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The least-accurate political memoirs ever written

Has Karl Rove played fast and loose with historical fact in his new memoirs “Courage and Consequence"? History will decide. But recollections invariably differ — perhaps never more so than in the political memoir. And Karl Rove’s isn’t the first to spark debate over what is the true tide in the affairs of men. In that spirit, we asked a variety of people to name what they thought were the least accurate political memoirs ever written. Please tell us your candidates in the comments section.

STEVEN F. HAYWARD, the F.K. Weyerhaeuser fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counter-Revolution, 1980-1989.”

My nominee is David Stockman’s 1986 tell-all, “Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed.” Ironically, it is an excellent example of someone whose telling of the day-to-day facts is accurate, while he remains clueless about central aspects of the story — a classic case of how a smart person can reach dumb conclusions. The main thesis, conveyed in the title, is that “politics” derailed serious fiscal reform in Ronald Reagan’s first term. Imagine that! Politics — seen in action in Congress and the White House! Who would ever think such an unusual thing would occur in Washington, D.C.? This strange detachment from reality is matched by Stockman’s contempt for and misperception of Reagan, whom he found shallow and extreme — judgments that subsequently appear poorly founded. As he wrote in his book, “I would never be comfortable with what I viewed as the primitive, right-wing conservatism of my grandfather or Goldwater — or Reagan." And this: “I considered [Reagan] a cranky obscurantist whose political base was barnacled with every kook and fringe group that inhabited the vasty deep of American politics.” (This, from the person who wanted to abolish the modern welfare state in toto.) And he proved his unfitness as a Reaganite by becoming, in his own words, “the Trotsky of the supply-side [economics] movement.” It seems he figuratively put the ice pick in his head himself.

JAMES K. GALBRAITH, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of “The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too.”

That would be "RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon." On this matter, I have to defer to a higher authority, specifically my father [John Kenneth Galbraith], who reviewed Nixon’s memoir for the New York Review of Books on June 29, 1978. “ ..... A central theme of this book,” he wrote, is that “Mr. Nixon never did anything wrong unless someone else had done something like it first. And all evil disappears if it has a precedent.”

Runner up is L. Paul Bremer’s “My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope,” which was reviewed by my brother Peter in the NYRB. Peter writes, in an email: “Nothing in his description of the country and its people suggests he was actually there.”

Second runner-up: Robert Rubin’s “In an Uncertain World: Tough Choices from Wall Street to Washington.” Book World’s review, which I wrote, held that, as philosophy, it compared poorly to the motto of the “great Austin ice cream parlor known as Amy’s: ‘Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first.’.” At National Airport a few days later, I was introduced by accident to Karl Rove. His eyes narrowed. “The James K. Galbraith?” he asked. I nodded. “The only man,” he said, “ever to get a mention of Amy’s Ice Cream into The Washington Post.”

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, professor of history at Rice University and author, most recently, of “The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America.”

My candidate would be James Buchanan’s wildly disingenuous Ö“Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion” (published in New York by Appleton and Company in 1866). Buchanan had the gall to shirk all responsibility for the Civil War. He blamed everybody but himself for the dissolution of the Union. A pathetic memoir aimed at trying to exonerate himself from serial wrongheadedness and flatfooted policy initiatives. What Buchanan wrote was revisionist blather.

MIKE MCCURRY, press secretary to President Bill Clinton and now a communications consultant in Washington.

What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception,” by Scott McClellan. Violating a rule that a press secretary never speaks ill of a member of the class, I’d have to list Scott’s account of his time behind the podium in the White House. His largest inaccuracy? Believing he is writing true to the spirit of the “real George Bush” when he is actually exposing exactly the flaws that troubled that presidency. He’s a good guy, but his memoir makes you scream, “If you thought your brief was not true, why didn’t you confront the information evildoers?” And if you take his account of his colleagues at face value, you ask, “Why did these folks put someone in this job that they did not believe would do it well?”

TED SORENSEN, former Special Counsel and advisor to President John F. Kennedy and author of “Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History.”

