrive in Washington for decades.”
Then again, perhaps it takes a certain mix of competence, calculation and occasional hypocrisy to write a White House memoir. After all, Gates, who served eight presidents, has written not one but two. Rhodes is still on his first.