It is not surprising that Karl Rove’s memoirs, “Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight,” is a candidate for the least accurate of all political memoirs in view of his pride at being known as the “architect” of a presidency known for prevarication and two presidential campaigns featuring the charges (from which he distances himself) that Bush’s principal opponent in 2000, John McCain, had fathered a black child and his principal 2004 opponent, John Kerry, had been a “swift boat coward.” It is unfair and unrealistic to hold Karl Rove’s memoirs to higher standards than those applied to George W. Bush. Rove’s repeated use of “hypocrisy” to describe Bush critics in the Obama White House and Congress is dangerous as his book reveals little on how Bush was led into misleading the public about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s arsenal. For Rove to charge President Obama with playing “fast and loose with the facts” only reminds readers that Rove crafted Bush’s fiction about Saddam’s involvement in 9/11. He doesn’t reveal why or at whose direction the waterboarding tapes were destroyed, feels entitled to castigate Teddy Kennedy’s criticism of the Bush Iraq war policy but makes no mention of President Bush’s avoidance of service in Vietnam. Historians shouldn’t count on a “fair and balanced” view of the last decade in his memoirs.

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY, whose latest book is “Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir.”

Hands down, I’d have to give the prize to “Gandhi, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth,” by Mohandas Karamchad (Mahatma) Gandhi. A tissue of lies, from start to finish. You won’t find anything in here about his wild partying, wet T-shirt contests, binge-eating, Sacred Bull riding or Swiss bank accounts.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  March 19, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
 | Tags: least-accurate political memoirs;  
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Next: March 21, 2010


Another NeoCon fantasy. If you reversed it, and said the books these guys trash are the best and most accurate, and put the books they wrote are selling lies it would more reflect reality.

My favorite is the NeoCon's favorite fantasy, the fouth member of their blessed trinity, the Father, Son, Holy Ghost, and Ronald Reagan. "The Age of Reagan" is a deification of a popular actor turned president, a guy who never read anything and became a senile old man who invented the leagal defense of "I can't remember," when he traded arms to Iran for hostages.

Reagan's ever lasting legacy is as the "Father of America's Debt," when he doubled the national debt to give tax cuts to the Rich in the sixth year of his presidency, exceeding the combined debt of the 39 presidents who preceeded him. Reagan destroyed the Conservative movement with the idea, "Debt doesn't matter." Of course this discussion of Reagan's true legacy is no where to be found in, "The Age of Reagan."

Posted by: chucky-el | March 19, 2010 8:51 AM | Report abuse

Buckley, lmao.

Posted by: lostinthemiddle | March 19, 2010 11:03 AM | Report abuse

It's true that the Galbraith family got more than one vote, but at least they used them well. Aside from Mr. Buckley being the funniest, it is interesting to note that it seems that it is mostly conservatives who try to spin history in their direction. I believe that they fear that, as the arc of history bends towards justice, it marks them for what they are; short terms defenders of greed and power. Mr. Rove should fear the judgment of both history and heaven; neither will be kind to his legacy, no matter how he remembers it.

Posted by: southpawpol | March 19, 2010 12:24 PM | Report abuse

How about the least accurate commentary above? That would be Mr. McCurry's. He misrepresents what McClellan actually wrote. McClellan wrote that he believed what he was saying at the time to be sincere. It was only on reflection that he came to realize it was "badly misguided" and grounded in too much positive spin and not enough candor on the Iraq war-making campaign. On the Valerie Wilson leak affair, McClellan only later came to realize he had been misled or lied to by Libby, Rove and Cheney. Mr. McCurry appears to be spinning things to suit his views and satisfy his ire at a press secretary for actually sharing what he learned from his and Bush's missteps, instead of providing honest commentary based in fact. In fact, I do not believe a single aspect of McClellan's book has ever been refuted and that includes Mr. McCurry's blatant misrepresentations. Not to mention, if McClellan "is actually exposing exactly the flaws that troubled (Bush's) presidency," then how is that not being completely accurate?

Posted by: bnww | March 19, 2010 3:43 PM | Report abuse

The link above to the Post's review of McClellan's book completely contradicts McCurry. It says McClellan comes across as "honest" and that he gets it "right" on the central theme in the book about Washington's culture of partisanship and deception.

Posted by: bnww | March 19, 2010 4:19 PM | Report abuse

Is Buckley confused bewteen Rajiv Gandhi and Mahatma Gandhi?

Posted by: DevG1 | March 21, 2010 2:10 PM | Report abuse

Re Buckley and Gandhi, am pretty sure that Buckley's just being funny here. however, given the placement in this article right below karl rove, wouldn't be surprised if this makes it into some pakistani newspaper or a 7th graders report on gandhi as being the 'real' truth. potentially misleading, would be more comfortable if it were removed.

Posted by: skerkar | March 22, 2010 12:50 PM | Report abuse

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